Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Machines Make Us Different.

What makes us different from everything else? Some say language, some say morality. Some say tool use. But these have predecessors in nature: birds and mammals exchange signals and information via cries and body language; chimpanzees and elephants exhibit empathy and altruism; chimpanzees use sticks as tools.

What’s new about humans is that they make machines. Although you could argue that beavers also make machines. The beaver dam is a system that runs on water and gravity. A kind of proto-machine.

Machines are a kind of tool that uses energy to perform a pre-designed activity. Machines are built, maintained and have evolved, with the care and guidance of human hands.

Simple tools like a hammer require the human body to apply the energy, but many machines run by themselves with the assistance of some power source. A machine like a computer, can execute a human command to fetch or manipulate information all on its own.

Machines are a wholly new phenomenon. They did not exist before humans existed. That’s why it is an error to conceptualize living things as machines, as was done by Descartes. Descartes was the first modern philosopher. He framed the famous body-mind dichotomy for the modern era.

Machines don’t have instincts. They require human purpose and guidance in order to survive over time. If you look around at nature, it does not require human purpose and guidance. It’s parts are self organized. The Earth does not require our help to orbit the Sun.

We call living things like cells and mitochondria - machines. We say, in a metaphorical fashion, that the mitochondria “is designed” to provide energy for the cell.

That’s our inner engineer talking. Once we started building machines they started to influence us and the way we looked at the world. We’re envious of the natural world where things work by themselves, independently of us.

It appears that the evolution of machines is going in the direction of greater autonomy. There are now robotic submarines and spaceships that can work on their own, separated by great depths and huge distances.

And this seeming trend towards machines gaining autonomy has actually spawned a a new religion out there, which has influenced the minds of Silicon Valley, with the awkward title: Singulatarianism. It’s main tenant appears to be straight out of the plot of “The Terminator” the 70’s science fiction movie. It’s actually based on the theories of a writer named Raymond Kurzweil. The idea is that when computers are all interconnected and reach a certain processing speed and degree of technological sophistication, they will combine into a globally conscious self (the singularity) which will be able to maintain itself and replicate without human intervention.

What makes this a religion, is the insistence that this is inevitable, and that it will lead to eternal life. (I won’t get into the specifics here, but you can check it out on Wikipedia.

Most Religions see God as creating nature, whereas Singulatarianism sees humans as creating God. Perhaps this is apt, coming from Silicon Valley. But is it really something to look forward to?

And does it not remind you of genetic engineering? Corporations are creating plants with characteristics designed for industrial purposes in order to improve on nature. And once these plants are created and shed their pollen, they are out there, able to replicate themselves and share their genes with natural varieties, because that’s what life does.

Machines and other human creations don’t have empathy or caring for others. That requires emotions and their coordination in human minds and bodies. Computers can replicate ideas but they can’t replicate emotions like love, desire, and happiness. We’ve forgotten that it takes both positive and negative emotions to make decisions, to understand the past and plan for the future, and to change our behaviour. That’s our responsibility as humans, something we can’t delegate to machines or market forces.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

As simple as boys versus girls

Is this the twilight of the patriarchy? Cracks have appeared in the edifice of the Catholic Church with its all-male hierarchy. It’s certainly not like the way things used to be, when women knew their place and didn’t step out of line.

That way of life is on the wane because women can now own property, they can earn money outside the home, they have legal rights, and they can vote. They can send their children to daycare and public schools. They can teach and write books, and they can call out men for their moral failings without fear of being beaten or killed.

Before modern society, women could not rise to fulfil their talents. They were forbidden to do many things. The Taliban, the modern Islamic Fundamentalist political movement in Pakistan and Afghanistan, specifically targeted women. They made a point of publicly executing women for being independent.

Christian Fundamentalists are not as crude as the Taliban but they can be just as afraid of women. Why do you think they are so dead set against birth control and abortion? Both are ways that women can use to raise smaller families or just focus on a career. They don’t want women to have those freedoms.

But there is a darker secret. There is a hidden relationship between patriarchy and sexual abuse and it has to do with a simple but unavoidable fact - the vast majority of sexual abusers of children are men.

