Friday, December 28, 2007

"Go" - contemplating the oriental mind through a board game

I'm not usually impressed by the effect of TV on children. But here's an example of something really exceptional. Consider Japanese comic books, they are called "manga" and sometimes they are made into Japanese TV animation, called "anime".

The manga and anime titled "Hikaru no Go" became so popular amongst Japanese youth that it singlehandedly reversed the decline of the oriental board game called "Go" in Japan.

The Japanese, who dominated the game for more than a thousand years, had been eclipsed by the South Koreans by the end of the Twentieth Century. By the 1990's go had become an old man's game in Japan. But the story "Hikaru no Go" which came out in manga and anime in 1998 changed all that. Suddenly tens of thousands of Japanese children wanted to learn how to play this old person's game. And once the anime series was shown in other countries it popularized go around the world.

" Hikaru no Go" is about two boys. One is the son of a professional go player. The other is a boy who is possessed by the spirit of a medieval go player. You laugh, but this TV series changed the course of Japanese culture.

It must have touched a nerve in Japan, a country that valued its past but was quickly discarding it at the same time. There is something about the game of go that deeply reflects the oriental mind.

Go is said to have originated in China, where it is called "Wei Chi", about four thousand years ago. A bit more than one thousand years ago it was introduced to Japan where it caught on very quickly.

The western game of chess is the other great game of skill. Even though chess originated in Aisia, it's character now reflects the western outlook. A game of chess represents a single battle, an all or nothing struggle to capture your opponent's King.

There are many battles in a single game of go, some of them going on simultaneously. The object of go is for each player to capture as much territory as he can.

In chess there are many different pieces, each with different functions and properties, with all of the pieces already set on the board at the beginning of the game.

Go is maddeningly simple. It starts with an empty board. Very "Zen". Go pieces are called stones and they are all identical except one player uses black stones and the other uses white stones. Once a stone is placed on the board it stays there and doesn't move unless it's captured.

What makes a go game so intricate and even more complex than chess is the go board. In go the stones are put down on the intersections whereas chess pieces occupy the squares. The chess board has 64 squares but the go board consists of a grid of nineteen by nineteen lines that forms a total of 369 intersections. That makes for many more possible moves than in chess.

A computer has defeated a chess grandmaster but no computer has come close to matching the skills of a professional go player.

The best go players play with an economy of effort. Each move they make does many things at once: extending territory, defending one's stones from capture, capturing the opponent's stones, etc. Certain well placed moves will have more effect in the latter part of the game than when they are first played.

I first learned to play go in my grade eight science club. I've played off and on, but basically neglected it. But all that changed after I watched a dozen or so episodes of "Hikaru no Go".

You can play go on the internet, but it's more fun to play an opponent face to face, snapping the pieces onto the board, rather than having the computer do the work for you.

There is a go club in town. One of the great things about go, which is not true of chess, is that players of unequal strengths can play as near equals by giving the weaker player extra handicap stones. Games are played at the Prince Rupert Public Library almost every week. If you already play go, or would like to learn please come by. For more information you can call me at 622-2716 or email

Monday, December 17, 2007

Wolves? Oh Deer!

The problem in Prince Rupert is that is that we've let the deer take over here. They're feeding off our gardens but because we don't hunt them there is a predator vacuum and that's what's drawn in the wolves.

We don't have a wolf problem on Kaien Island, we have a deer problem. There has to be a balance in nature between predator and prey, otherwise things get out of kilter. Without predators the population of deer rises until it becomes unsustainable, stripping the forest of undergrowth and leading to a population crash from starvation and disease.

I'm not a hunter, but I've been thinking about this problem for years. I'm a gardener of sorts and I've had deer eat my young raspberries and blackberry plants, strip the leaves off my four year old pear tree, and strip the bark off one of my apple trees.

For years I've had revenge fantasies. For instance: What if we sent all the women and children off the Island and all the menfolk make a sweep from one end of town to the other to flush all those varmints out and shoot them? I like the idea but I hazard a guess that it would not be a very popular idea. Besides, there's municipal rules about discharging firearms in Prince Rupert.

Still, the thought of so many gardens being eaten up by the deer and so many deep freezers begging for venison gets to me. Besides, if we don't allow any hunting on Kaien Island, the wolves get the wrong idea. These wolves need to know who's the top predator around here, otherwise they get too cocky and start hanging around where they don't belong.

I've heard of one person, there may be more, who catches his deer in his yard at night, using a flashlight and a hammer. This is illegal by the way - it's not real hunting. But in my opinion, more power to this guy.

In BC hunting any closer than 100 metres from an occupied residence or building is illegal, but that still leaves the greater part of this Island. The municipal bylaw makes it illegal to discharge a weapon but as Jeff Beckwith pointed out in a recent letter to the editor, that could be amended to exclude the discharging of a bow.

Why not allow bow-hunting in areas outside of town? Bow hunting is safer for bystanders than firearms because it is only effective within 30 metres of a deer. A hunter with a shotgun can kill a deer from a kilometre away so the potential for a hunter to not recognize human bystanders is greater. Plus bow-hunting is more difficult than hunting with a shotgun because you have to get a lot closer to the deer, so the deer have a better chance too.

We've got a local source of meat. Why can't we make use of it in a safe way instead of letting the wolves take over.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Climbing out of the Trash Vortex

A lot of my own motivation for recycling comes from guilt. (Catholics do not have a monopoly on guilt, that's for sure.) It really bothers me that my household produces so much garbage. Anything that I can recycle I hold back in various overflowing bins and containers. And sometimes these piles of recyclables hang around for a long time before I get around to bringing them out to the recycling depot.

