Saturday, May 03, 2008

Lingua Franca

Language. We all hear and learn words from a very early age. We learn to express ourselves by imitation and the realization that if we can name something we have some control over it. We absorb this vocabulary as a useful tool and we don’t think much about the words themselves very much, but we soon learn their power. Anyone who has been in a situation where they were surrounded by a language other than their mother tongue, will know the frustration and powerlessness of being without speech.

Words are a passion for me, and this has led me to learn languages other than English. I studied Latin, French & Spanish is school and tried like every other student to learn the foreign words as if they were new mathematical formulas to master; and like much of the math we study in school, I couldn’t see a way that these hard to pronounce words had anything to do with my real life. After graduation I started to travel, and soon wished that I had paid more attention in school. It was humbling to discover that a 2 year old could speak his language better than me, so I made a serious effort to learn and use more words.

After forcing yourself to speak a new language for a while, the easiest words just come out of the mouth without thinking – especially words with which we are all familiar. Nobody in North America has to rack his brains to come up with words like “adios, amigo, manana, rapido, or bueno”. Most of us don’t have to and make a complicated excavation of memory to know that “adios” is just another way of saying “goodbye”. It is from this point that I begin my theory of languages.

They say that children can learn a second language more easily than an adult, that a child is in a more receptive state and can absorb more new information. Adults tend to sort and categorize new experience into manageable compartments – an information filing strategy learned while growing up. It seems that when people try to remember something they pull it out of a drawer somewhere at the back of the brain, and that the useful organization of information can only be maintained by not mixing up the contents of these labeled information packages. Luckily the brain is more fluid than filing cabinet and we have the capacity to merge folders.

At some point in my language studies, having added a Greek, Italian and a bit of German to the languages I have lived in, I realized that categorizing a word in another language into the overall box of Non English Language, was a mistake. I began to learn words as if they were a part of my mother tongue. If I learned the word “casa”, I didn’t think of it as a Spanish word that means house, I thought of it as just another word that symbolizes “house”. I tried to eliminate the translation factor with the knowledge that when I see or hear the word “house”, I don’t first think of it as a word, but as an image - my house, the house where I live, the house where I grew up, my dream house, a composite image of a houses. Therefore when I hear the word “casa” I skip the step of thinking of it as a Spanish word that means house, but it bring up a visual image of a house. If I hear or read the word “spiti” which means house in Greek, I think of a house. Spiti is just another word in my vocabulary that symbolizes house. It doesn’t matter what language it is. In this way, I found language learning easier. Now if I hear a combination of words in another language, I can visualize what is meant without having to translate that phrase into English.

Therefore, I believe that the greatest error in language instruction is to re-enforce the natural categorization that happens in the adult brain. We shouldn’t study French, but study other ways of saying things using other words that just happen to be French.

This of course is a simple approach, and generally deals with just vocabulary, but the further we delve into any language we realize that differences in grammar are part of the rhythm and essence of the culture to which the language belongs. Sometimes this requires learning rules of structure but these, like any rules of language are only systems that have been developed to explain usage.

One of the first and most inexplicable pitfalls for an English speaker is to understand gender designations in another language. Why is the moon feminine in Italian and the sun is masculine? Again, rules have been proposed but rules are always broken, so in the end one is forced to imprint the idea of a feminine Italian moon onto the understanding of an Italian way of being. We could learn “la luna” by rote, but the knowledge sticks better if we think of the moon in its Italian incarnation as a beautiful mysterious female form. The key is to avoid translation and language separation and to think of all languages as one language. We human beings have developed an rich vocabulary to express ourselves.

My Greek teacher often emphasized that you can’t separate language from culture, and the more I know about languages and their cultures, I see that this is true. In the connected world of today, all cultures and languages are beginning to blend. As we come closer together, we understand each other better and realize that there is only one language and it is not English or French, or Italian, or Russian, but a plethora of words which stand for ideas, feelings, objects, hopes and dreams. It would be best for us all if we understood each other.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Generation Y Work

Following on the habit of naming successive generations, the Y generation follows generation X and the baby boomers. Each has its own attitudes, outlook and morals. Generation Y has a problem in the workplace. The economy is good, jobs are available in a host of occupations which would leave a generation X’r jealous that he only had an option of one McJob or another to choose from. Generation Y members have benefited from the shortage of workers and are hired for jobs for which they have little skill and are poorly suited.

The generation born in the 1970’s have been coddled and rewarded for mediocre behaviour because while they were growing up it was considered cruel to hurt anyone’s feelings by judging someone on his merits. All were rewarded equally, leaving those who were lesser lights, believing that they were gifted. Certainly it is wrong to crush all self esteem with unnecessary criticism, but as often happens in American, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater, and all criticism became wrong. Therefore a generation has grown up and entered the workforce who believe that all work is beneath their worth, that they only are required to make a token effort, that they are not rewarded handsomely enough for their lackluster performance, and that even showing up for work is an imposition on their specialness. If they are not coddled as they expect to be, they leave, often with no notice or thought to what their sudden departure does to their colleagues. This tactic works for them as long as jobs are plentiful, but because they have no sense of history, they act as though their actions have no effect on anyone else, and least of all do they understand that their own history will follow them.

