Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for September, 2009

Getting the BALLE Rolling

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

September 27, 2009

I probably shouldn’t have bought the Durabrand 18-volt cordless drill at Wal-Mart. But it seemed well-built, and it was a small fraction of the cost of comparable name-brand drills. So I bought it. The Achilles heel of a cordless tool is the battery, so I bought an extra one. The drill was fine, but two years later, both batteries gasped their last — and Wal-Mart doesn’t sell Durabrand batteries any more, though it still sells the cordless tools.

“Try the manufacturer,” shrugged the Wal-Mart hardware clerk. The box bore no website or phone number. He slit it open and found a number — 888-267-7713. I called. A new directory assistance system applies, said a recorded voice; call 1014578# — and if you do, you’ll be charged $3.99. What?

The instruction manual revealed that the importer is Superior Airco Wholesale. Their website yielded the same 888 number — and an email address. I tried the email. It bounced back instantly.

I’m now chasing batteries on the Wal-Mart web site, which is a pain in the posterior. And I find myself wishing that I’d bought my drill from some place like Landry Brothers Home Hardware in Louisdale. Then I could have gone over and hounded Joe Marchand, and Joe would have said, “Leave it with me. I’ll deal with it.” That’s why I buy camera equipment from Bob Martin Photographic in Port Hawkesbury, and computer equipment from Computer Connection in Antigonish or Brilliance Computers in Halifax.

And that’s why I accepted an invitation to join the Board of a new organization called BALLE-NS — Business Association for Local Living Economies. BALLE Nova Scotia ( is the newest of roughly 65 local BALLE networks across the US and Canada, all dedicated to building a new kind of economy — community-based, green, fair and sustainable. Its members are locally-owned businesses and individuals that hold themselves accountable not only to shareholders, but also to other stakeholders, to the community at large, and to the environment.

Soppy, right? Business is business, buddy. It’s dog-eat-dog in this bitch of a world. Don’t you know that?

Yeah, I do. But I also know that what we’re doing now isn’t sustainable, and things that can’t be sustained are (by definition) destined to collapse. Today, it’s hard for local businesses to compete with huge corporations that can produce goods in China, flood us with advertising, “roll back prices” and undercut local artisans. But those corporations evolved in a fantasy world of cheap oil and cavalier disregard of the true costs of resource depletion and environmental decline. Ultimately, they will have to pay those costs – and at that point the advantage will shift to local businesses that have been doing it right all along.

And, I might point out, thriving at it. My fellow Board members represent companies like Renovator’s Resource, which recycles building materials; LED Roadway Lighting, makers of environmentally-friendly street lights; Just Us Coffee Roasters, who sell great fair-trade coffee; P’Lovers, the Halifax-based chain of environmental stores; and Minas Basin Pulp and Power, a pulp mill fed entirely by recycled paper products and powered by its own hydro-electricity.

The Chair of BALLE-NS is Lil MacPherson, co-owner of The Wooden Monkey, Halifax’s “locavore” restaurant, which serves organic foods from local producers. Other Board members represent social-economy organizations like the Nova Scotia Community Foundation, the Ecology Action Centre, the Pollination Project and Cape Breton University. Still others are self-employed — consultants Lara Ryan and Janet Larkman (who is also part-time co-ordinator), motivational speaker Bill Carr and your humble scribe here. The organization’s start-up has been assisted by Nova Scotia Economic and Rural Development.

In short, the green economy is already here — and now it’s getting organized. After more than a year of preparation, BALLE-NS formally launches next week, with a public lecture by organic-seed merchant Tom Stearns in Wolfville at 7:00 on Wednesday, and a gala launch party at the NS Community College Waterfront Campus on Thursday from 6:00 to 10:00, MC’d by Bill Carr.

Love to see you there. Register on the website, and come out to meet the future.

– 30 —

The Hope of the World

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

September 20, 2009

Despair is a useless emotion. And there is no such thing as false hope.

I learned these things years ago, when someone I loved lay dying. A medical moron — a celebrated specialist, with an entourage of students — came to her bedside and told her she would be dead in a few weeks and she’d better get used to the idea. When he left, I went scuttling after him, demanding to know just how the hell he thought he was helping.

