The Sky is Falling (Very Slowly), or, Will The Real Science Please Stand Up

The problem with having a belief in something which happens to be provocative (and by provocative, I mean something which is not embraced by the whole and which may be a bit thorny for some) is that, like in most aspects of life, all it takes is a few zealots to make you look like a fool by ideological proximity.

As I pointed out many moons ago (December of 2006!) when it comes to climate change (as opposed to the slightly misleading term global warming), outside of blind ignorance our greatest liability are people who jab an accusatory finger at every natural disaster and scream “You see! It’s global warming! Climate change caused this! If we don’t do something NOW we are doomed as a species!”. For me, it started with Hurricane Katrina, when people (a fantastic percentage of whom had no scientific accreditation) began to suggest that it simply wasn’t an old-school “act of nature”, but rather something to be blamed upon worldwide environmental collapse (as if New Orleans didn’t have enough problems to contend with). It fed into a grand conspiracy theory which gave certain people a quixotic reason to exist: that mankind was the chief culprit all along, and that it was only a question of years to fix it. Cue epilogue of Planet Of The Apes.

On the other (self-evident to the point where I wonder whether it’s worth mentioning) end of the spectrum are the usual assortment of deep-pocketed corporate “carbon monoxide is good for you” state polluters, and knee-jerk libertarian radio hosts who feel that idling their cars is akin to patriotism (and, as an aside, the whole libertarian-patriot thing seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?).

The thing is this, panic aside: I do believe in climate change. All that shit turning to water north of us (that would be the Arctic ice) is a sign. Much less lachrymose is all that science, provided by all those scientists, which pretty much confirms that, yes, climate change is real, and that, yes, human industry is a variable in its occurrence. The issue of how the future is looking as a result of climate change is less clear. The problem is this: remember those largely non-scientific people blaming Hurricane Katrina on climate change? The ones telling us that if we don’t do something NOW then the world’s a goner? They got a lot of attention; the cameras kept rolling. This was probably just a knee-jerk reaction of mass media which was (and is) delighted to scare the public any chance they get (it keeps ratings up). Well guess what: some scientists found that if they used the same sort of seismic analogies and kept the ticking clock of doom just a few minutes away, not only would they get attention, but they could get funding.

Inevitably, it had to end – the speculative bubble that is. You can only say that we have five more years to change the world for five years until people start asking why societies haven’t collapsed like the finale of an Irwin Allen movie. And then someone or some group hacked into the records of some climate scientists and found that some of them were acting like jerks, that some of them didn’t want to play nice with their facts (unlike all those journalists and columnists we read). To me, this was heart-breaking, because it allowed both honest sceptics and partisan political hacks alike to pull a j’accuse and call it Climategate (seriously, I look forward to a world without the silly and dated gate suffix) and call the science itself into question, as opposed to the questionable actions of a few. Some have hinted that the bad publicity fall-out could set climate science back by a decade if increased public persecution gets worse. However, I feel this is as likely as, well, the world ending in five years.

The good news is that the world hasn’t ended; neither our world, nor the world of science. If anything, reading today’s op-ed by Margaret Wente in the G&M, even people who previously took every opportunity to deny the existence of climate change are now looking at things plainly: no pro trumped-up worries about imminent global catastrophe, and no con lefty/green/hippy bullshit stereotypes. If anything, perhaps bringing those few scientists into the spotlight has, post whatever-gate, calmed everyone down a notch. Perhaps enough so that we will be able to parse our language into something which does not use fear as a means of persuasion. Perhaps so that we won’t dilute the meaning of words like green and sustainable to homeopathic degrees.

I believe (or at least I hope) we can find an entry-point where we can use science and research rather than propaganda and fear to motivate ourselves to improve our prospects (that is, both human prospects and business prospects, two things which have not always shared mutually fulfilling goals). It is heartening to see that there may be an X-Prize for fuel/energy production, similar to what was done for sub-orbital exploration. I’d also like it if we could reboot the message of environmentalism with a good ‘ol back-to-basics mantra of: use less (as in packaging, unnecessary products, natural resources). I will be happy, even if it is all a hopelessly lost cause, that we go down working on something together as opposed to a Purgatory of scoring political points against ourselves.

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The Dark Side

I was flipping through the NYT last Sunday and came across a short collection of riffs from filmmakers about their favourite “Holiday Movies”. The following, submitted by screenwriter David Benioff, was regarding Planes Trains and Automobiles by the late John Hughes:

Hughes once wrote: “I understood that the dark side of my middle-class, middle-American suburban life was not drugs, paganism or perversion. It was disappointment. There were no gnawing insects beneath the grass. Only dirt. I also knew that trapped inside every defeat is a small victory, and inside that small victory is the Great Defeat.”