This self centered attitude – which is common in the youth of any generation – will be more difficult for the Y’s to overcome, because they are a generation which has been nurtured on the need for environmental cleanup, the rightness of anti-racism, the spread of technology and other “One World” philosophies which are all in direct contradiction to their personal attitudes. These 20 somethings exclude themselves from this One World through technological devices that don’t require eye contact, smell, touch or taste. They want to be paid well so that they can consume the products whose manufacture makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. They grew up with children of all races but wouldn’t marry one. In the workplace, they look out only themselves and pursue their advancement with a self-belief that defies proof and borders on the fanatical. When they don’t get their way they pout like spoiled children and blame everyone else for how unfairly they are treated. It never occurs to them that if they have rubbed everyone the wrong way and are called out for their behavior, that this has anything to do with them – it’s just their fossil boss who doesn’t understand them. What they will have to learn is that the world is not their indulgent mother – that it has no great love for them and than in the mass of humanity on this earth, they are nothing more than another grain of sand. There are always others who are more adaptable who can easily take their place.

It has been said that the workplace needs the technological skills of generation Y, since they are the only ones who understand the rapidly advances in this field. This is an insult to any person with normal intelligence. Nobody in any situation needs to be at the mercy of a petty tyrant like this who believes that only he has special powers and cannot be replaced. Technological skills are easy to acquire, children can learn and therefore so can adults of any age. Generation Y makes the fatal error of believing that they are unique and have some secret knowledge which gives them power and superiority, but in truth their special status is based on an illusion.

Generation Y like all other generations before them will grow out of their bubble, and it will take very little for that to happen – a few eye opening realities of life for which they have no coping skills, a world economic downturn, a little more experience of how the rest of the earth’s population survives, and they will wake up from their coddled existence. The great leveler of course, is time, and in a few short years they will be forced to deal with their own children who will ridicule everything that they as generation Y believed. Their arrogance will come back to bite them.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Why I am not vegetarian

When did primates begin to eat meat? Perhaps after they learned to harness fire and were able to cook meat so it became soft enough for uncured teeth to masticate and digest. In some areas of the world there isn’t much of the vegetable world to choose from. The tribes who lived in the Arctic had a short season to gather fruit, seeds and roots. If there was game all around them, and they observed carnivorous species surviving on meat, their logic must have led them to try meat on it’s own. Certainly a plentiful sources for meat was the sea, and with a hereditary knowledge that humans needed some fat to thrive, they added fish to their diet and found that they survived.

Meat eating probably developed from a need to use what was available to combat hunger. Vegetarians contend that we are more advanced that these primitive people and don’t need meat. In the richer countries there is a ready access to a variety of food groups, making it possible to live healthy without eating meat. Many people in the world don’t have the luxury of these choices. Somehow vegetarians believe themselves superior to meat eaters - hopefully this superiority only extends to those of us who have a choice.

I choose to eat meat, having passed many periods of a strictly vegetable diet, because it is a ready source of good protein. I was born with a digestive system that can make good use of the fat and protein for energy. I choose not to deny my biology.
There are those who don’t eat meat because they believe that killing animals is cruel. Depending on how the act is done this is more or less true. Death for any living thing is tragic but inevitable. We all die, animals die, and plants die.
Humans perceive life on a fairly limited level. Dogs experience the world differently from than we do, and so does every living thing. I subscribe to the hypothesis that just because we can’t sense something with our limited faculties, doesn’t mean that the thing doesn’t exist. We can carry on munching carrots deluding ourselves that nothing died and nothing suffered in order to feed us. But the carrot died, we interrupted its life cycle in harvest, pulling it up in the best of health. I accept that things die so that we can live. This is true whether I eat meat, or vegetables, or both.
I silently say grace with every meal to say thank you for everything which gave up its live so I could live. I don’t argue that vegetarians should change their ways, but I believe they are somewhat misguided. However, if being vegetarian keeps these people’s bodies and consciences clean, they are welcome to their folly. In all aspects of life it is important to remember that whatever we do or eat, we should do it in moderation, with an ever present awareness of what we are doing and why.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The End of the Age of Plastic

Plastic as a word means malleable, but most of us think of an image when we hear the word - a bag, a cup, a container for something, a disposable thing. Plastic however is a petroleum product. Considering that petroleum is a non-renewable resource, we must begin to think of a world without plastic. What is now manufactured as a commodity as insignificant as paper, will sometime become a collector’s passion. Like a grandparent’s remark, “When I was young we walked everywhere,” our present use of plastic will become a curiosity of the past.