It’s not hard to see why. Most women don’t have the powerful sexual drives that men have. And women make it their business to care for and about children, whereas most men are less involved in child care.

Men who like to abuse others can easily hide within the confines of a patriarchical system. Patriarchy is the original old-boys club. As men, we tend to forgive and make wide allowances for our shared shortcomings. “Boys will be boys.” If you have an organization where the hierarchy is exclusively male, it’s bound to be protective and secretive.

In a real old fashioned patriarchy, certain men have absolute power and women and children are not allowed to question their authority. This works very well for men who sexually abuse children, because they can effectively forbid their prey from telling others. In such a society a man’s word cancels out a woman’s or a child’s, so the man can get away with more.

Lately the Catholic Male Hierarchy has let the cat out of the bag. In a Vatican press conference last week, sexual predation and the ordination of women were both called “graviora delicta”, which means: a grave offense.

Most of us know of or have heard of female clergy. We might disagree and dislike them but we are not likely to hold them in the same contempt we hold a sexual predator. How could the consequences of a woman giving the sacraments be of the same gravity as a priest sexually abusing children? Only in the mind of someone so bound to the patriarchal system that he is deathly afraid of women’s sexuality.

How else to explain the disproportionate zeal with which the Church rejects the idea of the ordination of women, compared to their painfully slow and lacklustre campaign to stop priests from abusing children. In one case the Church bureaucracy is pulling out all the stops in order to prevent heterodoxy, and in the other, it has been using the full weight of its bureaucracy to stonewall police investigations into child abuse cases.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of these guys thought that ordaining women was worse than sexual predation. Sexual predation ruins some people’s lives, it turns even more people away from the church, but ordaining women strikes at the very heart of the system. It could mean the end of the Catholic Church as we know it.

There are plenty of women out there who would be willing to make up for the alarming shortage of male priests. But, by God! If women could be priests then they could exert authority over men. They could change doctrine. They could dismantle the hierarchy. That would mean the end of the old boys club wouldn’t it?

A patriarchal church hierarchy feels instinctively threatened by girls who want to take charge. Could be as simple as that.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What is the Earth?

I belong to a little-known organization called the metaphor police. Our job is to seek out inappropriate metaphors and stop them from further damaging the collective consciousness by exposing their inappropriateness in the light of day. It has fallen to me, then, to attack and destroy the metaphor of “spaceship earth” once and for all.

What is the Earth? The Earth is a planet, a self-organizing system that has evolved over the vast time period of four billion years. The earth is a planet in the solar system, a self-organizing system of the Sun and the nine or so planets in elliptical orbits around it.

Perhaps the universe as a whole was designed. Perhaps not. One can just as easily argue either way because there is no way of knowing what preceded it. But all matter organizes itself. It coalesces into atoms, and atoms into stars and planets by the force of gravity and by other fundamental forces of nature.

Anybody who calls the solar system a “machine” or a “mechanism” is making a fundamental error. All machines are made by human beings. Each machine is designed by someone to do a certain kind of work. A hammer is designed to hammer nails, and to pry out old nails. A bicycle is designed to carry a person from one place to another.

They are all designed to work for various human purposes. The solar system was not designed to be a solar system. It came into being because matter coalesced into bodies by the force of gravity, and these bodies then interacted with each other through the force of gravity. The planets orbit the sun because the sun happens to have a disproportionate amount of mass compared to the rest of the planets.

When we call a natural phenomenon like the solar system a machine we are anthropomorphizing. That is, we are taking what we know about ourselves and projecting it on to other things which were not made by us.

We look at the solar system and we realize that it serves a purpose for ourselves. It provides a source of energy and a stable livable environment for life on earth. Because it serves an important human purpose - making our continued survival possible - we can easily fall into the trap of perceiving the solar system as designed for our sakes. This is like a small child who believes that the world exists solely to further its own existence.

In order to understand how different phenomena work we have learned to analyze things according to scientific principles about the composition of matter and the forces that influence and interact between the component parts. We take these principles too far when we talk about the design or mechanism of natural entities.

