Ways the Modern World Is Not Like You Think It Is

November 24, 2011 by

We imagine we are cataloging and compiling our lives in this digital age as never before…

…but the reality is our records are ephemeral. When the school system upgrades their records to a new software system, will they allocate the funds to convert 25 year old records to the new format? When Patch, the replacement for your local newspaper, does the same or simply goes belly up, what will happen to the picture of your child’s championship swim meet? And when you die, will your children have the password to your email account? And will that one be the same one you used while wooing your spouse? And given that unliklihood, will they have the patience to sift through tens of thousands of notes and FYI’s and grocery lists to find the one special email where you declared your love?

So we are returning to the pre-literate days. The only records we leave behind will be a few official ones.

Taking Flight

November 19, 2011 by

So I lift off in an incredibly strong aluminum tube, stretching east out of Singapore and banking so steeply I can peer into the islands visited by a thousand wooden ships a half dozen lifetimes ago. A single light shines through the dusk, and that bright enough to pierce the thin strip of cloud stitching across a hundred beaches. What is that beacon?

The Party of Nothing

November 19, 2011 by

There is an article in the New York Times that really crystalizes where the Democratic party is today, and by default, what the Republican party has become. The Democrats, however flawed, offer the only home for those people who want to do something. The Republicans have become the party of nothing. I am a “on the one hand, and on the other” kind of guy by nature, so this lop sided and harsh judgement does not come naturally to me.

The Times article describes the hard work done by the Democrats in Massachusetts to understand and deal with the health care cost crisis in their state. It is a multi year effort, and one that the party leaders are actually engaged in. Martha Coakely is quoted on just one small but crucial issue: is there a justification for reimbursing the prestige hospitals and physicians at the higher rates they currently demand. She checks off a number of reasons this might be justified but then refers to research to show that these reasons are not borne out by the facts. I know something about how this works and it takes a number of iterations to nail these things down. You do a study. Possible flaws are raised. You revisit the data or do another study. Repeat until it is nailed. This is hard work.

So, honestly, can you imagine this type of effort coming from a collection of Republicans today? No chance. Republicans are punished by their base for even entertaining complexity. They are defined by what they are against, and justify their lack of accomplishments by disparaging those as fools who think progress is possible.

Issues are complex and their landscape is strewn with facts of various shapes, sizes and worth. If you are the type of person who looks at that confusing jumble and starts to plan how to evaluate each piece and plan how to build something solid and useful with the best of them then your only recourse today is to join with the Democrats, whatever their flaws. On the other hand, if you are the type of person who has no interest in those pieces except to judge which has the best heft and sharpest edges for throwing at your enemies, whether they be gold or copralytes, then you are today’s Republican.

Shanghai Surprises

September 3, 2011 by

So one of my big surprises here in Shanghai has been the availability of really great bread. Crusty loaves of all shapes and sizes are available in virtually every neighborhood


June 18, 2011 by

It is odd to me that so many religious people believe that being more religious means being more moral. This seems to me to fly in the face of everyday experience. In the people I have met there seems to be no real correlation at all. I have met religious people of all varying shades of morality and intensity of religious belief, the two characteristics mixed and balanced together in every combination, as if people’s characters were created by pulling random allotments from first the bag of morality and next the bag of religiosity.

Some may say that those who are immoral aren’t truly religious, but to me that simply proves that the two aren’t connected. For if someone who believes fiercely in their god, goes to church every day, and prays hourly, and repents of their recognized sins (but is blind to the recognition of so many others) is somehow not religious just because they are mean spirited or hurtful or dishonest or cruel, then it just means “religion” has been defined as “morality”. The pieces that have to do with religion are given short shrift here and the morality is elevated.

Some have also argued that without religion, there can be no morality, but this is visibly false, since religion seems to do nothing to define a true morality. Christian Serbs and Saudi Arabs of intense religious belief have both embraced murder and cruelty to innocents as the ultimate expression of their faith, while just next door their co-religionist may completely abhor the very idea. Some text of this or that religion might have something to say on morality but these words can be interpreted by a thousand readers in two thousand ways. And contra-wise, in my own experience I have met many with little or no faith that are profoundly moral, and who push themselves daily to do right and reject wrong.