It is difficult to predict what might replace plastic as a major material in the future, but whatever that is, we must consider in our commerce driven world, what is can replace it and remain economically possible. We probably already use plastic’s replacement but it has not yet replaced the oil based cheapness of the real thing. Once we imagine plastic as a rare commodity, we have to consider what else in our lives will have changed as an effect of scarce petroleum, including limited short hop mobility, altered work situations, the import and sale of cheap products, alternative heat and light sources. This slow demise of the petroleum culture will cause a major shift in the lifestyle of North Americans. Although we won’t return to a savage existence, we will be forced to subsist on a smaller scale, in a more world conscious way. The items we use in everyday life will also change. Will we return exclusively to stone, wood, metal, glass and plant materials?

The tools we think we need to accommodate our daily lives, will always employ basic materials, either renewable or unlimited. We may presume that light, wind, rock, earth and water are unlimited but not renewable options. What grows on earth is a renewable resource – plants, animals & trees. We will become more dependent on both of these resource options in the future and we will find ways to exploit them.

Plastic may have a different fate. Instead of being the throwaway material of today, it will return to specialized use which exploits it’s nominal value – that of malleability. It is possible that plastic could be used almost exclusively for replicating living things like the human body. Our technology may advance to reproducing simulations of life from cells of anything that lives or once lived. Petroleum products, like plastic will simply become a rare catalyst in the construction of inventions that promise to assist our survival.

It staggers the imagination that the capabilities of a natural gift like petroleum, now squandered in products like shopping bags and trips to will be a thing we as grandparents will speak of with nostalgia.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is a term often used in aeronautical and military training, to instruct combatants and pilots to be aware of everything around them. It is a skill that is all too infrequently employed by much of the population in everyday life. Many people go about their daily lives without being aware of their surroundings or realizing what is happening around them. Situational awareness is like a mother’s claim of having “eyes in the back of my head”, but multiplied to include all of the senses. When walking down the street, many people unconsciously watch where they put their feet (and some don’t) and subliminally assess anyone coming their way – usually taking the measure of the person they are about to meet, and adjusting their reaction to the meeting on a sliding friend or foe scale. This instinct comes from the animal kingdom. We humans can fine-tune this simple scale into many tones on our way to making the decision about how to react to the approach of another. Do we ignore them, make eye contact, cross the street, or stop and speak to them?
Our awareness and reaction is also influenced by the general surroundings. Is it day or night, am I on familiar or strange territory, are there other people present, what are the cultural habits of the place I am? We use this skill of situational awareness to pass safely, to communicate whatever it is that we need and want. We need this skill in order to learn.
When one is begins driving lessons for example, an instructor my raise the point of situational awareness, because it is critical to safe driving. Bad driving is a perfect example of how many people aren’t observant, which results in an inability to judge situations and act appropriately. The worst case of a driver with lack of situational awareness is a driver with tunnel vision – he drives straight ahead, looking only in front of him - but not too far, he doesn’t look side to side, or use his mirrors, but drives his car like he has no control except stop and go. The tunnel vision driver may suffer from compromised motor and observational skills, so that staying inside one lane of traffic puts him at the maximum of his capabilities. He fears that if he looks sideways or back, he may lose control of his forward motion, which in his state of reduced capability, may happen. Some people find it difficult to multi task, but driving is a multi-tasking skill. Apart from some differences in speed and capacity to retain information levels, humans can be trained to multi-task. A new mother must learn this out of necessity. To multi task while driving is the ability to control the speed & direction of a vehicle, while being fully aware of what is happening on the rest of the road, and trying to anticipate what might happen. Some drivers believe that the skill of multi tasking while driving is eating, drinking coffee, applying makeup, window shopping, talking on a cell phone, while changing lanes, gears and radio stations. These dangerous habits would be better substituted by thinking about where they want to go on the road, what is the best way to arrive, driving responsibly with awareness that there are other vehicles on the road whose drivers have their own agenda.

One important point about situational awareness is that those who lack it may be not only a danger to themselves, but also a danger to others. What will happen to a child whose mother isn’t aware of the child’s needs? What would happen in traffic if all drivers thought in only forward mode? What would happen if we perceived all who approached us as an enemy and reacted violently toward them with no reason?

Situational awareness also can be used to maintain our own physical and mental health. A doctor will often tell a patient to pay attention to his own body, repeating this obvious reminder because it is too often ignored. When an obese or thin person looks in the mirror, do they see the truth, and do they act on what the objective truth of their condition? If a person experiences constant headaches, do they examine their life and try to discover if the cause is mental, physical, environmental, or do they just take a pill to cover up the pain?

There are three stages of situational awareness – the perception of situation, the placing of the perceived factors on our own personal scale, and the decisions we make about our actions in this situation which usually involve projecting any situation into the future – how will this situation play out.

Several factors figure into our ability to react appropriately to any given situation. The first is experience, the second is knowledge, the third is processing velocity, and the fourth is the degree of transparency of any situation.