I notice that there is a new local recycling service in town called "eco-management". They will pick up two clear plastic garbage bags full of recyclables per resident every other Saturday for 16 bucks a month. So, for all you other guilt ridden people out there who, like me, are procrastinators, I recommend this service. People out there who don't recycle because it is inconvenient, now's you're chance.

My wife pointed out to me that where she was living, in Sitka, Alaska, the city charged resident's less if they put out less garbage. Now there's an idea - the city could provide incentives like this for people to recycle. Because if more people in Prince Rupert recycle, the landfill will take longer to fill up and the city would save money.

But there are more important reasons to recycle. The amount of garbage we produce is directly proportional to our patterns of consumption. For years our rate of consumption has been increasing without limit. The vast majority of raw materials that go into manufactured goods are discarded. Much of what we consume is thrown away within a short time. Then there is all the plastic packaging.

In the North Pacific Ocean there is a great clockwise gyre formed by four ocean currents. This gyre forms an area of ten million square miles. In the middle of this circulating ocean is a huge floating cloud of garbage called the Pacific Trash Vortex. The center of the gyre is an attractor of garbage because it is relatively stationary but the prevailing winds all blow into it. Most of the garbage is plastic because plastic does not biodegrade and it is light enough to float. Instead, plastic photodegrades. Ultraviolet light from the sun slowly breaks the plastic down into smaller and smaller pieces. These pieces of plastic get mistaken for food and end up in the stomachs of sea birds and other marine creatures. Nice. If we don't get them with crude oil spills there's always the products that we manufacture out of the oil to finish them off.

Here on land, a lot of discarded electronic products or "e-garbage" contain toxic heavy metals like lead and cadmium. Each TV contains several pounds worth of lead and lesser amounts of other toxic metals In two years the United States Federal Communications Commission will have mandated a massive shift from analogue TV's to high definition digital TV. This means that up to 300 million analogue TV sets are going to end up in garbage dumps, all at the same time. What a toxic metal nightmare that will be. And for what? So that everyone can see more detail on their television screens. Apparently, this is the result of lobbying from the electronic manufacturers. Can you say, "planned obsolesence"? It's the same with all the cell phones and computers that are obsolete within a couple of years after purchase.

In Prince Rupert CityWest's cable service is going digital in January. What does that mean in terms of the number of TV's that will end up in our landfill? Here's an area where the city could be proactive and organize some sort of e-recycling so that the landfill doesn't get swamped with old TV's. Our garbage is threatening our health and the health of future generations.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Market Prices Should Tell the Truth

Market prices should tell the ecological truth. When prices “lie” about nature they lead us to devalue and destroy the environment, which ultimately supports our existence. Market prices “lie” when they don't take into account the costs of pollution and resource extraction. More than a trillion dollars is spent globally every year on activities that harm the environment. The amount spent on protecting the environment is a ridiculously small fraction of this.

Every time a country sells or leases the right to clear-cut forests at bargain prices it is encouraging environmental destruction. Every time a country subsidizes the extraction and production of fossil fuels with tax write-offs it is encouraging runaway global warming. As it stands, tax policy and economic subsidies are overwhelmingly tilted toward the liquidation of resources and increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Last January President Bush said: "We'll leave it to the market to decide the mix of fuels...” Bush likes to tout the free market and future technological breakthroughs as the solution to environmental problems. But both of these “solutions” don't exist in reality. The free market has never existed because every known economic system is guided by government tax and spending policy. Every legal system of property rights favours certain uses of capital over others.

And future technological breakthroughs don't exist here and now where it really counts. There are existing technologies that could significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions and lower the liquidation of resources compared to what we are doing now: railroads, bicycles, clean alternative energies like solar, geothermal and wind power; better insulation, increasing energy efficiency... the list is a long one. Sure, there could be new technologies out there, but there is no guarantee that any new technology will pollute less or have less environmental consequences than what we already have.

Waiting for the “Free Market” or technological breakthroughs to solve our problems is a mug's game. It's really about delaying significant change. It's really about pleasing the fossil fuel corporations . It's really about keeping the status quo, because a certain class of people benefit from things the way they are.

Last week the Australian electorate kicked Prime Minister John Howard out of government. Like Bush he was a global warming denier, and a delayer of action on climate change. But the negative effects of global warming: extreme droughts and more destructive tropical storms, had become too difficult to ignore for most Australians so they gave him the heave ho. The new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, plans to be more proactive on climate change.

Clean air, water, and earth are common property because they benefit everyone. When corporations pollute or take the tops of mountains without having to pay compensation they have an incentive to keep destroying public property.

We could shift our tax system to make polluters pay the real cost of pollution and resource extractors pay the real cost of the resource. Taxes on pollution and carbon emissions could be increased while income taxes could be reduced. This would see the cost of so-called “cheap energy” like coal increase in relation to clean energy. This would make alternative energies more competitive and encourage more investment in that sector of the economy, while discouraging dirty energies like coal and tar sands. And the decrease in income tax could free up human ingenuity to solve our greatest problems.

Future generations have no say in the way we are running our economies and liquidating natural resources, because those who are young or not yet born have no money and no votes. But they will be the ones most affected by the legacy that we leave behind. If we “let the market decide”, without changing the taxes and incentives that we now have in place, then nothing that the market does will alter the course toward our own extinction.