“She has Stage 4 cancer, and she still thinks she’s going to make it,” he snapped. “She’s not. There’s no point in encouraging false hope.”

“That’s an absolutely useless opinion,” I retorted. I was seething. “She’ll tell you that she’s not dying of cancer, she’s living with cancer. She’ll be doing that till her last breath. What do you want her to do? Spend her days in despair, waiting for death? Hope gives meaning to her life. How dare you try to take it away from her?”

By its nature, hope occurs in conditions of uncertainty. Sometimes it’s fulfilled, sometimes not. It may be faint. But it’s never false.

I remembered all this when I read Chris Turner’s article “The Age of Breathing Underwater” in The Walrus magazine. Turner is the author of an admirable book called The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need. His obsession is the need to maintain hope and optimism in a world that human beings have sent spinning towards environmental catastrophe. Action depends on hope. You can’t rouse people to strenuous effort and sweeping change if they believe that their efforts will be pointless.

But only fools ignore the science. The particular new horrors that have seized Turner’s attention are the changes in the ocean’s temperature and chemistry, which almost certainly doom the ocean’s most fecund ecosystems, the coral reefs of the tropics. Corals feed on the algae zooxanthelae — but warm water turns the algae poisonous. In addition, the increasing load of carbon dioxide in the oceans creates carbonic acid, which is also fatal to corals. We have made the oceans more acidic than they have been for tens of millions of years.

Raise the pistol to your temple, say the prophets of doom. Humans don’t deserve to live.

Not so fast, says Turner. Yes, we’ve entered the Anthropocene Era, an epoch in which human activity is overpowering the natural world. This is what Bill McKibben means by “the end of nature.” And let’s be clear, too, that there’s no going back. The world you grew up in is gone forever. We are already feeling the impact of climate change, which has such momentum that if we stopped greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, the changes would continue for decades.

But, Turner says, that doesn’t justify surrender. The environmental battle needs to be intensified, possibly using startling new weapons like “geoengineering,” the deliberate alteration of the planet to counter-act the changes we’ve already set in motion. Or nanotechnology. Perhaps we need a philosophy of “social-ecological resilience,” accepting change as “the natural state of being on earth,” and targetting our conservation efforts on the life-forms with the best chance of survival. But this is a time for action, not for despair.

So I’ll participate in a “flash mob” at the Legislature tomorrow at noon, one of 1000-plus events in 88 countries organized by to send a message on climate change to world leaders. Just in Halifax, other flash mobs will appear at the Chapter House on University Avenue, on the North Common, and at the Bedford United Church. Come and join us.

But tomorrow is also Zero Emissions Day (, when some of us are trying to eschew fossil fuels and minimize our use of electricity. Hmm… Will I spew emissions driving to a climate-change protest? I hear my MLA is going to walk. Maybe I’ll walk with her.

As Chris Turner declares, the arrival of the Anthropocene Era is not a license for despair. The world has forever been changing and evolving, and while the science-fiction environment we have created means loss and danger, it may also offer surprising prospects for beauty and adventure.

Remember this: despair is a useless emotion. And there is no such thing as false hope.

– 30 —

Mister Bill

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

September 13, 2009

Bill Martin loved vehicles, all kinds of vehicles — big ones, small ones, old ones, new ones. While I knew him, he owned four-wheelers, motorcycles, vans, luxury sedans, station wagons, motorhomes. For a couple of years he owned a classic 1955 DeSoto. In his twenties, he mounted a motorcycle and rode to the Pacific Coast and back. In his sixties, he wanted to do it again.

He worked as a mechanic and drove trucks much of his life — cement trucks, dump trucks, wreckers and others. The highway was for him what the water is for a fisherman — his native element, known and familiar. Driving along, he’d point at an approaching semi-trailer and say, “Look at that old Peterbilt. I drove one of them rigs once….” Then he’d be off into a discussion of the relative merits of Macks, Whites, Autocars, trucks that I hardly knew existed.