In the absence of professional counseling, many people are unable to apply the concepts of situational awareness to their own life choices, and many people subvert the obvious. We know by information received from the outside world, from our own experience that smoking is bad for us, yet we may carry on with an addiction like this in spite of all information that it is harmful. Overeaters continue to overeat and either admit that they do this, or they delude themselves about what and how much they eat, yet continue to make unhealthy choices. Even in illogical situations like this, situational awareness plays a part. We may consider our life to be valueless so we eat, drink, & smoke to comfort ourselves while we pass the time. We all die sooner or later, and if the future doesn’t look particularly bright, we chose to indulge ourselves along the way. This bleak perception of the future is particularly prevalent in the young. Negation of the future is a common state in adolescents and young people – they don’t often see themselves as capable of great things or their world to be heading for great things – so why try, better just enjoy the ride – even if it leads to their own destruction. It is particularly damaging when this nihilistic approach is carried into full adulthood. These people may or may not be aware of the state that their negative beliefs have brought them to, but willful self-destruction is not a tenet of life – it is anti life.

Our society doesn’t encourage people to think for themselves, nor to examine the causes of things that happen around them. Governments know that people are more easily controlled if they are accustomed to being told what to do. This creates a situation in which people often don’t know how to react unless someone else tells them. People feel comforted when they can easily categorize an event into a belief box that allows them to assimilate the event, and righteous when that particular box is a widely held belief in their own culture. They feel unified and validated even if they are mistaken, having lost the personal skill of judging information for themselves. They are not encouraged to be aware, to think for themselves, to act of their own volition, to trust their own reading of a situation and act appropriately on what they know. When people have lost situational awareness their own survival is at risk. Many people live their lives so entangled in petty dramas that they lose sight of who they are, where they are going, and how to get there. Like the Tarot fool with one foot off a cliff, they don’t realize that their lack of attention to necessary things has severely compromised their survival.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Poverty of Speech

While in the process of learning the Greek language, I was surprised that in the small village where I lived, many times when I asked for the correct word to describe something new, I was told an old word which I already knew. This is not because the Greek language isn’t as rich as other languages, but because in a village where people only need language to converse in their small circle, the same words are recycled to take on multiple meanings. There are complicated precise terms in any language, but most people have no need of them as they are too difficult to remember, and people think that their neighbours wouldn’t understand them. People have a tendency to speak in simple terms.
I once made the comment while in Italy, that Italian seemed like an easy language, but was reprimanded by a German speaker, who correctly pointed out that although the language may appear simple at first bloom, the more one learns, the more one realizes that Italian is as complicated as any other language.

Not only does a language have its idioms and dialects which are enough to stump any learner, but it also a plethora of words that are not heard on the street every day. Think of the English one uses in daily communication as compared to the English in scientific or technical writing. Someone who has studied a language in school would probably have an easier time deciphering technical terms than they would have understanding a grunted, idiomatic, fractured conversation on the street. One can always tell if a non-English speaker has learned the language from lessons or from the street, because his English is always more precise, even if no one on the street understands him.
Languages always evolve, but often this is for worse instead of better. I see nothing wrong with invented words if they describe something better. I see nothing wrong with the habit which has developed in the U.S. in recent years of using nouns as verbs, for example “How does this impact our budget?” Words change their meanings according to usage. How else does “bad” become good? Technology also adds words and these are necessary to describe entities which are new.

English has lessened its descriptive power stems from the tendency to limited vocabulary. A prime candidate for this in English is the word “get”. We use it so much that it must be accompanied by a multitude of helper words because by itself it means nothing. Try describing what “get” means to a foreigner. Get out, get busy, get by, get over, get through, get down, get back – the list is endless. All of these “get” phrases have better single words to describe the same thing but we don’t use them. Do we prefer the poorer “get” because “get” is more common, tougher, more street, or is it that in American society to show any sign of intelligence is considered an elitist weakness. This tendency to simplify things for whatever reason causes a language to lose words. Who nowadays uses “arise” for get up? We simply don’t have a word anymore for getting out of bed – the original word has disappeared.

Most people who speak only English tend to believe that English is some kind of mother language which is the best at describing everything. English is in fact a great thief of words from other languages which is one of the reasons it can be so rich. When one learns another language however, one begins to understand that English is poor in describing many things. An example of this is the word “love”. Other languages have several words for love which describe various states. English speakers blather on about how much they love their car / dog / McDonald’s hamburger, using the identical word “love” for their children or their spouse. The love for children and hamburgers are clearly not the same thing, so why then do we use the same word? Love has become catch all word which in the end means nothing.

The word “know” in English is another example of our laziness. Most other languages have one word for “know” in the sense of understand (do you know how to ski) and another word for “know” in the sense of be acquainted with. Not many people use the word “acquainted” anymore and would be thought old fashioned for doing so, but the word “know” by itself is imprecise.

So many of our words now depend on context for meaning. That is, you can’t understand what they mean unless they are used in a phrase which explains them. This leads to many words which either mean nothing by themselves or are essentially non-words like “get”. If a language fills itself up with non-words which depend on usage for meaning, the language loses its power.

Just as some people who a habit of over using expletives in conversation, the power of a word is diminished when it is used a filler, and lends nothing to the meaning of a particular subject. If we use the “F” word as our only adjective the shock value disappears.