When we say that the huge wings of an albatross are “designed” for long-distance flight we are speaking metaphorically. But it is sometimes not easy to realize this. The albatross's wings make long-distance flight possible, just as the wings on a jet plane make long-distance flight possible. But no-one designed an albatross. The albatross evolved over millions of years from previous kinds of birds. There was no conscious design involved. The principle involved is given the particular environment that these birds lived in - namely the open ocean, those birds with longer wing spans up to a certain limit, were more likely to survive and produce progeny than birds with shorter wings, and the progeny will have longer wings because they have inherited the DNA of their parents. This is Charles Darwin’s theory of the evolution of life by natural selection plus a bit of modern chemistry.

It is a mistake to call natural selection a “mechanism” although lots of biologists do so. Natural selection is a form of self organization amongst populations of the same species and their environment. Living things try to maintain themselves. In order to do so they eat each other. They sometimes cooperate. They mate and produce offspring. They die. In doing this some life forms pass on more progeny than others and eventually some of these surviving life-forms become separate species. Their is no overriding purpose to this other than that each living thing wants to survive and pass on its progeny.

When we call natural selection a “mechanism” we are speaking metaphorically. But, unfortunately, by using the term “mechanism” to describe natural phenomena we import the idea of design and purpose into our perception of these phenomena.

When we call the Earth, “Spaceship Earth” we are making the same mistake. The Earth exists and evolves by the self-organization of it’s parts, as in the interaction of earth, water, fire, air and life. A spaceship is a human machine, designed and built to escape the Earth’s gravitational field and fly into space. It is somewhat self-contained, in that astronauts who fly in spaceships can live for short periods of time in space without physical contact with earth.

But note the proviso: “short periods of time.” No-one has invented a spaceship that serves as a world. That is, no-one has invented a spaceship that allows people to survive indefinitely in space away from the planet earth. Every astronaut that leaves earth’s gravitational field is just as totally dependent on the materials from earth for his survival as is all the rest of humanity who remain on earth.

The idea of “Spaceship Earth” was developed by Kenneth Boulding to emphasize the point that our economic system is bounded by the limits of the earth which is a finite thing. The earth does not receive any significant amount of materials from outer space, so we must make do with what is here already.

Unlike a spaceship, the Earth does allow human beings to survive indefinitely because life forms a self organized system on Earth, of which we form a part. We may have spent hundreds of millions of dollars designing and building spaceships but no-one has been able to design a spaceship that can maintain itself and the life inside it independently.

The idea of such a spaceship is a fantasy. But the Earth is a reality. If what we want to do is live responsibly within the limits of the Earth so that we continue to survive as a living species, we need to base our perception of Earth on reality, not fantasy.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Ideology of Libertarianism

Rand Paul, the tea party Republican candidate for Senate in Kentucky, Is a libertarian. He is not a racist. Libertarianism isn't explicitly racist, but this ideology got him into trouble recently because he explained to Rachel Maddow, that he was against certain provisions of the Civil Rights Act, namely those that forbid businesses from discriminating.

It's been pointed out now, many times, that if it wasn't for the Civil Rights Act, southern businesses on their own would not have stopped discriminating against blacks because they would have been penalized by white patrons if they had.

Both Ayn Rand and Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act not because they were racist but because they saw it as unwarranted restrictions on individual property rights.

Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 election to Lyndon Johnson, but after Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act, Republican strategists realized that they could take votes away from Democrats in the South. After Johnson decided not to run for a second term, Republicans such as Nixon, Reagan, and Bush kept winning the Southern vote by emphasizing “states rights” and “small government”. In fact, both these policies were little more than code for keeping blacks in their place.

Now, if you have less government involvement in the economy, then in Southern whites' eyes you have less social services for black people. You have less regulation of Southern businesses and less desegregation of school systems.

In the late forties President Truman tried to enact a universal medicare system but was defeated by Southern Democrats, who rejected the idea of equal access for blacks and whites to medical services. That's why the United States is alone among other industrial countries in not having universal medicare.

This is where libertarianism comes in. Libertarians are for a much reduced role of the state in the economy. They believe that a legal system that prioritizes protection of property rights replaces the need for government regulation. These ideas dovetail nicely with the Southern Segregationists who don't want the “big government” ie., the federal government and the Civil Rights Act, telling them what to do.

