Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for February, 2010

Loving Your Work

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

February 28, 2010

“Students at other universities think we’re weird,” said the young woman with the long black hair and the ready smile. “They say, ‘Why don’t you just cut that class?’ And when I say, ‘I don’t want to cut it, I want to go to it,’ they look at me like I came from another planet.”

“That’s right,” nodded another girl. “When they find out that we have four-hour classes, they say, ‘Wow, four hours, how can you stand it? That would drive me crazy!’ And they don’t believe it when we say the time really flies by.”

I’m in a studio at NSCAD University, formerly the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. I have a graphic design problem, and Denise Saulnier’s 11 design students are imagining possible solutions. I am so happy to be back at NSCAD that I can hardly describe it.

Twenty years ago I had the good fortune to be NSCAD’s first and only writer in residence. And perhaps what I remember most vividly from that experience is the energy, flair and dedication of the students and faculty, their passion for their work.

The students wanted to be great artists or superb designers. They wanted it desperately, and they worked at it obsessively. The faculty were mature, well-established practitioners, and they were equally obsessive. They were inspiring examples, working long hours, pushing the limits of their disciplines, gaining commissions and showing their work in exotic places like Germany, China and Ottawa. Day and night, the place just hummed. It was the most fierce and fertile learning environment I’ve ever seen.

The rewards of a life in the arts can be pretty meagre — but one of its great benefits is that artists wake up in the morning eager to get started, constantly learning and exploring and innovating. Every day is an adventure. They aren’t necessarily happy, but they know what they’re supposed to be doing with their lives.

“I love writing — it’s both a real agony and a terrific pleasure,” said the great novelist Margaret Laurence. “When I say ‘work,” I only mean writing. Work should be something that you love doing, and that you put everything that you have and more into it, and only that kind of work is really worthy of the name. So when I say ‘work,’ I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.”

Work should be something that you love doing. That’s what the NSCAD students already know. But for too many people in our poor sad culture, “work” is what you have to do, and “play” is what you love to do. That’s what their friends, alas, already know.

If education should be about learning how to do what you love, most of what goes on in our educational system is, to put it kindly, beside the point. Indeed, mass education is really designed to train dutiful workers for traditional industries. Like steelworkers or meat-packers, the children troop off to the factory when the whistle blows, toting their lunch-pails, and dutifully returning when their shift is over.

Non-industrial societies rarely have institutions that look like schools — but their kids get educated anyway. In clan societies, in aboriginal communities, in rural Nova Scotia a century ago, kids learned what they needed to know mostly by hanging out with working adults. Girls learned domestic skills by helping their mothers and grandmothers. Boys learned to be hunters or blacksmiths or navigators by tagging along with men who did that kind of work.

This is not ancient history. When I was 18, I could have become a lawyer without going to university, simply by “articling” in a law office and taking the appropriate examinations. In effect, I would have apprenticed as a lawyer.

This is actually the way that most people learn most efficiently — by acquiring the skills in the course of doing the work, reflecting on the process, trying again, submitting to criticism, internalizing the standards, and practicing, practicing, practicing. That’s what goes on at NSCAD, and it’s exactly what we need in order to thrive in a fast-moving, inventive, knowledge-based economy. NSCAD exemplifies a pedagogy deeply rooted in our past. It’s also the pedagogy of the future.

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True Unbelievers

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

February 21, 2010

Where does the vitriol come from?

Last week, I wrote about the implosion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and about what I called “the touching faith of some climate-change critics that if they can just convince enough people that the whole thing is a hoax, then that will be reality, and we can get back to business as usual.” Alas, I said, ‘t ain’t so. Natural processes are impervious to human opinions.

Some readers went ballistic.

An Annapolis Valley reader declared that he had previously “’sensed’ MAYBE you were one of only a few North American journalists to have the gonads to speak a little truth, among the foolishness that permeates our mainstream media…Alas, the editors at the Herald must have finally trumped you, and actually got you to state that there REALLY COULD BE truth behnd the concept of human caused climate change. Wow, what a sad sellout this was. Truely disturbing to the core… you are throwing support behind an idea created and perpetuated by international criminals… It is a sad day when Silver Don sells out.”