Years ago when I emerged from the cinema after seeing “Quest for Fire” which was scripted with inflected grunts for words, I realized that our everyday conversations had not changed much in 10,000 years as I listened to comments about the film which consisted of “Yeah, mmh, huh, uuh, kinda, y’know, like, wow!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Take on Memes

A meme is a unit of cultural transmission. It takes its name from the French word “meme” which means “same”, but also contains echoes of mimetic and memory. Whereas genes are passed on biologically, memes are units of information passed on by imitation and reproduction. Willingly or unwillingly we absorb memes from the time we are born. Taking on these units of information is as important to our survival as a healthy set of genes might be.

Even at our birth, people who have specific mimetic loading for birth practice assist us into this world. Even the latest technological tools for microsurgery, the fact that the doctor might wear glasses to help him see, is in itself a product of memes. When someone discovered that a piece of curved glass could magnify things, he transmitted this information to someone else. This information about glass is only one of the millions of memes that assist us in our survival. With poor eyesight the doctor might not have been able to attend medical school & go on to save lives. Simple eyeglasses help us to take on the units of cultural information that help us to get what we need to survive. We learn to speak. We learn to ask.

Our languages are products of memes. From our family units, to our communities, our religions, our inner selves and our worldview, all of these belief systems are mimetic.

Memes are not new, but they have only recently been named. The study of meme dynamics helps us understand ourselves as a species on more than just a biological level. There are many branches of meme theory - meme warfare, memes as parasites, the study of macro memes (religion & theories) and micro memes (words & habits), the brain as a host for memes, the extinction & replication of memes, adaptation of memes by natural selection, the death of memes. Memes are passed on and caught by word, by mouth, by action, by all of our senses. Memes live in us, in the media, on the internet. It has been said that “a human being is an animal infested by memes”. Humans are in some ways faulty carriers of memes – computers are better at this – they can more quickly calculate possible outcomes, but computers for the moment lack a host of processing memes like morality and inspiration.

Memes mutate by re-imagining themselves in light of other memes. Much like our galaxy’s spiral form, memes when reproduced, are not exact replicas of their seed, but are sown another level up or down a spiral path of the long human march.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Dreaming in Bytes

The brain is like a sponge, absorbing experiences during the day that are either acted on immediately, or are stored more permanently. Knowledge is constructed from this semi-permanent file – if a thing is proved right to us on a scale that satisfies our morals, we accept it as truth. There is a critical factor in this moral scale that might be defined as worry. If something is not right, it worries us and these worries come out in dreams. Dreams are sometimes our brains attempt to file these preoccupations into folders where they are most likely to be accessible for use. When an unsettling replay resists classification, a video player of visual dreaming tries to re-enact a scene to understand what occurred and learn to process an event or impression in such a way that we can pass it to our knowledge base as an evidential cohesive fact.

Some cultures believe that dreams are an alternate reality, and this to me, is akin the theory of a parallel universe – neither proved nor disproved. Some believe that knowledge is passed on in dreams, and to some extent this is true, but waking reality plays a larger part in our survival. Since knowledge is stored in an area that is accessible in dreaming, communal dreaming is possible, but the knowledge that resides there must be acquired in a waking state. It is also possible that dreams do contribute to our knowledge base, particularly when some undigested experience resurfaces in dreams, played out to a point where we understand it better. When we understand, we have knowledge – thus also contributing to the personal and communal database that helps us to survive in our world. The way in which experiences are processed has been described geographically, going back to phrenology, which was once disgraced, into the refinements of CAT scans and Magnetic Resonance Imaging. When someone says that something is “in the back of my mind”, common experience tells us that the brain cells used for storing more permanent knowledge are located deep in the cranial filing cabinet. Frontal brain cells, among other things, control our more immediate facial and lingual responses. When someone says “on the tip of my tongue” it is an indication that the frontal engine is trying to access the dustier reaches of our minds.

Filing cabinets of memory can work like a zip files, remaining compressed, occupying little space until a trigger or command asks for an unzip and the file or memory expands. Often this trigger occurs in dreaming. Memory access during a dream isn’t a perfect search, but all of our memory searches in waking time aren’t always successful. Wide awake an unexpected memory or desire can drift forward at an inappropriate moment. Unrelated events, scenes and people can populate dreams, sometimes causing perplexing combinations. Often we wake from dreams asking ourselves “what was that about?” Unless we can separate extraneous elements from relevant ones, we can’t make sense of our dreams.

Sometimes a dream - more often a nightmare - will wake us up. Before we wake, our body often tries to react to a dreamed event, and we will kick, turn and move our arms, try to speak, grunt, or shout aloud. Sometimes we enter a half waking limbo, where we know we are dreaming, wish to wake up but can’t, and consciously try to move or make a noise that will wake us. Informed by the body of an need, our knowledge base tells us that we are dreaming as the body struggles to overcome sleep paralysis. Our survival instinct knows that remaining in a panic state for a long time it will be damaging to the mind, and therefore signals the brain to push us up into consciousness. This struggle can also be thought of as the workings of the frontal brain and the rear brain to communicate. It is now widely accepted that brain stem at the back of the brain controls the motor functions like breathing, heartbeat etc, so the so-called survival instinct is based here. Since messages travel across protein networks it takes time to assemble the appropriate files to travel the circuits from the back to the middle knowledge base to the frontal cortex. It can take a few seconds to wake up from a nightmare. We are after all, humans, not computers.