It's true that Libertarians aren't usually racists. A while back, about thirty years ago, I was a libertarian. And I and the libertarian friends of mine, and the authors I read, were not racist.

But no libertarian I know of considers inequality a problem. Inequality isn't a problem because the market reflects reality and rewards hard work and excellence. The poor are poor because they're losers who don't try hard enough. Government programs that “help” the poor should be abolished because they only encourage people to be idle and lazy.

Southern whites were privileged. They benefited from underpaying and discriminating against blacks,  just as they benefited from slavery before the Civil War.   Only government intervention changed the situation and gave blacks a chance.

Another thing that Libertarians never seem concerned about is the rising power of corporations and their perversion of the legal and political systems to serve their interests. You may note that all the think tanks that support libertarian views like: the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, Freedom Works, the Fraser Institute, etc., are heavily funded by big corporations, especially, but not only oil companies. You will never hear these Institutes calling for government to balance or compensate for the disproportionate power of corporations.

Lastly, I've never met or heard of a libertarian who doesn't dismiss global warming as a fraud. These three problems” inequality, disproportionate corporate power, and global warming are all denied or ignored as problems by libertarians. When they deny that these are problems they are letting their ideology blind them against seeing the evidence.

I know they are problems. Inequality leads to social breakdown, political corruption, poverty, and exploitation. Corporate power leads to more political corruption, and the stealing of and destruction of common resources. Global warming will lead to more extreme weather events and the breakdown of ecosystems that support human life as well as other kinds of life.

. The huge amounts of money earned by corporations, and CEO's perverts and corrupts our political system. Our governments are turning away from the public interest and doing the bidding of giant corporations. In fact the global economic system is fixed to favour corporations against the common people in many ways.

Government can be changed to become more responsive to the people and protect the public interest. Libertarians don't recognize a public interest. It' s ultimately a narrow self-interested perspective of the economy. "I want what works to get me rich and the hell with everybody else." Ayn Rand called it “the virtue of selfishness”. We need to go in the opposite direction.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bike to Work Week, May 31-June 4 2010

The bicycle is one of the greatest human inventions. It is the most efficient self-powered human mode of transportation on the planet. It is eminently practical, with baskets, paniers, and trailers available to carry extra loads. At the same time bicycles afford a qualitatively better form of physical exercise- than most other kinds because cycling is fun, it's low impact and achievable even by people who are overweight.

In the sixties schoolyards were full of bikes. It was a major way of getting to school and university. They were affordable for everyone. They still are. There are twice as many bicycles as cars on this planet right now. However, bicycles are underutilized at this moment whereas cars are overutilized. Think BP and TarSands.

The idea behind bike to work week, is that if you get out and try biking to work during the first week of June, you might take it to the next level, and bike to work all summer. And then who knows. These things can snowball and influence other people's behaviour.

The first bicycles were invented in the the early part of the nineteenth century. The standard looking bicycle as we know it – the kind with equal size wheels and a chain and sprocket - was developed around 1885.

Bicycles were one of the first mass produced consumer goods. The same principles that were first used in manufacturing bicycles: machine standardization of parts, assembly lines, mass marketing and advertising were later put to use in the development of the automobile and aviation industries. The Wright brothers were originally bicycle mechanics.

The very best thing about bicycles is that they are fun to ride. And they are fun to ride for a wide range of ages and abilities. Bicycles come in all shapes and sizes. The kind with tassels on the handlebars that girls like to ride. BMX trick riding. Mountain bikes. Commuter bikes. Racing bikes (we used to call them 10 speeds). Recumbants, and tricycles for the elderly.
There's a bike for everyone, and, in general, bikes are still pretty affordable.

Bicycling is such an elegant way to travel. It's silent, but it's social. It allows you to feel the wind through your hair, breathe the fresh air, and splash through big puddles, if you feel like it.

Bicycles are not as big and dangerous as cars. You don't need insurance to ride one. Once you learn the rules and learn how to balance they are safe.

By riding to work each day your body will be in better shape. Riding up the hills will make your leg muscles stronger and your heart fitter over time.