Bill Martin did not love retirement. He left his childhood home at 13, never finished school, worked hard all his life. Then a bad accident broke his back, and although he made a decent recovery, his working days were over. A Haligonian himself, he had married a woman from Isle Madame, and they had reared six children, four boys and two girls. The boys settled in Halifax, the girls in Cape Breton. He and Corinne moved into a small apartment in the senior citizens’ complex next door to my house in D’Escousse. He loved his girls and missed his boys, so he spent a lot of his time on Highway 104 and Highway 102.

Bill Martin — “Mister Bill,” as some called him — loved tools, loved a challenge, loved solving problems. Me, too. That’s how we became friends. One day, with my sailboat on a trailer, my friend Edwin and I were trying to figure out how to raise its hinged mast.

“Use an extension ladder,” said Bill. “Get the mast between the horns of the ladder, and then extend the ladder. Up she goes.” Pursing his lips, he made an explosive sound: “Pttt!” That sound was Bill’s way of saying, That’s it. Done. Run this wire over here, he’d say, and connect it over there. Pttt!

Bill had projects and time and no place to work. I had a vacant garage across the road. At my invitation, Bill moved an ancient muscle car into the garage and dismantled it. (Designers of seniors’ homes, take note. Think about what your residents are going to do all day, and give them some place to do it. You are not building a warehouse, you are building a living environment for people with time on their hands.)

I kept my sailboat in a workshop nearby. When I was there, Bill would drop in and help. He loved good design and loathed shabby workmanship. “Look at this,” he’d say disgustedly, holding up some flimsy tool or crummy electrical fitting, “Friggin’ guys…” When I bought a Norwegian motorsailer, Bill was delighted. We worked on Magnus together for the next two winters.

Bill sang as he worked, laughed when things went wrong, and cursed his ample waistline and his short, stubby legs. “Next time, Donnie, I’m getting’ longer legs, so I am.” While we were away, he stood watch over the house. When we laid up the boat in Florida, Bill and Corinne delivered our car to us. On the homebound trip, when I went to pick up the boat in Maryland, Bill drove me there.

Whenever you work in the shop with Bill, Marjorie told me, you always come back whistling. It’s true, and I think that’s how male friendships often function. Women like to talk together. Men like to work together. Whenever Bill wrote me a note, he would sign it, “Your buddy, Bill.”

For the last eight years — a long time — Bill was afflicted with prostate cancer. Injections. Operations. Radiation. Slow, inexorable decline. He was a man of strong emotions and vivid imagination, and he was not at all resigned to the prospect of death. But ten days ago it came for him anyway.

The shop seems cavernous and empty. But I hope Bill is on a stretch of glorious twisting blacktop somewhere, singing at the top of his lungs, straddling a motorcycle with his long legs. Love you, Bill. Signed, Your buddy, Don.

– 30 —

The Networking King of Halifax

Monday, September 7th, 2009

September 6, 2009

Matt Whitman leans forward over a table at a suburban Starbuck’s coffee shop, talking intensely.

“I do everything else around this,” he says. “My whole role is to connect with people — not to convince anyone of anything or sell them anything, but to connect with them.”

What Matt Whitman does — full time, more or less — is networking, either in person or on such social media sites as Facebook. He spends his days in coffee shops and informal meetings, and at charitable events. He has 4800 friends on Facebook, and I am one of them. He is the networking king of Halifax.

I want to know how he makes a living at this. Various gurus contend that the new social networking media Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter and others are fantastic new business tools. Well, I want to know how these fantastic tools work. In my experience, sites like Facebook are mostly a fantastic nuisance. Who cares whether someone I barely know has just won at Texas Hold’Em Poker or Treasure Mania? If you’re going to bed now, go in peace. Why tell me about it?

Matt admits that Facebook can be a huge time-waster — but such programs keep you visible when you’re otherwise engaged. While you’re in a meeting, your note on Facebook about a charitable event promotes the charity and also brings you to the attention of 4800 friends. And Facebook tells you who you know in common with someone else. But it’s the in-person stuff that delights Matt.