Generally our brain tries to do what is best for our body. The body is the vessel of the brain. Included in this instinctual health program, are dreams. Our mind tries to digest our experiences in an automatic defrag which takes place every night. For those unfamiliar with defrag, it is short for defragmentation, which attempts to re-file stray bits of information so that there are more blocks of stable usable space available for new memories. Unless we defragment our brains for a period in every 24 hours, we do not remain effective, rational, or sane in our waking lives.

There are computer programs that suggest the user delete information that is not connected to any usable material or that has not been used for a long time. Much like a computer, our brains sometimes tell us that a certain bits of information are gone, permanently deleted, but this is not actually the case. Microsoft and others would have us believe that deleted information is unrecoverable, but those who know computers on more than a superficial level, know that everything which was once there, is still there. This is also true for the brain. We don’t really forget, we only can’t remember. Sometimes what we thought we had forgotten will return to us at unexpected moments. Sometimes lost memories return in dreams.

Dreams are natural, useful, healthy, elusive things. We benefit by understanding them. The antidote to personal fear is in personal self-knowledge. The antidote to communal fear lies in understanding our world. Dreams help us in all realms.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Feelgood Virus Rules the West

What has happened? These days “feeling good” has become a motive in western society to buy, act, and behave. The criteria for whether or not a thing has value, is whether it feels good or it feels bad. The antithesis of this is that if something doesn’t feel good it has no value.

The problem with this credo is that nothing has ever been achieved which advanced the well being of mankind without some struggle – and struggle doesn’t feel good. Schools often teach that correcting children might stifle and therefore damage their creative spirit, so we must always praise everything a child does. This is not to say that criticism and punishment should flourish, but a balance between praise and criticism is helps us to understand the world.

It may be that a prosperous time post war time in which parents and society indulged their children by giving them “all the things I never had” spawned the “Me” generation. If you indulge a child too much he will come to expect everything he wants and that he is the center of the world and is disappointed when experience tells him otherwise. The “me” generation couldn’t come to terms with the fact that we are not the center of everyone else’s world. Those born after the Second War have been taught to follow their own dreams at the expense of all else. The resulting isolation of individuals in a “me” society has been exacerbated by indulgent parents, and tolerant society, by television, danger on the street corner, drugs, and the culture of fear, until almost an entire society is composed of unconnected individuals who can only substitute real life with virtual belonging.

There seem to be exceptions to this world of isolation such as participation in team sports (only as a player however, since a spectator retains his isolation), but even the players are taught that their motive for playing is that it “feels good to win”. Feelgood victory dominates pep talk.

Some people feel good belonging to something. Perhaps they are fans of a certain television program, yet they watch television isolated from their fellow addicts. They participate in this form of virtual belonging because it makes them feel good but in fact they are only spectators.

Pop music and films are geared to sales and encourage consumers to buy products to take home. People still go to concerts, clubs, and movies, but the driving force behind the production of these commodities is to sell the products for people to take home and “feel good” in isolation.

The experimental drug culture from the ‘60’s onward encouraged drug taking as a way of “feeling good”. Of course taking a drug is a personal experience; the user is the only one who feels the effects. Observers might see the results, but the experience is basically internal to the user. Drugs are taken for escape and entertainment. Alcohol is the same.

In many other societies around the world people have more pressing needs than “feeling good” so the idea that this “feeling” is a reason for making decisions, is viewed as a somewhat obscene Americanism. Someone who must expend hard earned energy to search out food to give them the strength for the next day doesn’t jeopardize his own life by basing his decisions on what feels good. Most other societies have a much more solid foundation on which to make decisions, such as whether an act is in harmony with the known world and is in harmony and balance with nature. Western society’s soul has come adrift from its anchorage, so it searches worldwide to find something to fill the gap. That gap for many in the west is the hole left in Christianity by the battering it has taken from science. Church makes some people feel good, but many are no longer satisfied with traditional answers to the inevitable questions posited by science.

If a man in a poor country has scraped together enough money to buy a product, his choices would probably be based on factors such as usefulness, reliability and price. He might base his decision on what might help himself or his family, but to chose something because it “feels good” would be the least of reasons for making a choice. There is the indefinable factor of something’s rightness (its usefulness, reliability and price) making if feel good, but the siding only with the wow factor would be considered foolish.

The western marketing colossus attempts to create needs where none previously existed by exploiting human characteristics such as pride, envy, and a desire to feel superior. Television, which is watched worldwide, is an ideal medium for insinuating these new needs into every level of society. Feeling good is an easy sell, but the underside to the pitch is that we think that need these things that make us feel good as a way to cover up emptiness.