One of the things that stops some people from biking to work is the issue of sweat. There is several things you can do about this problem. Taking a shower at work is great if you have the option. Otherwise you can dress in layers and shed layers progressively before you warm up so that you never get to the point of sweating. Make sure that your windbreaker, or rainjacket has underarm zippers and leave them open all the time. Or you can follow the lead of hundreds of millions of Chinese and ride an electric bicycle – no sweat.

The more bicycles on the road the more room there is for everybody and the quieter the traffic. Bicycles improve the quality and atmosphere of a city. Just look at Vancouver and Victoria.

Next week is Bike to Work Week. Some organizations such as Northern savings credit union have consistantly put out the riders year after year. Forestry is being seriously downsized so they're not a contender this year (and that's a whole other story worth telling isn't it?)

Perhaps you or someone else in your organization would like to bike to work next week. Please check out the website for information and inspiration.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Get Out Migration a wild success

What did Alexandra Morton's Get Out Migration accomplish? Why do wild salmon migrate? They go to such huge efforts and for so long a journey. A journey that takes up most of their lives. And then they come back to the stream where they were born in. They come back and make the forests green and feed all the critters.

They have sustained first nations all along the coast. Salmon are sacred. They literally bring this coast alive. We cannot take them for granted.

And yet our governments have looked the other way as salmon farming corporations have despoiled our coast and threatened the wild salmon. The DFO has abandoned it's raison d'etre to protect our wild fisheries just as it betrayed the East coast cod fishery a generation ago.

Humans can migrate too. And that's what we did in the thousands on May 8th , to join with Alexander Morton in Victoria to tell our governments to get the Norwegian Salmon corporations out of our ocean. It was a beautiful day as thousands marched in the streets of Victoria to the Legislature buildings.

It was a joyous occasion as speaker after speaker spoke of the importance of getting the salmon farms out of the ocean and into closed containment.

It's not rocket science. Industrial farming requires the concentration of food product which attracts parasites such as sea lice from the wild. This kind of farming requires heavy doses of chemicals to control the parasites and if this kind of farming is done in the ocean in open net-pens, the sea lice and the chemicals are allowed to spread out and harm the wild fish and other critters.

Putting farmed fish into closed containment protects them from most sea parasites so they require less toxic chemicals. And separating them from the ocean prevents parasites from spreading back into the wild where they are especially dangerous to salmon smolts – the young salmon.

When I listened to the speakers at the legislature I was most impressed by what the first nations elders had to say: Wild salmon are our lifeblood. We can't survive without them. They are a part of us.

The elders have been trying to tell us these things for hundreds of years but it's only now that biology has come to understand these connections. Maybe now we can listen to the wisdom of the elders.

Alexander Morton and the people of the archipelago did not march in vain. We, the people can make a difference. Here's one thing we can do without even leaving the comfort of our homes. Write to the Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Gail Shea and tell her to get the Norwegian salmon farms out of the ocean: . Write to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and tell him we need a BC minister of Fisheries: Write to MP Fin Donnelly and tell him what you think of his bill to remove salmon farms from the ocean:

We don't have salmon farms in Prince Rupert now, but if we don't let government know what we think of open net-pen salmon farms, they will stand by as Norwegian fish farm corporations take over the whole coast and drive the wild salmon to extinction. We can make a difference.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"Stepping Stones": The Best Kayaking Book Ever

Make no mistake about it, this is one of the best if not the best sea-kayaking book ever written. Nigel Foster, who builds kayaks, has his own school of kayaking, has written books and produced videos on sea kayaking is one hell of a good writer.

Stepping Stones of Ungava and Labrador has got everything that I would want in a kayaking tale about northern labrador: apt, succinct descriptions of the people met and the land and seascapes traversed by kayak; A brief but eye-opening look at the interaction of Europeans and Inuit of Labrador over the last three hundred years; And to top it all - a sea-kayaking adventure that'll have armchair travelers biting their knuckles in suspense.

That's what makes Stepping Stones such a good kayaking book. He describes each day of the trip as it unfolds, the people, the adventures, the changing weather, encounters with wild life. He says just enough to give you a good idea of each day. And then he weaves in the historical background, and brings it alive when they run into Inuit people who were part of that story.

