Prevention vs Cure

There are people who believe that cancer is largely a preventable disease, and there are people like me.

I think cancer prevention is a worthy cause. In my time as a medical physicist I concluded that we were so good at radiotherapy already it would make more sense to put the money that was being spent on people like me and put it into anti-smoking campaigns. So I went back to pure physics after that, before getting involved in computer assisted surgery.

But smoking is uniquely terrible as a cause of cancer. Tobacco–a naturally occurring leaf, very slightly enhanced by selective breeding–is full of nasty stuff, and burning it to create even nastier combustion products and then sucking the whole lot into your lungs is not the best thing for your health. Among other things, tobacco is rich in potassium, and about 1% of potassium is a long-lived isotope that is left over from the supernova explosion that made the heavy elements that constitute the Earth and all that’s on it. So about 10% of cancers caused by smoking are due to naturally occurring radioactive potassium coming into contact with exquisitely radio-sensitive lung tissue.

Other causes of cancer are not so significant. The article linked above gives some absolute numbers on cancer prevention in the UK, but doesn’t give them as a fraction of all new cancer cases. When you look the numbers up, it turns out that those 57000 preventable cancers add up to about 16% of the 357,000 new cases that occur in the UK annually. Not a bad number, but a long way from a cure, too.

It may not make sense that we focus our resources on cures rather than prevention, but what makes sense has nothing to do with what’s best. There are at least three reasons to focus on cures rather than prevention:

  • A cure would be a cure. It would get rid of the damned disease for good. We are quite close to that, thanks to CRISPR technology and decades of work in fundamental biology.
  • While it is still debated, it appears likely that around half of all cancers are not preventable. That puts a definite floor under the lowest rate we can get from prevention programs.
  • Changing human behaviour is hard. The Soviets killed tens of millions. The Chinese communists tried hard to match that number. Christians and Muslims have been torturing and killing people for centuries without notably diminishing the number of sinners, heretics, and apostates. Governments have been engaged in a “war on drugs” for decades without reducing the rate of use below that seen in Portugal, which effectively decriminalized everything twenty years ago.

It’s easy to criticize research choices, but the arguments for pursuing prevention just aren’t that good compared to the arguments for pursuing a cure. Nor does citing a single case of a person with high radon levels add any credibility to the argument.

Arguments are about facts. Facts are distributions. An anecdote is not a fact, because it is not a distribution.

“This person who had high radon got cancer” tells us nothing about what caused her cancer. It could have been a cosmic ray, or other naturally occurring background radiation. It could have been something she ate. It could have been genes. It could have been bad luck. Singling out one risk factor and saying, “This must have been the cause” serves no good purpose. It does not establish this as a case of preventable cancer, because that can almost never be done. That’s the nature of statistical reasoning.

So while I think we should continue to pursue the major known causes of cancer–smoking and drinking, in particular–we should put the majority of our resources toward finding a cure. We’re very close now, and when the cure is found, it will benefit everyone, not just that half or so of the population whose cancers are preventable.

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Canyoning on Dominica

Hilary and I spent the New Year on the island of Dominica, a small island nation in the eastern Caribbean. On the 2nd of January we took a canyoning trip with Ti Nath Kanion. Nathalie, the proprietor and guide, did a great job. The trip was easy to arrange via e-mail, once I figured out what the email was. And despite some issues with the web form there was adequate communication to get the job done.

I didn’t ask, but base on the dreadlocks and “Lion of Judha” sticker on her SUV I’m guessing Nathalie is a Rastaferian, or something like it. Dominica is mostly Catholic, but there were plenty of Rastaferians in evidence, and I saw a handbill warning against the dangers of voodoo, so I assume there is a moderate amount of heterodoxy about. Nathalie is an energetic French woman in her forties. She has been doing this for many years, and seen the river reshape the canyon many times.

She was already taking two people on this trip, leaving no room in her vehicle for two more, so we followed her into the mountains in our rental Land Rover. This was my first experience with the inland mountain roads in Dominica and they make the coast road look like a superhighway. They are not much better than bad logging roads in BC, with even more extreme hills and switchbacks, and more frequent wash-outs and diversions. There are many places where it is a struggle to get up the hill (and around the corrner at the same time) and many other places where the downhill grade is roller-coaster steep. The landscapes were gorgeous but I mostly caught glimpses while keeping the car on the road.

There was a transient detour required by a garbage truck being slowly loaded while stopped square in the road, and if I hadn’t been able to follow Nathalie back to Roseau at the end of the trip I would still be driving in circles and into dead ends somewhere the mountains.