2011 Running season starts

March 21, 2011 by

So I went for my first race of the season and I gotta say, I was pretty happy with my effort. This speaks less to my ability then to the benefit of racing against low expectations. All winter long I’ve been distressing over my general out-of-shape-ness and pillow like physique. With 50 days in China since October the hotel fitness cub has been my only respite from absolute sloth. So I was dreading this five miler, thinking I would end up walking. But some hasty training runs (including a 5K with my daughter a couple of one milers with my son) gave me the little edge that I needed and I finished at 52:43, with a little extra help from the CBC Radio 3 podcast and a decent last mile kick. Would I normally be pleased with 10:35 minute miles? No way. But those low expectations lifted me up until I felt like a champ.

Diet, Willpower and Ulcers

October 29, 2010 by

This recent post on Kevin Drum’s blog motivated me to put some thoughts down on the obesity epidemic. I work with people who study obesity and type 2 diabetes for a living. And there is nothing, and I mean nothing, simple about this. Some people’s metabolism, cravings and consumption are in harmony and they maintain a steady weight. Others are out of balance and these three things work in concert to provide a steady weight gain. The percentage of people who fall into this second category increases every year.

Some people think it is simply increased access to food, less exercise, etc but there have been demographic groups who had abundant access to food and were quite sedentary (think royalty and their courts) and the percentage of morbidly obese people in those groups were significantly lower. We simply don’t really know what is pulling our natural harmony out of balance. Could be psychological as so many think. Could be some new substance in our diet. Could be the lack of some substance we used to get. Could be that one or more of the components of our appetite regulatory system has been damaged or destroyed (what if a side effect of taking broad spectrum antibiotics is that it kills a bacteria that produces something vital for this chain – pure speculation there, but interesting). Some people think it is a symptom of an infectious disease and have some (not enough) evidence to back that up. And lest you dismiss that last one, remember that forty years ago the incidence of stomach ulcers were increasing every year and it was blamed on psychology, our modern lifestyle, stress, the foods we were eating. Everyone knew this, it was simple. And then it was discovered that better than 90% of such ulcers were caused by a bacterial infection and cured with a round of antibiotics. Today the epidemic of ulcers is a distant memory.

Curse you Grant Lawrence!

October 23, 2010 by

So I’m in Shanghai at the beautiful JW Marriott, 53 stories up in the clouds, looking out at torrential rain left over from a typoon that smacked Taiwan pretty bad and I think to myself, ‘I should work out’, so I change into my still damp workout clothes and head down to the fitness room, and start up the old iPod and click on my normal workout companion, CBC Radio 3. I settle into the rowing machine, 20 minutes, 2:30 pace, no problem. But it’s the 2010 Polaris Music Prize broadcast and this year it’s really good, so I’m getting into it. 15 minutes later I realize sweat is running into my eyes, I’m huffing and puffing, and I’m doing a 2:08 pace. ‘Slow down’ I tell myself and I do but it doesn’t stick. 2:30, 2:20, 2:10 and all because Broken Social Scene, The Sadies and Radio, Radio ( gotta love the way they say that ) are driving me on. So why am I cursing Grant Lawrence? Because as I write this my back is killing me. Rowing is really the full body workout, even on a rowing machine, including something like a power sit-up. You do a power sit-up for twenty minutes and see what your back says to you five hours later.

OK. Maybe it’s not Grant’s fault. Curse you Canadien Independent Music!

Shanghai Impressions

October 17, 2010 by

I’m in Shanghai for a few weeks and first, giant, takeaway: China is not up and coming. China is here. Massive infrastructure, very modern city. Great roads. This is the Chinese equivalent of Chicago: city of broad shoulders and tall buildings. Except with well paved streets. Wide streets. Perfectly paved. Imagine if Manhattan had tall buildings from Downtown to Midtown to Uptown. And that it was as wide as it was long. There are literally thousands of buildings 35 stories or taller here. Three years ago there was 2000 of them, lord only knows how many today. When someone is building, say a 40-50 story residential building here, they build 10-20 of them at a time, so as to make efficient use of the specialized machinery and the builders. I’ve seen a half dozen such complexes around the city under construction right now, with a bamboo scaffolding infrastructure feathering their sides. And lest you think bamboo means primitive, we’re talking 15-20 stories at a time. Try doing that with steel. I wonder if this isn’t like NYC or Chicago during the real boom years, when labor was cheap and the sky was literally the limit.