“My thing is reverse networking, which is promoting others rather than promoting myself,” he says. “If I say I’m the best, you’re going to discount it — but if I tell you about my friends the lawyer, the accountant, the barber, the mortgage broker, you might take my advice. By not selling anything or promoting myself, I can get to lots of people. And sooner or later, somewhere, somebody’s going to be talking about me, so I don’t have to.”

Two employers support all this connecting. Matt is a regional sales manager for Sun Life, where his responsibilities include the recruitment of new life insurance salesmen. For someone with his vast network, that kind of recruiting is a snap. He’s also “the community outreach guy” for his church, one of 13 employees of the Stone Ridge Fellowship in Bedford, a fast-growing Baptist congregation which is about to open a brand-new mega-church in Lower Sackville.

“I’m an example of what a Christian business person is,” he says. He is out there all the time “spreading the Good News and getting people into the game, getting them active.” His influence shows up as increased church attendance, and also as intensified Christian activity in the lives of church members.

And that’s another use of Facebook to “promote all the things I’m doing on the weekends.” For example — ?

“I’m eating ribs next Saturday for testicular cancer,” he says. “I organized a five-kilometer run last Saturday for our StoneRidge satellite site in Hubbards, and tomorrow I’m giving out Gideon Bibles at the Busker Festival. Through Sun Life I hosted a Participaction event to get people active again. I’m involved in the Junior Chamber, juvenile diabetes, Junior Achievement. And the updates go to everyone, all the time.”

This reminds him of his advice to a recently-unemployed friend.

“The key is not to be self-centred. The key is to help others,” he says. “What are you doing with the 40 hours you used to work? Why don’t you go and do 40 hours of good will? Volunteer this weekend at the Buskers, or the Pride Festival, or the Jazz Festival. If you volunteer 40 hours a week, you’ll have more job offers than you know what to do with.”

He stops, struck by an idea.

“Something good happens at every meeting. Someone will benefit — maybe not you or me, but maybe someone we know. Hmm. I’ve never said this out loud before, but there are actually four dimensions. How can I help you, and how can you help me? And how can I help your friends, and how can you help my friends?”

He stands up. He has another meeting. And the networking king of Halifax is never, ever late.

– 30 –

Five columns at once?

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

As a result of a very busy summer (and a four-week break in July) my blog has been completely out of date. I’ve just posted the last five columns, and presumably they’ll be going out as RSS feeds now. Sorry for this blizzard of posts!


The Spirit and Memory of Parrsboro

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

August 30, 2009

Conrad Byers gazes at the black steel bow of the MV Kipawo, the ship that symbolizes The Ship’s Company Theatre in Parrsboro. Tall, lean, hawk-eyed, he is remembering his first encounter with the ship, in Catalina, Newfoundland.

“The Kip” was the ferry between Kingsport, Parrsboro and Wolfville from 1926 to 1942, when the Navy commandeered her. After several more careers, she was abandoned in Newfoundland. Back in Wolfville, the formidable Jack Sherriff — professor, producer, playwright and impresario — conceived the idea of bringing her home as a performing arts facility. He and his supporters got her to Catalina and ran out of money. She was tied to the dock and abandoned again.

A new committee based in both Wolfville and Parrsboro sent Con Byers to Newfoundland to arrange her return. In Catalina, some of the locals had wanted to sink the Kip, but a fisherman had her beached on his own property. “Me son,” he told Con, “I just likes old boats.”

Con particularly remembers the difficulty of retrieving the Kip’s massive anchors, which prompts him to reflect on the whole question of anchor-handling. In the South American nitrate ships, it took days to bring the anchors home, using crews assembled from all the waiting square-riggers.

Con studied the nitrate trade because Bay of Fundy vessels were involved, and those are among his passions. The sea was then a highway; Con remembers a Parrsboro man who visited Boston three times before he reached Amherst. Con has been many things in his day — an archivist, a photographer, a master mariner, a businessman, a writer and historian. He is a sponge for knowledge, a born teacher. He is deeply attentive to his own drummer.

As a young schoolteacher, for instance, he taught Asian geography. He didn’t know much about Asian geography, so he saved some money, shouldered his backpack and sailed away. He crossed the USSR on the TransSiberian Railway, visited Japan, Hong Kong, Macao, Thailand, India. When he got home, he knew quite a bit about Asian geography.