Gosh. Actually, I’m eager to sell out, but I’ve never found a buyer. If you know people that I might sell out to, please ask them to call. I prefer cash, but annuities, bonds, real estate, luxury yachts and fine automobiles will all be considered.

From another reader who similarly accused me — along with Gwynne Dyer — of selling out, I asked for an explanation of why Dyer or I would consciously promote untruth. Even if we were hopelessly corrupt, what were we getting out of it? A fat stipend from a windmill manufacturer? Secret cheques from Al Gore?

A third reader revealed that “a small group of politicians and scientists have forced a ‘false reality’ on the world and have thwarted (falsified, denigrated) the hard work of many responsible scientists (i.e. ‘the skeptics’) from even bringing these facts to light…. You are now on the same side as the false reality makers. Is that where you want to be?”

Ah. Once more, evil people are manipulating public affairs in pursuit of their own ends. But why? And what are those ends?

Look, I replied, despite the rot at the IPCC, many eminent and honest scientists do believe that climate change is real, that humans are responsible for much of it, and that its impact may be catastrophic. If they are right, and we don’t take action, many people will die. If they’re wrong, and we do take action, we’ll spend a lot of money on things that will still be useful, like restoring forests, reducing our fossil fuel consumption, and cleaning up our air quality which is already killing people. Is that bad?

Expensive? We spill torrents of money on failed banks and automakers, and on wars. Why cavil at spending on changes that would unquestionably be beneficial, whatever the truth about climate change?

My favourite reader response was this:

“Your a liar and full of sh*t, if you were with-in reach right now I’d slap you. Many names on the IPCC reports are there fraudulently, they don’t agree, many more have no more knowledge of Climate than my Cat and are not climatologists. It’s not just a few scientists either, it’s every single one that has any ties to this scam, they are all fraudsters. Sorry you fell for the scam., but buddy I’ve followed this since before Mo strong first came up with the scam to create the IPCC and gave the UN nod to WWF and others to spread the lie.

“Your an idiot or a fool, period. CO2 does not effect temps, temps effect CO2. IMO you should all be jailed and have your assets seized and sold off by the Governments to repay the citizens who have already been scammed out of billions.”

Wonderful. Imitating Stephen Leacock, I wrote:

Dear Sir:

I thought it would be a kindness to let you know that a lunatic is writing abusive messages on your computer, and is sending them out to people over your signature. You may want to take action to put a stop to this.

Best regards,

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Manufacturing Reality

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

February 14, 2010

“It sounds silly when you say it out loud,” said Ram Myers, “but they seemed to have a notion that you could sit in Ottawa and make up reality. If you could enforce a scientific consensus, that would be reality.”

That’s Dr. Ransom A. Myers, Dalhousie University’s late, great, and sorely-missed marine biologist, talking about the federal bureaucrats who “gruesomely mangled and corrupted” the research of their own scientists, to quote an internal DFO report, and thus allowed three imperilled groundfish stocks to be fished almost to extinction.

Ram Myers’ comment has echoed in my mind since the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change began imploding in the blizzard of compromising emails that escaped from the University of East Anglia in December. That episode was followed by the disclosure that several findings in the IPCC’s report of 2007 were based on faulty evidence.

These were not trivial findings. One was the widely-reported prediction that, based on current trends, the glaciers of the Himalayas would melt away by 2035. Since Asia’s nine largest rivers arise in those glaciers, the result would have been a nightmare sequence of catastrophic flooding and lethal droughts for the one billion people who live downstream.

But the prediction was based on anecdotes, not on peer-reviewed science — and it was “so wrong that it’s not worth discussing,” says Georg Kaser, a leading Austrian glaciologist who flagged the error before the report was issued, and was dumbfounded to find it in the text. Maybe part of the reason is that the head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, also heads a New Delhi research group that has scooped up millions of dollars in grants to study the melting of the Himalayan glaciers.

The IPCC’s scientists now stand accused of shabby science, selective reporting, naked self-interest and the intimidation of skeptics. And of course the climate change skeptics are all over the issue: See? These guys are liars and cheaters and thieves — and therefore, climate change is all humbug.

Not so fast, bub. To begin with, the IPCC report was written by 620 scientists from 40 countries, and only a few have been impugned. Georg Kaser himself was a lead author of the section of the report dealing with the physical science of climate change. Despite the furor, Kaser says the report’s central contention that climate change is an established reality and a major threat is absolutely sound.