I've read lots of Farley Mowatt, but I wasn't aware of the forced abandonment of Inuit villages in Labrador that went on in the middle of the last century. This is a chapter of Canadian history that deserves to be better known and Foster does an excellent job of talking about it and describing some of the people he met who were caught up in it.

I consider myself to be a fairly proficient kayaker, but after reading Foster's description of an incredibly dangerous crossing of Hudson Strait, I'm glad he was there and survived to tell the tale and I'm in the armchair reading about it.

Picture seven knot tidal currents. Seven knot tidal currents! And the kind of steep breaking waves that occur when the wind blows against such a current. When the tops of the waves break the sound is like an explosion.

Now imagine it's so foggy you can hear these "hay makers" all around you but you can't see them until they're breaking over you and your kayak and filling your "drytop" with ice cold water. Imagine that kind of crossing for twelve hours. It's easily the scariest description of a kayak crossing I've ever read.

According to Foster, it took him three years to psychologically recover from that experience. That crossing forms the climactic chapter of the book although what it describes is something that he did almost twenty years before in 1981.

The story that "surrounds" the description of this crossing is his daily log of an ambitious kayak trip that he and his wife Kristen took following the Labrador coast from Ungava Bay to Nain in 2004. There's less suspense, and less adventure in their contemporary trip than in the 1981 crossing but Foster does such a good job of describing each day's journey and weaving in historical references that the whole story becomes that more satisfying a read.

If you're considering kayaking the northern Labrador coast you might think again after reading of these kayakers' hair raising encounters with Polar bears. When it comes to encounters with polar bears I appreciate having that experience passed on to me in one ripping good tale by a true master of the kayak. Thanks for sharing Nigel.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Joining Alexandra Morton's Get-Out Migration

Thank you George Baker for bringing to my attention Alexandra Morton's march down Vancouver Island to protect the wild salmon (prdnews Apr 23). Your article inspired me to buy plane tickets to go to Vancouver Island and join the “Get-out Migration”.
I called friends, my family... I found one other person from Prince Rupert who wants to go. Anybody else out there in Prince Rupert? Give me a call I'm in the phone book.

Up here in the north, it may seem as if that whole salmon farming thing is over. There's a moratorium here. We won. But let me tell you something. It's partly because of Alexandra Morton that we got our moratorium. She did the science, she publicized the issue, she took the salmon farming companies to court, and she has been a relentless voice in defence of the wild salmon.

“We will lose our wild salmon if government continues to carelessly put farm salmon before wild salmon.” Here's a person of great integrity standing up to the Norwegian Fish Farm Corporations, and calling the government repeatedly to account for their failure to protect wild salmon.

There's not many people like Alexandra. She knows that letting the wild salmon die is wrong to the very core of her being. “Salmon embody the essential unity of mountain, forest and stream.” She says.

Meanwhile the government sits on the evidence that open-net fish farms kill salmon smolts and does nothing. The government's view is that salmon are not sacred. They are a stream of income. And if farmed salmon yield a bigger stream of income then wild salmon then so be it.

The character of the north pacific coast, the ecosystem the identity of the people who live here – that doesn't matter to the federal or the provincial governments. It's all about money. But of course no politician has the guts to admit that out loud.

Bill Vander Zalm will be up here in a couple of weeks flogging his American style anti-tax campaign. Who has the integrity? Who is standing up for what's really valuable ?

Look what's happening in the United States. The big banks and the investment firms brought the global economy to the brink of disaster, and then got the government to bail them out and gave themselves million dollar bonuses. And recently the Supreme court took away all limits to corporate contributions for election campaigns. It's official, the U.S. Government is for sale to the highest bidders.

Back in BC we have a government that pretends to be green, but like our American neighbours, really just listens to the sound of money. It's only people with integrity like Alexandra who have made the fish farming moratorium possible. But let's not take the absence of fish farms here for granted.

Money talks and government listens, but government also listens if sufficient numbers of people make their feelings known. When you get down to it it's either we the people or it's the corporations. If we don't join together and make our voices heard they win and the wild salmon go extinct.

What's important to you? Do you fish for salmon? Do you smoke and can salmon? What would it mean to you if there were no more wild salmon?