In a profound sense, Conrad Byers knows where he is, both in space and in time. He loves the whole world, but Parrsboro, for him, is its centre. He’s a man of today — comfortable with computers, grateful for today’s medical miracles — but he’s also immersed in the stream of time that connects the living with the dead and the unborn.

He tells me, as if it were yesterday, about his grandfather, Leander Canning, who was a woods boss in Shulie when the Mont Blanc exploded in Halifax in 1917. Canning had three daughters in a school for the deaf in Halifax. He strapped on his snowshoes, walked to Joggins, caught a train to Bedford and walked into the ruined city over the wrecked railbed.

The three girls had been on their knees at prayer when the explosion occurred, and the shards of window glass that would otherwise have killed them flew straight over their heads. They took shelter in the basement. The next day, one of them looked out the basement window and saw her father’s familiar mukluks. He carried the girls to Bedford, and took them home by train.

Con Byers lives in a ramshackle apartment near the centre of town — “a firetrap,” he says, which he heats with wood. He is a dedicated member of the Parrsborough Shore Historic Society, which in turn has been of great assistance to him. He has collected a range of essentially priceless items — glass-plate negatives of 19th-century Nova Scotia, rare books, models, artifacts and logbooks , not to mention Con’s own innumerable photos. His task now, he says, is to catalogue all this for its ultimate home in a museum — preferably an upgraded version of the nearby Ottawa House, once the summer home of Sir Charles Tupper.

Con Byers is the very spirit and memory of Parrsboro. Nova Scotia has been fortunate to have such people dotted across its landscape — Jim St. Clair in Mabou, for instance, or the late Marshall Bourinot in Arichat. The province needs a program to recognize such people as Living Treasures, to provide them with research assistance, and to capture through extensive interviews the knowledge that now survives only in their minds. Nothing is more precious or more perishable than knowledge. We are fools if we let such treasures slide away.

– 30 –

Ferry Tales

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

August 23, 2009

Aunt Win walks to the edge of the stage. She is a woman of a certain age, a certain shape, but she has a glint in her eye and she is in rebellion against the idea that she’s too old for adventure and romance.

Now, though, she sings a song about a skipper sailing with his beloved son and a cargo that included forty barrels of apples. Their schooner was lost. The son was drowned. The father found himself on the beach with his son’s corpse, and the sea was covered with…

“…forty barrels of apples,”sings Aunt Win, in a ghostly voice. “Forty barrels of apples…”

It’s a poignant moment in Ferry Tales, a bright, open-hearted musical written by Carol Sinclair with music by David Sereda. Aunt Win is played by the accomplished femme du theatre Deborah Allen, who does all things dramatic well. But who knew she could sing?

Ferry Tales runs till August 30 at the Ship’s Company Theatre in Parrsboro, and its run marks an historic milestone. Against all the odds, this innovative small-town theatre company has survived for 25 years, and it has premiered 28 new Canadian plays — including Ferry Tales, specifically commissioned for the anniversary. This is a fabulous achievement, of which the company and the town are justly proud.

The theatre is literally built around a ship, the MV Kipawo, the last of the Minas Basin ferries. Launched in 1926, “the Kip” was the first steel ship from the Saint John Shipyards, and she shuttled between Kingsport, Parrsboro and Wolfville until she was taken over by the navy in 1942. Forty years later, some Fundy patriots from Parrsboro and Wolfville towed the abandoned Kip home from Newfoundland, and berthed her in Parrsboro. In 1984, Michael Fuller and Mary Vingoe wrote a play called She’ll be In Your Arms by Midnight and Other Parrsboro Stories, and presented it for six nights under a tarpaulin on the foredeck.The Ship’s Company Theatre was born.