What reminds me of Ram Myers is the touching faith of some climate-change critics that if they can just convince enough people that the whole thing is a hoax, then that will be reality, and we can get back to business as usual. I’d love to believe it, but it’s nonsense. Somewhere out there, beyond all the noise and clamour, the real world is evolving according to its own nature, no matter what we may hope, wish or believe.

I listen to Gwynne Dyer, who travels the world investigating the military implications of climate change. “When you talk to the people at the sharp end of the climate business, scientists and policy-makers alike,” Dyer writes, “there is an air of suppressed panic in many of the conversations. We are not going to get through this without taking a lot of casualties.”

I listen to Jim Lovelock, a towering figure in earth science, who concedes the possibility that the skeptics are right and that global warming is an illusion — but whose observations suggest that global heating is happening much faster than expected. For example, he says, the great global heat sink is the sea. When the sea gets warm, it expands, and sea level rises. Well, sea level is rising faster than predicted, so the sea is absorbing a lot of heat. That’s an observation, not an opinion.

How do we deal with all these uncertainties? In 2007, a young Oregon science teacher named Greg Craven reviewed the options in a little YouTube presentation called “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See.” His conclusion? Acting to counter the risks of climate change will certainly cost a lot of money, perhaps needlessly. But failing to act could very well cost a lot of lives. How hard a decision is that?

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Beyond Frozen Sunlight

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

February 7, 2010

On a windless night, where will the power come from?

Essentially, the earth’s energy comes from sunlight. For the past century, we’ve used mainly fossil fuels — coal, oil, gas — which are, in effect, frozen sunlight, sunlight that was initially captured by plants and animals and compressed into hydrocarbons over aeons of time. But we’ve used most of the readily-accessible fossil fuel deposits, and we’re wrecking the atmosphere by burning them.

All right: instead of using ancient sunlight, let’s harness today’s sunlight, which comes both directly and also in the form of moving air and water — wind, tide and wave. Capture it with windmills, photovoltaic panels, tidal turbines. Non-polluting, powerful and free. Great.

Well, yes, this is the future. But what happens when the air is still, the tide is slack, the sun is hidden — and everyone is still using their lights and appliances? There are only two solutions: find a way to store energy and release it when needed, or retain some form of back-up power generation.

We don’t yet have a way of storing power on a large scale. We have lots of ideas — fuel cells, molten salts and so forth — but they’re not here yet. In Cape Breton, Luciano Lisi proposes to use wind power to pump water up into a dammed valley, and then generate electricity as it flows back down. That’s “pumped storage,” and it works fine in Wales. But the Mi’kmaq are not happy about flooding the valley, and the scale is still pretty small.

The result of the storage conundrum is that in Europe, where wind and solar power are much farther along than here, the old generating stations are still operating. Renewables are wonderful — but without storage they only supplement fossil fuels.

That’s why the renowed scientist James Lovelock strongly supports nuclear energy. Its potential for damage, he argues, is hugely over-rated — and fossil fuel effluents in the atmosphere are far more lethal than any risk from nuclear power. If he could replace all the coal and oil generating plants with nuclear ones, he’d do it instantly.

The thought makes me gag — but in fairness, my opposition to nuclear power is 30 years old, and the industry’s safety record over the intervening decades has been much better than I expected. And, as Lovelock says, if renewables can’t provide a huge and constant supply of energy — and do it right now — and if you’re going to sustain an energy-intensive civilization like ours, what choices do you have?

I would never bet against Jim Lovelock — but I would argue that the first things to do are the obvious things. The energy choice that has no downside, and that can be implemented immediately, is simply to use much less energy. We haven’t begun to get serious about that.

Consider electricity. It ‘s possible to power your life entirely with renewables — but not in an energy-hogging house. Cruising sailboats manage very well with wind generators, solar panels and husky batteries, and some people contrive to live that way ashore. In New Mexico, architect Michael Reynolds builds “Earthships,” innovative homes that need almost no power.

The key is reducing demand. But we have no incentive to conserve, because electricity pricing is upside down. The first kilowatts you buy are the most expensive, and the unit price drops as your usage increases. That’s nutty. The first kilowatts should be cheap, to ensure that everyone can afford the electrical basics, but energy gluttons should pay more and more. Penalize wastefulness, not thrift.