This is not to say that man doesn’t have a desire to feel good, but to believe that this desire is a philosophy, a way of life, or a reason for action, makes for an empty life spent traveling between one indulgence and another; an existence without heart, spirit or soul.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Sculpture in Public Places

Sculpture has been used in public places since the socialization of man. Tribes practiced cave painting, carved totems in wood & stone. Egyptians had obelisks, Greeks constructed temples with statues, Romans constructed arches and colossi; kings built monuments to their battles and themselves. In the democratic age, unexpected icons like the Eiffel Tower, The Statue of Liberty, and The Space Needle appeared, celebrating industry and nationhood and science. Once given a voice in what we build, use, and keep, we base some of our decisions on aesthetic appeal. We prefer a pleasing living environment, often imitating nature, expressing our history, culture and community in choosing our surroundings.
Large European cities like London, Paris, Rome or Berlin, contain buildings, monuments & sculptures from every era. People appreciate the mixture of old and new. To look around Rome and see the stone bones of an empire, flanked by Fascist parade avenues, catholic rich houses, and human scale squares which celebrate an apex of classical marble sculpture, with an overlay of trattorie, souvenirs, chic boutiques, neon, noise, motorbikes and all the racket which goes on in the making and spending of daily bread, is to realize that a lively city like Rome is not just the sum of its past.

Anyone who has ever lived in the country knows the shock of a trip to the city and the feeling of being pressed in by and towered over by buildings. Humans need a bit of open space. For Europeans this meant saving or reclaiming a bit of land for squares and public parks. Often these spaces were donated by city benefactors, or in the case of many European public parks, were ex-royal ground. North American cities developed as organically as European models, first one structure, then many on a central street. There was plenty of good land in North America – why construct a city on a hill – there were no threats to outward expansion. As cities grew large enough that it wasn’t practical for a cities inhabitants to travel far, governments created public parks. Parks need trees and open space. These parks are patterned on European parks, which are meticulously designed - even the trees are chosen. Capability Brown re-designed the English vision of the landscape. Many of us live in cities, larger or smaller, and all alike are bombarded with sensory input – that’s the stress and the joy of living in a city. If we accept that we live and work in crowded public spaces, we should try to have some input on what those spaces will be like. There are many places to locate sculpture in both a park setting and a street setting. A public park is an easy place to choose sculpture for – it is already a beautiful spot – even a ragamuffin of a sculpture would look handsome there. It may become a favourite or go unnoticed, or become universally disliked. Sculptures are removable, as all dictators must know.
Street settings for sculpture are more problematic and have more interesting solutions. West Berlin and East Berlin were both restructured after the Second War, so could qualify as a model about how to incorporate sculpture into a modern city. Wide country streets in the West became main thoroughfares with large football field intersections. Squares are created in the middle of this traffic flow. A Roman fountain would be lost and in the space. West Berlin also has a drainage problem, calling itself the Venice of the North, and supports a network of above ground waterpipes, which have been counterpointed at one intersection by Adolf Behrens “Berlin”, an untwisted knot of fluted stainless tubes. Startling contrast to the sad truncated tower of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church.
East Berlin created its peripheral version of Soviet chic, with interminable rectangular blocks of buildings with windswept spaces between them, which for some hold a severe beauty. Yet the East German vision of the retro space in its TV Tower remains a landmark. From almost anywhere in the city you can find your direction by it – like navigating by the moon. It also fits because in it’s situated on a launching pad sized Alexanderplatz. It serves as a point of reference and as a meeting point. Appropriate sculpture can add scale, history, mystery, and importance to a place. A sculpture however, must be chosen to have particularity and universality. It should represents its era and also have longevity, not only in structure, but also in the imagination.
Equipping our public space to be more livable has a price. Someone has to buy, install, and maintain the thing. Again, scale is the key. Architects and planners now create space in front of large buildings by using corner cutoffs and building setbacks. This creates enough space for a small square. Depending on the size of the found space, benches & shrubs are possible. Sculpture needs less space and is less expense.
Sculpture in public places democraticizes art by bringing it outdoors. Living with art is no longer a preserve of the privileged. Yet in a rather American way, we tend to segregate our duties and pleasures. For open space go to a park, for shopping go to a mall, for work go to a building, for sport go to a complex, for art go to a gallery. This segregated approach makes every facet of every activity suffer by dislocating it from everything else relevant in life. A sane healthy life is an integrated life, both privately and publicly.

Public parks work, people need them. Sculpture parks however, are a step backward as they reinforce this eliteness and segregation. We should surround ourselves with some of the best examples of what artists, sculptors, architects and town planners can produce. We should see beauty in the street, the bank, the shopping mall, and work place with out having to make a trip to a museum.