Fuller and Vingoe moved on in the 1990s, but remain committed to the theatre. Fuller served as lighting designer for the company’s first production this summer, and Vingoe acted in both this summer’s plays. Watch her on stage now, a strong tall woman with raven hair, brilliantly playing the spirit of the Kipawo — and doubling as an abrasive, foul-mouthed female skipper conducting a rowdy affair with a fiddling seaman played by Paul Tupper. She has enjoyed a distinguished career as founder of the Eastern Front Theatre in Dartmouth and the Nightwood Theatre in Toronto, and Artistic Director of Magnetic North Theatre in Ottawa, but this is her first appearance on the Ship’s Company stage since 1990.

The theatre was still a blue tarp on the ship’s foredeck in 1988 when Fuller and Vingoe commissioned me to write a play about Leon Trotsky’s internment in Amherst during World War I. I have written more than 50 radio plays, but The Prophet at Tantramar remains my only stage play, and the process of writing it, workshopping it and seeing it into production was a magical experience.

In 1988, when the raw winds blew in from the Bay of Fundy, the tarpaulin snapped and boomed, and the audience was chilled to the bone. In 2004, however, the old ferry was set in the ground and incorporated into the foyer of a soaring new $1.9 million wooden theatre, complete with proper dressing rooms, workshops, offices and archives. Today’s audiences can hardly tell if the wind is blowing — and the schedule is now a full 14 weeks of main stage productions, not to mention a second stage, a concert series, a kid’s stage and much more.

Ferry Tales is a fine marker for this historic moment — an anthology of Nova Scotia stories and music refreshed and enhanced by Sinclair and Sereda, and framed by the story of the Kip herself. Some of the stories are familiar — legless Jerome, the mystery of the Mary Celeste — but others are new. Sinclair found the story of the lost ship and the apples in an old Amherst newspaper, for example, and the song she and Sereda wrote feels like an instant classic.

“Forty barrels of apples… forty barrels of apples…”

– 30 —

A Wise Latina Woman

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

AUGUST 16, 2009

The thing that most disturbed me, as I followed the saga of Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing, was that the controversy centred on an entirely false question: if she were appointed, would Judge Sotomayor’s judgments be affected by her background and experience, or would she apply the law impartially and objectively?

The answer is Yes. She will do both — just as everyone else does.

The controversy arose from a comment Sotomayor made in a speech in Berkeley in 2001. She was referring to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s dictum that a wise old man and a wise old woman would reach the same decisions based on the same evidence. Sotomayor dissented.

“I would hope,”she said, “that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” It’s a clunky sentence, but its obvious point is that a Latina (a Hispanic woman) who has lived in a wide range of situations (which have given her a “rich” experience) is more likely to arrive at nuanced and sophisticated judgments than someone whose experience has been more narrow.

Well, sure. All of us are shaped by our experiences. When we have to make decisions, all of our experience comes into play — and a rich experience is likely to yield better decisions than an impoverished one. But that commonsense notion infuriates the Republican rump.

The root issue here is objectivity — the same issue that appears so often in discussions of scholarship and journalism. The naive view of objectivity holds that the truth is indisputable, and identical for everyone. Similarly, the law is a clear set of rules which apply identically in every situation. Same evidence plus same law equals same result.

Sorry, no. The nature of truth and reality is debatable — ask a Christian to accept the truth of Islam, or vice-versa — and the application of the law requires, well, judgment. A judge must respect the law, but s/he is required to interpret and apply it. Someone who has experienced racism first-hand — as Sonia Sotomayor has — will discern it where others might miss it. Such a woman may also have strong and un-manly views on such matters as pay equity and reproductive rights. Her particular awarenesses don’t constitute bias. They are an inevitable outgrowth of the understanding of the world which results from her unique experience.

That’s how the law evolves. That’s how social progress occurs. People whose perspectives are ignored or flouted by the legal vision kick up a ruckus, and the law eventually responds. The legal system abolishes slavery, grants votes to women, agrees that gay people are entitled to the benefits of marriage.

The disappointing thing is that Sotomayor felt obliged to retreat from her original comments. The whole point of diversity on the bench is to ensure that different viewpoints, sensitivities and values are heard respectfully, and weighed appropriately. In fact, a recent book about our own Supreme Court clearly demonstrates that males and females do make very different judges. In The Transformation of the Supreme Court of Canada, Professor Donald Songer of the University of South Carolina found that women justices were statistically much more likely than men to support criminal prosecutors, to sustain civil liberties, and to favour economic underdogs.