Before I moved to Prince Rupert salmon didn't mean much to me, but after living here almost twenty years I see things very differently. I'm going down to Vancouver Island to support Alexandra Morton and to tell the BC government to get the Norwegian salmon farms out of our ocean.

Come and join us. Or, even if you aren't planning to go, go to Alexandra's website And check out the progress of the get-out migration. E-mail a comment of support, sign the petition. Show Alexandra and the BC government that Prince Rupert cares about wild salmon.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Book Review: "Beyond Stick Control" by Glenn W. Meyer

Do your rudiments! That phrase couldn't be more of a turnoff to me. As a drummer I want drumming to be fun, not a boring job. Too bad then, that for so long I neglected the rudiments and therefore neglected fluidity and control.

Beyond Stick Control, by Glenn W. Meyer has increased my speed, fluidity, and control demonstrably. The name Beyond Stick Control is significant because Stick Control was Lawrence Stone's classic book of snare drum technique based on the rudiments. How do you go beyond Stone's famous book? Meyer does it by incorporating the bass drum in a marvelous variety of ways.

Yes, do your rudiments but throw in accents, and do variations. First learn them slow, then speed them up to get a sense of fluidity and flexibility. But, you say, what does the bass drum have to do with rudiments? That's what makes the modifier “beyond” so appropriate for this book. Adding the bass drum is what takes your playing beyond stick control.

Glenn Meyer divides his book into four sections. This is important, because each section involves using the bass drum in a different way. Section A ignores the bass drum. It doesn't even ask you to play solid four while you're practicing rudiments. Still I practice section A by tapping out quarter notes just as I learned with Ted Reed's classic book Syncopation.

Section B goes beyond Syncopation by incorporating improvisation in the bass drum. The bass drum becomes part of the beat by following and preceding phrases played by the hands. Meyer calls this technique “Linear Style” and he specializes in it. See especially: his encyclopedic book Funk and Fusion Concepts for a cornucopia of examples.

I love practicing section B. It has given me a powerful sense of control and fluidity with my right kick.

Section C is all about bass drum ostinatos. Don't know Italian? “Ostinato” is a repeated pattern played underneath everything else that supports and holds up the whole rythmic structure. Start with halfnotes, then count time with quarter notes like in Reed's Syncopation, then take your drumming beyond Syncopation by incorporating some latin bass beats, Samba, Baio, Tumbao, and the beautiful Baio/Tumbao. And Meyer knows his latin beats.

Section D “Linear Jazz Style” is worth the price of the whole book many times over. It incorporates what you've learned in the previous three sections into the entire drum set. This section is played with a broken triplets swing feel on the ride cymbal. My suggestion, which if you do take, you'll thank me for, is to practice section D with both R hand ride and with L hand ride. It seems like twice as much work but it isn't because the R hand “teaches” the left. And the added bonus is that you further strengthen your right kick without even thinking about it.

Speed these exercises up and play them as written instead of swinging them and they become more like cut time rock rhythms with the back beat on the three. Try, for instance page 56, #11 to see what I mean. Or they gain a latin like feel from the rudimental patterns. It was when I started practicing the triplet rudiments that I realized how challenging these exercises really are.

I love Syncopation, but doing straight four on the bass drum all the time drives me crazy. Going beyond syncopation I can use the hihat to tell time, and that frees up the bass drum to become a more powerful improviser. Section D takes lessons learned in the rudiments and incorporates them into jazz /rock fusion ride rhythms. For me, that's what makes rudiments so much fun to play instead of being a job. Before this book I had no idea how to play this stuff. Now it just seems natural.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Real Carbon Economy

We say the economic system works through flows: flows of resources, flows of capital, and flows of produced goods, which are all mostly exchanged through buying and selling, and then invested, saved, or consumed.

These flows can be measured in terms of money value. That's what the GNP and GDP are: dollar measures of the circular flow of a nation's economy over the time period of a year.

Think of life now. Life can't be measured by dollars because life includes a lot more than just humans and life has been around a lot longer than humans.

But life has circular flows too, flows of resources, flows of energy. And like an economy, life should have a balance between consumption and production.