I immediately caught the reference Benioff (via Hughes) was making and it struck a chord. You see, when we (in filmic terms) discuss the “dark side” of the middle-class in America, who else is this synonymous with? Correct: David Lynch. And was it not Lynch’s seminal dark-side-of-middle-class-America, Blue Velvet, which features – literally – gnawing insects beneath the grass at the beginning? Oh, and the drugs and sexual perversion? Still don’t believe me? Try this: Blue Velvet came out in ’86. Planes Trains and Automobiles? That was 1987.

When I read Hughes’ quote, I knew he had more to say about it. I could tell that he thought Hughes’ film (and perspective on America) got short shrift.

In any case, what I’m saying is Hughes was picking on Lynch, perhaps more so picking on all of the cineastes and self-styled torch holders of American Surrealism. Look, he’s saying (or I’m paraphrasing), why does any intelligent discussion of the “dark side” have to fast-forward to the DevilWhy are we in such a rush to point to the murkiest common denominator?

I think Hughes’ perspective is more realistic. Perhaps even more frightening because it is anything but abstract. If there’s anything which immobilizes the positivism of American  can-do – an adult Boogeyman if you will – it is the spectre of defeat. It is, after all, failure. There is nothing which cuts to the heart of our civilized fears with more power than failure, pure and simple. We do not want it infecting us. We do not want it living beside us, dying slowly.

I like the drama (nee opera) of Lynch’s perspective. But it is only that: one perspective. I feel we cheat ourselves by claiming that one perspective as definitive before we’ve truly allowed ourselves to look at the whole landscape of the human psyche.

I also think John Hughes had a good soul.

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For *’s Sake

It’s been one of those battle-cries of mine the last while. Everything in the world, culturally-speaking (and I don’t necessarily mean high culture) seems to be evaporating into mindless bullshit.

The AV Club – a site I admittedly have a love/hate relationship with already – just posted an interview with actor Paul Giamatti. In the opening summary, the interviewer describes the plot of his latest film, which reads like a counterscript of 1999’s Being John Malkovich and yet there is no mention of this parallel anywhere in the article, something even Entertainment Tonight would do. The interviewer talks about this upcoming film with Giamatti as if it and his role – the John Malkovich role, if it were Being John Malkovich – were just soulless objects to be discussed out of necessity. In other words, it’s just like any other media-junket interview, like something you would read in InStyle or Chatelaine. Not that those examples are b-a-d, but when you pride yourself as better, especially savvy, tongue-in-cheek better, you shouldn’t even be in the same postal code as InStyle or Chatelaine if you want to retain your reputation.

The Motley Fool – again, a site previously known for being savvy, even though they deal with the stock market – now reads like Ain’t It Cool News, complete with arguments which, under rational analysis, seem completely idiotic and antithetical to what one would assume is their mission statement (ie. being different than the rest of those brain-dead-and-short-sighted Money sites).

Oh, and CNN. Not that they’ve ever been more relevant than a Reuters news ticker, but they’ve gone from mediocre to stupid by allowing one of their show hosts, Lou Dobbs, to continuously question the origin of Barack Obama’s citizenship, a paranoid suspicion virulent in the libertarian/right-wing fringe of the U.S. that has been repeatedly disproved (read: he doesn’t want Johnny Foreigner running and ruining the most-possibly-greatest-country-ever-in-the-world).

Now, one of the arguments I can imagine hearing is: well, Matt, in a 24-hour newsday (whether on TV or the Internet) when people expect constant information there inevitably has to be weaker material. To which I say: I understand, but I’d settle for less information over less hours (if need be), if it means the information will be consistent and better. After all, you are what you eat, and in this day and age we feed on media in an astonishingly unconscious and voracious manner.

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Miscellany: November 18, 2008

  • Ingrid is approaching world domination. Her plaudit-winning reinterpretation of the cover for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has not only received international online acclaim (Bookninja, The Guardian, Boston Globe), but her work was featured in Sunday’s New York (bloody) Times Book Review. Print and online editions (with the unfortunate misspelling of her last name in the print edition – needless to say this took a little of the shine off of the accolade. They will, however be printing a correction in an upcoming edition and the online version has her name spelled correctly).