In fact, the Canadian judges themselves agreed that they were indeed unique individuals whose philosophies affected their rulings. Songer interviewed all nine justices anonymously, and found they all “believed that their personal attitudinal preferences affected their votes and opinions at least some of the time.” Three also believed that their ideologies were actively considered by the political parties that appointed them to the bench.

Well, of course. That’s the way judicial appointments work. When a party comes to power, it wants to re-shape the country. That’s the whole point of political choice. And re-shaping the country includes re-calibrating the judicial system. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush nominated most of the Supreme Court judges who gave the 2000 election to George W. Bush. Are we surprised?

And now a President who knows a thing or two about racial issues offers, as his first Supreme Court nominee, a woman who shares that experience. And why not? Americans voted for change. This is how they’ll get it.

– 30 –

The Big Paydays

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

AUGUST 9, 2009


We’re not in Pugwash now, Toto.

While Nova Scotians crouch in the drizzle, endlessly waiting for summer, bone-dry British Columbia broils under cloudless skies. Wednesday’s record high is broken by Thursday’s. Sun-crisped Vancouver swelters at 34C, while monster forest fires menace towns like West Kelowna and Lillooet.

The political temperature is also high. Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government has abruptly imposed a Harmonized Sales Tax which, during the recent election, it promised not to do. Meanwhile, a long-running corruption trial relating to the sale of BC Rail is going badly for the government, which somehow — oops! — ordered the erasure of a crucial batch of ministerial emails. Just like the strange 18-minute gap in the Watergate tapes.

In short, Lotusland politics as usual. Since the 1940s, BC politics has been a see-saw battle between the CCF/NDP, and a right-wing aggregation using several brands — Liberal-Conservative Coalition, Social Credit, currently Liberal — whose fundamental purpose is to facilitate pillage and piracy by barring the damn socialists from office. Let the market rule, they cry. Every dollar spent by government is a dollar wasted!

Case in point: a huge block of the front page of the Vancouver Sun, BC’s main newspaper, is given over to an opinion piece by one Miro Cernetig about extravagant salaries being paid to the management of such Crown corporations as Translink (which runs the transit system in Metro Vancouver) and BC Ferries (which runs the ferry system that stitches the province’s coastal settlements together.)

In mid-recession, government revenues are plunging, and a flood of red ink surges through the finance ministry. Good, says Cernetig. It’s time to end the “gravy train” of public-sector executive compensation. Heavens, some of these people make over $250,000 a year. Translink boss Tom Prendergast makes $325,000 a year, for instance, and one of his vice-presidents last year made $296,000. Cut the fat!

Well, these are enviable salaries, admittedly, accompanied by a nice range of benefits. But this is a city where fairly ordinary homes in merely pleasant neighbourhoods — sixty years old, say, and sited on 50-foot lots — routinely change hands at prices well north of a million dollars. South of the border, US President Barack Obama says he’ll keep his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class. Who is the middle class? People earning less than US$250,000 a year — which is only a whisker less than Prendergast’s $325,000 Canadian.

And Prendergast’s task is to develop and operate a mass transit system that will help to make the break-neck growth of Metro Vancouver sustainable — not a trivial assignment. So what, I wonder, does Cernetig think Predergast’s salary should be? $225,000? $125,000? $25,000?

No matter what the answer, the issue is picayune compared to the battering inflicted on all of us by private-sector executives. As Cernetig rails, New York Attorney-General Andrew Cuomo reports that executive compensation on Wall Street has become “completely unmoored” from performance. Executives at seven major US banks, having managed their companies into bankruptcy, siphoned $175 billion from the US taxpayer in 2008 — and had the effrontery to pay themselves $32.6 billion in bonuses.

“When the banks did well, their employees were paid well,” Cuomo declares. “When the banks did poorly, their employees were paid well. And when the banks did very poorly, they were bailed out by taxpayers and their employees were still paid well.” How well? As the banks imploded, more than 5000 bankers collared bonuses of over a million dollars. Citigroup alone lost $27.7 billion in 2008, swilled up $45 billion in public funds — and paid bonuses of more than a million dollars to 738 of its managers.