A similar policy would hike taxes on gasoline while investing heavily in cheap and efficient public transit. We could boost the price of heating oil, and subsidize the cost of such alternatives as passive solar and geothermal systems — and insulation, as we do right now.

If we want a habitable planet, and we don’t want to be forced into nuclear power, our first priority should be to get our demand back down. We can still live very well. We weren’t exactly living in caves in the 1950s, but our energy use then was just one-third of what it is now. Our real problem isn’t power generation. Our problem is vision and will.

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The Nobel Prize of Sailing

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

January 31, 2010

by Silver Donald Cameron

“Annie,” said Marjorie, “do you think hollyhocks would do well over there by the fence?”

Annie Hill laughed aloud.

“Marjorie,”she said, “I wouldn’t know. I haven’t had a home ashore since I was 19 years old.”

It’s true. At 20, Annie and her first husband, Pete Hill, sailed from England to the Caribbean and back on a 28-foot engineless catamaran. Back in England, they built Badger, a 34-foot junk-rigged schooner.In Badger they roamed the world — Brazil, Scandinavia, Greenland, Scotland, Africa, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Falklands, the Antarctic.

Living at sea, Annie Hill developed a philosophy.What do you really want from life? Decide that, and go for it and don’t be deflected by the economic and social noise around you. Annie is the consummate anti-consumer, a subversive philosopher, a living example of the rich and free lifestyle that’s available to anyone who understands the value of focus and discipline.

Radical simplicity is at the heart of Annie’s justly-famous book, Voyaging on a Small Income (1993). You can cruise full-time — or write, or pray, or paint, or back-pack — by saving and investing relentlessly. You can accumulate a pool of capital just large enough to yield a tiny investment income. Living carefully on their boat, with no house, car or utilities, the Hills slipped along for years on 15 pounds sterling weekly, well under $50 Canadian. As they continued to earn and invest, their income slowly grew. They achieved, in every sense, an almost fully-sustainable life.

Their philosophy was shared by an angular, bearded man from Western Australia who had built a 35-foot steel cutter named Iron Bark II in Queensland. Trevor Robertson is a geologist whose expertise is highly prized by oil companies operating offshore rigs. Living aboard, he worked a few weeks annually in places like the North Sea and Siberia, and spent the rest of the year voyaging to destinations like Antarctica, where he once spent an entire winter alone in his boat, frozen into the ice.

When he met Annie and Pete, he recognized in Annie the salt-water woman he had dreamed about. When the Hills separated, they were in South Africa, and Trevor was in Trinidad. He instantly flew to South Africa to pay vigorous suit to Annie.

She was not ready to marry, but she was willing to sail. She flew back with him, and in 2002 they sailed Iron Bark from the Caribbean north to Labrador. We met them that fall, just before they moved Iron Bark to Baddeck for the winter. Annie lived aboard, Trevor laboured abroad, and the following spring they were married at the Cape Breton Boatyard in Baddeck.

By now Annie had sailed across the Atlantic 16 times. Since she had things to attend to back in England, the two sailed again to England, then south to the Canary Islands, and back across to Trinidad for the winter. In the spring they returned to Cape Breton, stowed some gear in our shed, loaded the boat with provisions and sailed to Greenland, where they spent the winter aboard, frozen into the Arctic ice, their only company a curious Arctic fox.

Their many Nova Scotian friends saw them again for a few months after the Greenland adventure, and then they made sail for Trinidad, Panama, Tasmania, Australia and New Zealand. And there they may well remain. Annie wants to stop for a while, to see the same friends regularly, to end the constant process of saying good-bye which is the saddest part of cruising. Trevor, the only person in history to have over-wintered in the same boat in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, is still restless, and recently sailed alone to Patagonia. This time, Annie will fly out to join him. You can follow their adventures on her blog:

Trevor has now covered more than 140,000 miles under sail, and Annie more than 165,000 — and in March, in New York, they will receive the highest accolade in the sailing world, the Blue Water Medal of the Cruising Club of America. This is the Nobel Prize of sailing, awarded only to the greatest of small boat voyagers. The faint sound of applause carried on the north wind is coming from Nova Scotia, where Annie and Trevor will always be part of the family.

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