  • I’ve sent the first revised draft of my novel to a few selected readers. Unofficially looking for feedback and consensus that what I’m doing is worthwhile. Nervous. Anxious. Perhaps as a result of this and other things, I’ve been struck by some interesting what-if’s regarding a new book idea. I must be a masochist. At least it doesn’t hurt.
  • I turned 38 on Saturday. I share that day with Ed Asner and Tilda Swinton (they were not in New York, unfortunately – I tried).
  • Two films I worked on opened within two weeks of each other. One is a franchise horror film (of the “moral error leads to violent suffering” kind) which traditionally draws massive audiences and box office gold (if not good reviews). The other is (wait for it) a gore-Goth rock opera which is only receiving an eight-theatre release (if not good reviews). They represent what I’ve been working on for the last twelve months. Working in film/TV is “what I do for money”, a distinction I wish I didn’t have to make, save for the fact that the quality stuff (often Canadian) doesn’t pay my rent. It’s a quandary punctuated by background horror-movie funhouse screams.
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And The Winner Is…

As previously noted, Ingrid and I submitted “re-branded” book covers to Bookninja for their contest. Guess what? Even with a handicap of -10 (she is, after all, a professional book designer), Ingrid took first place by popular vote! But wait, there’s more – a selection of the submissions are profiled in the (bloody) Guardian!

Congrats to her. As for my submissions, I placed somewhere in the honourable mentions, but sadly did not have any pieces profiled on the Guardian. I shall live vicariously through her success today.

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Art & Suicide

As reported in the news over the weekend, spilling into the papers this week, American novelist/essayist David Foster Wallace took his life. He had hung himself in his home, only to be discovered later by his wife.

To be honest, I’ve only read one piece by Wallace – an essay in an issue of Harper’s almost ten years ago on the release of the revised Oxford English Dictionary – and yet it left an indelible impression on me. It made me laugh out loud with its quirky honesty and his style was unique and strong; in short, it made me take notice of writing and writers at a time when it simply was not on my radar (for various reasons). I always swore I would read one of his books, but the prospects of picking up the one he is best known for, Infinite Jest, all 1,000 pages of it, was intimidating. It still is, but that has more to do with the fact that I’m in the middle (or, factually, just past the middle) of War & Peace with Joyce’s Ulysses staring at me from the bookshelf longingly.

Wallace’s suicide is the second in the last few years by an artist who’s work I’d kept an eye on. The first was that of American humorist and performer, Spalding Gray, who – it is assumed – leapt from a ferry into the Hudson River and drowned. I saw him at Massey Hall (one of the most venerable venues in Toronto) many years ago. As with Wallace’s essay, I remember crying with laughter during Gray’s droll monologue.

Which brings us to the question of artists and suicide.

Someone on Bookninja had this to say in reaction to the story:

In my work (psychiatry) I’ve seen so many creative people who are so tortured inside. I’ve often wondered if, given the choice, they’d choose peace over creativity. Maybe suicide is exercising that choice.

I thought about this. I wanted to respond, because I had something to say, but in the end I decided it would only be a tangent and while tangents are allowable in most online situations, an obituary is not exactly the place for one.

The answer is that artists do not want peace, or at least an artificial peace. To do so would be to abandon the tension which is inherent in art (and science, for that matter). In their art, over the course of their lives, artists attempt to resolve this tension; to articulate what it is that is at the centre of a storm which motivates them to create. The tension is the artist. Them against an outside world which does not work. Art becomes a philosophical expression of an existential dilemma. With this as the case, how many artists would willingly barter peace for creativity if such a trade were even possible? Not many, I would wager. What is peace when art allows you to reach higher than ever before, to touch the cookie jar of euphoria with your fingertips?

Like Wallace and Gray, I too suffer from depression. Their passing gives me pause, to put it lightly. Last night over dinner, Ingrid and I had a long talk about this – Wallace, Gray, art, and suicide – and she used a quote from Wallace that she’d read in one of the obituaries, that suicide happens very slowly. He is right. It is not, as commonly portrayed, an impulsive decision, but rather something which gestates very gradually within the mind of the sufferer. The danger is that this internalized dialogue, over the course of years, may eventually lead to the rationalization or acceptance of suicide as a logical option or self-fulfilling prophecy.

Art, however, is not depression, and depression should not be construed as something which only afflicts those in the arts. When you are depressed, anything can inflame the situation. Both the fire and the water used to douse it. It is for this reason that I take a moment to bring this up. So that people may understand what is, for lack of a better term, a mental illness. Allow me to suggest a wonderful series in the Globe and Mail, perhaps the best collection of stories and first-person recollections on the subject to be found in any newspaper.

I tip my hat to Wallace, to Gray. I mourn for the grief experienced by their loved ones.

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"Total" Oranje

I did promise this would not turn into a football blog during Euro ’08; with that in mind, I’ll make this passing note brief.

I cannot believe – I would never have believed prior to their first game – that Holland has not only won their first two games (vs. Italy and France, respectively) but that they would do so in a way that is making everyone, football fans or not, take note.

They haven’t played this well in 10 years. “Well” is probably not the best word to use. They are playing “total football”, a term coined in the early 70’s to describe a system developed by coach Rinus Michels and player Johan Cruijff in which teammates switch roles on the field: strikers become defenders, defenders become strikers, everyone becomes “aware” of space and time. What’s magical is that this philosophy transcends football and becomes a rather profound statement about the Dutch.