And that’s not to mention GM, Chrysler, AIG, Nortel, Bernie Madoff and a dozen others. The suave bandits and con men of the private sector have savaged the stock market, rifled the US Treasury, propelled the whole world into recession, torched all our pension plans, and turfed hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and their jobs. They’ve done immeasurable damage to the people of BC — and Canada — and they’ve still walked away with bags of cash.

That’s the real front-page story. And we’ll be hearing its echoes for years.

– 30 —

Your Plastic Brain

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

AUGUST 2, 2009

“Donald,” said Aunt Ethel, “do you know a book called The Brain That Changes Itself? It’s by a Dr. Norman Doidge. It’s absolutely fascinating, the new things they’re learning about the brain. I’d love to discuss it with you.”

The Faithful Reader knows that Aunt Ethel, now 97, is the person I want to be when I grow up. When she recommends a book, I buy it. And the book really is fascinating — not least because it casts some light on how to grow up like Aunt Ethel.

For generations, neuro-scientists conceived the brain as a sophisticated but inflexible machine. Specific areas of the brain were responsible for specific mental and physical functions, and when parts of the brain were damaged or destroyed, those functions were irretrievably lost. The wiring connecting the brain to the mind and body was fixed and unchangeable.

Recent research, however, reveals that the brain is “plastic,” adaptable, capable of making spectacular changes when necessary. Stone-deaf people can hear through a microphone linked to an electronic wafer placed on their tongues. The blind can see when skin on their backs is stimulated by tiny electric currents generated by a camera. It seems that the areas of the brain responsible for sight and hearing can respond to stimuli from completely novel sources. And that’s only the beginning.

The new picture of the brain opens vast new opportunities. Take old age, for instance. We have long known of a “critical period” in infancy when youngsters learn furiously — learn to balance, to walk, to talk (sometimes in several languages) and much more. The infant’s brain is “plastic,” shifting and growing and constantly re-shaping itself.

Thereafter, alas, the brain seems to freeze and then go into reverse. Learning a new language as an adult is fiercely difficult. As we age we often lose our sense of balance and our memory along with our teeth and our hair. We become cautious, rigid and cranky. People over 60 today can expect to live well into their eighties but, says Dr. Michael Merzenich, one of the leading scientists in Doidge’s book, “when you are 85, there is a 47% chance that you will have Alzheimer’s disease.” Who wants to stick around for that?

One of the most important insights from Merzenich and others is “use it or lose it” — keep learning, or lose the ability to learn. By the time we reach 60, most of us haven’t learned anything really new for decades. We’re using “mastered” skills, and our capacity to learn is like a neglected muscle.

Starting with lab experiments, and moving on to examine such bewildering phenomena as autism, Merzenich and his colleagues developed an exercise program for basic brain functions in language-impaired and learning-disabled children. The program worked so well that the scientists began to wonder whether similar exercises might stave off some of the effects of aging. The results of their experiments suggest that elderly people who really start exercising their brains — getting outside their comfort zones by learning a new language, learning new physical activities that require concentration, taking up a new career — actually can re-invigorate the brain’s plasticity.

Merzenich’s experiments with rats also suggest that the plasticity of the infant mind may be recaptured by artificially “turning on” the nucleus basalis, the part of our brains that allows us to focus our attention. In the future, that might allow us to learn languages, job skills, or academic disciplines as easily in adulthood as we did in youth.

In the meantime, says Merzenich, anything that requires intense focused attention will reduce the mental losses of aging. Study Mandarin, learn to rhumba, write your memoirs, create computer code. Learning really is living, Doidge argues. “We must be learning if we are to feel fully alive.”

And suddenly I heard the voice of Aunt Ethel.

“If, as I believe, we are put on this earth to learn,” she once told me, “then I am not leaving until I have learned every single lesson that’s available to me.” And perhaps that’s the secret of a life so long and rich that at 97 you are not lost in the mazes of your memory, but eagerly reviewing the latest advances in brain science.

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