In another city, Shenyang, I really noticed the old versus the new. The old were rectangular blocks outfitted with flashing lights, reminding me of a 1990’s era Japanese stereo system. But in Shanghai there are serious architectural efforts. Just like any other city, they range from the ridiculous to the sublime. And, just like any other city, I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone agrees with my statement but picks different buildings to fall into the “ridiculous” and “sublime” categories. There is the Atlanta “buildings with things on top” brigade, and the “simple but elegant” contingent. The Shanghai World Financial Center at 101 stories, has the world’s tallest observation deck (Chicago natives: the Willis (Sears) tower is shorter but has 108 floors – its antenna does not count). It is a striking-but-not-ridiculous building that would hold pride of place in any city in the US. The building I’m staying in, the JW Marriott, is a d**med fine building, boasting the highest library in the world. And that describes the hotel exactly (occupying the 33-59th floors): the highest part is a wonderful, well lit library with comfortable chairs, rather than a trendy bar.

The End of Lost

May 27, 2010 by

The last episode of Lost seems to have generated two camps of fans: those that “got” it and loved it, and those who felt there were too many holes, got confused, and were left with a big “What the F?”. Since I fall into the first category, I’ll try to outline what I think happened.

First, forget the whole Flash Sideways (the LA part of the sixth season where Ben is a schoolteacher, Desmond works for Widmore, etc). It turns out this had nothing to do with Jughead, nothing to do with the cave, nothing to do with any of that, except in the most incidental ways. All that setting off Jughead did was return the Lostaways stuck in the ’70s to 2007. It didn’t do anything else, except indirectly cause the deaths of Phil, some other randos and Juliet. And by the way, when Juliet, as she died in Sawyers arms, said “It worked”, she didn’t mean Jughead. But I’ll get to that.

So what happens in the sixth season? A lot of our characters die, Hurley becomes Jacob/Jack, Ben becomes his number two, and Jack, dying, sees the Ajira plane fly overhead and realizes he did get at least a few people off the island. Kate, Sawyer, Claire, Lapides, Miles, and Alpert are in that plane and we have good reason to believe they made it back to the mainland, but I’ll get to that later. That’s it, that’s the story of Oceanic 815 and the Island and how our characters met their respective fates. The End.

So what was the flash sideways? That was a different story. We’ve always seen that the Lost saga had religious overtones and this flash sideways was thoroughly religious. It was about the afterlife, about a place you have to pass through before you move on, a place where you work out whatever issues you have left so you can leave all your baggage behind. It’s a place where you appear as you were at the most crucial moment of your life, regardless of how long you lived afterward. It’s also a place that is eternally ‘now’, one where there is only a single day happening all the time. So Desmond finds Widmore is having a party, and Locke loses a job and gets a job and becomes friends with Ben and gets hit by a crazy man and is operated and saved by Jack and then goes back to teaching then has another operation by Jack and is cured and is able to walk and leaves the hospital and it is still the day of that party.

In the flash sideways, we see each of our characters working out their issues. Hurley had some issues with his mother, with women in general, and with luck. Kate is on the run, and on the run, and on the run again. Ben has issues with Alex, and Rousseau, and with power and manipulation. Sayid has issues with Nadia and whether he was meant to be with her, and whether he can stop killing. Claire has issues with whether she should have given up Aaron, Sawyer has issues with turning out good or bad, and whether his life should be consumed by revenge. Desmond had issues of self worth and the contempt of Widmore. Locke had his father, his love for Helen, his need to be in the wheelchair. And Jack, well, Jack had father issues, and the need to fix things, and his messed up marriage.

And here in this ‘now’ they saw each other as they were at ‘the most important time of their lives’, and helped each other nudge past the last of these issues and move on.

And what did Juliet mean when she said “it worked”? Well, it seems that being near death gives you a glimpse into the next life, and Juliet must have seen her and Sawyer at the moment they realized they were ready to move on, that moment at the candy machine when she showed him how to get it out, and when he did, she said that exact thing: “It worked”.

And why should we think the Ajira plane made it back to the mainland.  Because Kate, when she had realized she was in the in-between place, and Jack was just getting it, said “I missed you so much”, which seems to mean she lived a good long while after Jack had died.