I’ll leave it at that. I encourage you to read one of two things, if you are interested in knowing more about this phenomena (now realised by their massive success in this tournament). The first is a concise article in the Globe and Mail, by John Doyle. He touches upon what I was saying in the above paragraph. If you really want to know more, I highly suggest you read a book called Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, by David Winner; the writer, an Englishman, describes how the evolution of Dutch football – in particular, the concept of “total football” – becomes an extension of the Netherlands’ egalitarian society. Fascinating stuff.

And, if you’re wondering why someone with the (particularly Irish) name Cahill is following Holland, it’s because my mother’s from Leiden. Ik kan spreken nederlands ook. Een beetje. And if Holland wins Euro ’08, there may be a tattoo in it for me (if I’m sufficiently drunk).

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Language and Meaning

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

I was reading the New York Times Sunday Magazine last weekend and caught this article, written by Michael Pollan, about the rise of agricultural diseases. In it, he begins with bemoaning the decreasing power of the word “sustainability”, seeing as it has been turned impotent; yet another zombiefied corporate catch-phrase designed to make what one does appear useful even when in practise the reality is much more ambiguous.

There is a biting summary of this phenomena in the second paragraph of Pollan’s article:

Confucius advised that if we hoped to repair what was wrong in the world, we had best start with the “rectification of the names.” The corruption of society begins with the failure to call things by their proper names, he maintained, and its renovation begins with the reattachment of words to real things and precise concepts. So what about this much-abused pair of names, sustainable and unsustainable?

I sat at the breakfast table, thinking about this paragraph. It stunned me, because my awareness of the philosophical questioning of language – its power to distort and clarify – didn’t extend as far as back in time as Confucius. To read it made me understand that this conflict – the fight to keep language from becoming a meaningless putty in the hands of technocrats – has been going on probably since the dawn of communication. It wasn’t until reading, of all people, Confucius – that old aphorism-spewing chestnut – speak about it that my understanding of the conflict was deepened.

The two writers who outlined this conflict most beautifully for me were Wittgenstein, quoted at the top (from his treatise, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) and John Ralston Saul, who rallied against the rise of technocrats most effectively in his books Voltaire’s Bastards, and The Unconscious Civilization. Each fulfilled a means of illuminating the power of language in a way that was neither impractically academic nor precious. Saul warns about how the images and words we share can be/have been actively distorted by those with corrupting self-interest. Wittgenstein’s very philosophy is about the parsing of truth and falsity (or senselessness, as he would put it) in how we use language to construct a world view.

With the discovery of Confucius’ addition to this subject, I now have more to research and reflect upon. I suppose I’m fascinated with this subject, and for reasons I don’t think are trivial. We are beset by corrupted means of communication every day: images that lie as well as they seduce, thoughts withheld from publication/broadcast because of vested interests. And yet, most importantly, I believe it’s also language that can save us – the very tools used to fool us can be used to liberate.

I suppose one of the first questions I have is whether there are more than a handful of people out there who give a shit, or whether this is a pursuit (non-Quixotic, I insist) only a begrudging elite will ever have interest in following. Sometimes I’m haunted by the words of writer William Sturgeon, who – when asked if it was true that he thought 90% of science fiction was crap – answered that, actually, 90% of everything is crap. What haunts me is how this somewhat off-the-cuff pronouncement translates into the percentage of everyday people who truly care enough about things like this. It’s important to me that people understand that the corruption of language (visual, textual, audible) is not simply an academic concern, and that it’s possible to put up an effective, civil defense against it.

Update: For more on Confucius and the “rectification of names”, please see this link for some context.

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Article: Regarding A New Humanism

I came across an extremely well-written essay on the Edge site today. Written by Salvador Pániker, Regarding A New Humanism contains exactly the right sort of balance of passion and intellect that I find missing in so many essays concerning the path “we” (read: society) should take. It is neither heavy-handed nor exclusionary. I’d take the time to summarize it, but look, it’s a short essay. If you can’t spare the time to read it for yourself without a synopsis, even though the title is pretty darn self-explanatory, then…well, that’s just too bad. And it’s Friday.

An excerpt:

Indeed, those who pit science against sacred texts or science against art do so in error. Respective boundaries of autonomy aside, everything forms a part of the same prodigious struggle. The pursuit of the real which, in a sense, is the also the pursuit of the absolute. The absolute that is intuited, though it remains inaccessible. A fusion of fields as was seen in the Renaissance is certainly no longer possible; the mountain of specialization has grown too high. However, one might demand that the different fields of knowledge communicate with one another and without undermining each other.

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