Think of the Earth as an economy, a circular flow of resources with an input of high quality energy from the sun and output of low grade energy in the form of infra-red heat.

The Earth is a successful economy because it has life. It is life that is able to capture some of the sun's energy and maintain itself for countless generations in a continuous manner since its origins.

The Earth Economy is a lot bigger than the human economy and a lot lot older. In the Earth Economy carbon is the medium of exchange. In other words, carbon in the Earth Economy plays the same role as money does in the human economy. Carbon, like money gets cycled through the Earth Economy, but unlike money, carbon takes hundreds of millions of years to cycle through.

In the human economy money commands resources, goods and services. And money acts as a store of value. It can be saved and spent later. But money, unlike carbon, is conceptual, it only exists because we believe it has value. It ceases to exist when we cease to believe in it.

Money is really only a virtual reality. Ultimately, what makes all things work, all things go, and what makes living things alive is energy.

Energy flows, and like water, it always flows downstream. In the case of water, it flows downstream to the lowest point on Earth, which is the bottom of the oceans. In the case of energy, when we say it flows downstream we are talking about the “Second Law of Thermodynamics”.

Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. That's the first law. The second law has to do with what happens when energy is converted into work.

Living systems capture energy and convert it into chemical energy. The second law says that this must be a downhill process. You cannot reconvert chemical energy to electromagnetic energy (light) unless you add more energy from outside the system.

That's why a perpetual motion machine is impossible. Because whenever work is done, the energy used up, even though it still exists, cannot be used again to do the same amount of work. It gets degraded, or disorganized in doing work. In this sense it always flows downstream.

On Earth, carbon plays the role of life's currency, life's means of capturing, utilizing, and storing the high grade energy, and getting rid of the low grade energy. Because it plays such a central role in life, carbon is a lot like the Greek god Atlas, holding up the sky.

Energy is necessary for life because if there's not enough of it then life's activities stop. But too much energy raises the temperature too high and life can burn up.

Over vast scales of time the carbon cycle has had a huge influence on the flows of energy and the overall temperature of Earth's surface. And during those same spans of time, life has had a large influence on the carbon cycle, and hence on Earth's temperature.

Like goods and services in the smaller human economy, energy flows and circulates amongst living things. First, to the Producers: bacteria, diatoms, algae, and plants. Producers take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Producers utilize photosynthesis and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to capture solar energy and store it in carbon compounds.

. Next, the energy, in the form of carbon compounds, flows to the Consumers: the bacteria, protists, fungi, and animals that feed on plants and on each other. Consumers breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.

When there is a balance between Producers and Consumers Earth Economy is as healthy as it can be. If there is too many Producers and not enough Consumers, then too much of the plants and algae die without decomposing and more carbon gets locked into sedimentary rocks. Then the available supply of carbon decreases and Earth's temperature decreases. This is just one of, but not the only causes of ice ages.

We can call ice ages “Depressions” in the Earth Economy because just as in depressions when there's not enough money to buy everything the economy freezes, during an ice age there's less carbon available to capture the energy needed to drive life. Some of the great extinction events such as the Permian - Triassic extinction 250 million years ago are thought to have been caused by ice ages.

If there is too many Consumers and not enough Producers we get too much carbon available. Remember, Consumers breathe out carbon dioxide, so the more Consumers there are and the more that they consume, the more carbon dioxide there will be in the atmosphere. The amount of available carbon becomes so high that Earth's surface temperature climbs. We can call this “Inflation” .

For thousands of years the human economy was just an insignificant fraction of Earth Economy. But then we discovered fossil fuels – coal, and oil. These are forms of carbon that were saved long ago when for various reasons, plant life was not consumed by other life forms, but eventually was subducted underground. There it was converted by the heat and compression of Earth's techtonic forces into coal and oil.

By tapping into this stored form of ancient sunlight, we have been able to extract both biological and mineralogical resources at an accelerating rate. This is a situation akin to hyperinflation in human economy, where the circulation velocity of money (carbon) has increased at the same time as vastly greater quantities of money (carbon) are available.

The result is an overheating of Earth Economy and a new mass extinction event. We call this “Global Warming”.