Old can mix with new, different interests create diversity. Juxtaposition creates a powerful effect. Look at I.M. Pei’s glass & steel pyramid in front of the Louvre, Botero’s chubby bronze characters along a Florentine courtyard, downtown Chicago’s cow as character craze with noble creatures stuck in windswept concrete, Joe Farfards’s “Mind’s Garden” circular filigreed iron corral in a flat Regina field, the HSBC atrium in Vancouver which barely contains Alan Storey’s precise monumental motion “Pendulum” This behind glass solution solves the problem of vandalism and protection from weather. Can and should sculpture be protected from being climbed on and touched? The original of Michelangelo’s David kept indoors. The Copenhagen harbour mermaid has been damaged at least eight times but has always been put right. Like painting over graffiti, repairing damage and supporting creative alternatives to youthful self-expression is good policy in maintaining any structure.

Much effort and expense is often been channeled toward winning garden awards, yet in the north, flowers bloom only half the year. The same applies to fountains – water freezes. Sculpture thrives in all weather. Government and business often overlook the practical and beautiful role well chosen installations have in making a place attractive and memorable. Sculpture is an ideal candidate for lifting any location from banal to sublime.

A wealth of locations exist, but local governments, when deciding how allocated money should be spent, often overlook the practical and beautiful role in sculpture has in making a place important. Businesses could be accommodating. Even citizens groups, which have a tendency to celebrate themselves by erecting boosterist welcome signs, somewhat reminiscent of frontier town timber gateways, could spend the same time, money and effort installing something that transcends politics and commerce.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Technology as the fifth element

Men once thought that life was based on four elements – earth, air, fire & water. We have now splintered these elements into particles so tiny that the cornerstones of primal sense have lost meaning to us. Yet these four elements continue to exert a hypnotic influence on humans. I can gaze into a fire, watch the river run, be moved by the spirit of a landscape, be shocked by the power of air, as easily as I can move through cyberspace being in turns contemplative, spiritual, stunned, enlightened. In the 20th century a new equally attractive element took shape as new technologies created first radio, then TV, and now the internet. These have become repositories of knowledge, thought, beauty, power and creation, as earth, air, fire, & water once were to ancient man.

These days the ubiquity of TV & internet has made the world a village where all is technically accessible to everyone. There are those who lament this fact – anti-global demonstrators who never asked a man in a third world village for his opinion. I have seen people in many countries watching television, and what they watch is a combination of local TV and global TV - including soap operas from everywhere. These soap operas are watched and understood by women everywhere for the same reasons – fantasy and escape. It is not true that if an Italian woman watches The Bold & the Beautiful, Italian culture will be destroyed. The world of soap operas is as foreign to an Italian housewife as it is to any average American.

Anti global protesters take great offence to McDonalds opening on every corner in every part of the world. The fact that a McDonalds exists on my corner, hasn’t changed my eating habits – I choose not to eat there. Putting a McDonalds on a corner in Rome doesn’t spell the end of Italian cooking. The anti’s assume that people all over the world are not capable of making their own choices – that when confronted with a traditional dish or a hamburger, people will choose hamburgers. This is offensive, like saying that women should be covered from head to toe because the sight of her skin might stimulate man’s appetite, so much that he loses control of himself. This insults both women and men.
The anti movement would also argue that multinationals use clever brainwashing techniques in marketing to the have nots. I am a have not, and I am not fooled by advertising - I buy or don’t buy items based on a variety of factors – the least of which is that I have seen something advertised on television. I believe that if you see an ad on television, it is never for something you need. If ad was for something essential, the expensive hard sell wouldn’t be necessary. To say that obesity epidemic in America is caused by the companies who sold the food to the fatties is a red herring. The truth is that the cultural identity of America is consumerism, which prefers that individuals don’t think for themselves. Governments collaborate with multinationals in keeping individuals on the straight & narrow. Governments and companies prefer citizens who do as they are told, and both use fear to enforce this. Advertisers exploit human weaknesses, including the desire to feel superior to others. Yet to say that these marketing techniques will eliminate cultural identity, insults the intellect of men and women worldwide. Rather than cry foul when multinationals attempt to export consumerism, energy would be better spent by individuals examining their own choices, and attempting to understand why so many unsatisfied souls become victims. How has shopping become a cure for unhappiness? I sometimes look at shopping malls on a Sunday as the new churches, and think that goods are the new god.

Our electronic technology has pushed us ahead at warp speed to absorb information and make choices based on what we know. For our survival and advancement we have always exploited information passed on from others – always building on the shoulders of the past. Television and internet are simply tools for passing on memes in an accelerated fashion. When an ancient man passed the concept of the wheel on to his tribe, were there protesters who claimed that the wheel would ruin their world? Possibly. Did every anti globalization protester walk to his demonstration? Probably not.

Our electronic technology has the same power as any of the four cornerstone elements, and like the originals is an element which we can use to survive and improve our lives. We should understand the harmful consequences of consumerism by looking at our own society, even as we are in the process of exporting it, and talk with those who are new to working in this new element so that they don’t fall into the same traps as we have done. Perhaps some bright spark on the other side of the world has an antidote which will undo the sickness the bigger and more is better, yet a way which ensures enough for all, without killing the messenger in the process.