Canyoning is the enterprise of climbing down river canyons. The Ti Tou Gorge is “suitable for beginners”, apparently, although it was quite an experience regardless. The river was running moderately after being impassable due to heavy rains last week. It can apparently rise five meters in an hour, and there are very few emergency climb-ups to get away from the rising water. To be “true” canyoning, according to Nathalie, it should be impossible to escape without going through. It is no surprise Nathalie is also a caver, spending the late summer and fall of Dominica’s hurricane season as a cave guide in France.

Frigate birds are circling in the sky, over the sparkling blue water, as I write this sitting on the veranda of the public library in Roseau, Dominica’s capital.

The first rappel was relatively simple: a straight drop on the rock down to a deep pool that you could splash off the end of the rope into. Getting to it required a roped traverse over the river, which is only a few feet wide in most places when it is low. At the trailhead–where there is room for over half a dozen vehicles to park with no problem–we got geared up in thin wetsuits over our bathing suits, and then into sit harnesses.

All the gear is supplied except water shoes or similar. The hiking part of the trip is pretty lightweight, so water shoes will do fine. They must have a closed toe for protection, though.

Nathalie is very safety-conscious. The gear was in good shape, each sit harness had double carabiners on one metre pigtails, as well as a heavy descender that goes on last, after Nathalie has inspected your harness for snugness and correctness. There was also a good sturdy helmet for each of us. Nathalie had to work to get hers on over her dreadlocks.

Then the traverse to the first rappel, and down we go!

This was Hilary’s first time on a rope, and she did very well. I watched from the pool below as she descended, and then we swam together to the rocks on the downstream side as the other couple–youngsters from Birmingham–came down, followed by Nathalie herself, after looping the rope she could bring it down after.

For our descents, Nathalie kept the tail of the rope in her hand until we were half way down, so if we did slip she could catch us. Lower than half way that wasn’t possible, but then, the fall wouldn’t be so great, either.

Dominica has no helicopter, so if you fall and break something, be prepared for a difficult extraction and hope your fellow canyoners have strong backs. The waiver you sign at the start is quite thorough, and includes a bold statement at the end, “You acknowledge that the Government of Dominica is not responsible for anything.” Really.

The first rappel completed, we came to the first–and likely the highest–jump. Due to rains the previous week, the river had risen and fallen since Nathalie’s last trip. Therefore one of us had to rappel down and check for underwater obstacles–trees or rocks–that might have washed down to make the jump dangerous. The jump is over the falls and about four metres, leaping out past the white water at the bottom. Nathalie wants to see everyone do a shallow jump back into the pool we had just rappelled down into to ensure good, safe style, which in this case is legs together, knees relaxed and a bit bent, arms close to the body. The idea is to be ready for anything you might land on, and not have your arms sticking out to catch on anything like a tree branch that might be lurking on the periphery.

Hilary volunteered to rappel down and check the bottom, wearing swimmer’s goggles under her helmet for the purpose. After she had signaled the all clear I jumped, plunging into the deep water beyond the splash zone around the falls. Glorious.

The Birminghams jumped as well, and Nathalie came down more sedately, and we moved on down to the next section.

I can’t go through the descent section by section because it is all blurred together in my mind, one amazing experience after another. We free rappelled down a waterfall, which was an experience. Feet off the rock, water pounding on my head, unable to see up, down or sideways. You just keep on descending, keeping both hands on the rope, until clear of the fall and the rocky shelf below appears.

The views are ridiculous. I didn’t take a camera, and am not much of photographer in any case, but the deep rock cuts and twisting water falls and swirling pools are burned into my memory. There was one point on a free rappel when I drifted through three hundred sixty degrees in mid-air, taking in the fall and the rock and the jungle and the sky. It was incredible.

One fall has a deep hole at the bottom where the rock is being ground away. We had instructions not to descend into it, but land on the rock adjacent and clamber down, as the hole might contain rocks or trees. By its appearance it might well have been the lair of some monster of the river, which would rise up to consume all as we descended. Either that or beg for a pat on the nose and a cookie. It is a surreal landscape, and I expect surreal things to happen there.

Several of the jumps were into water only two meters deep or so, which Nathalie recommended we do in a “bombe”, which I would call a “cannonball”. That was an abundance of caution, as the water was plenty deep in all places. It never hurts to take care, though.

The river had changed since the last time she had traversed it, before the rains of the previous week. There was a large rock blocking one narrow passage that we had to scramble over. It had been rolled into place during the high water. There was also a fixed traverse rope that had worn to the point of replacement, so we paused while Nathalie swapped it with a new one she had brought along. Sailors and climbers use almost completely different knots, and although my climbing days are long behind me I recognized enough to know Nathalie was doing the job of tying things on properly.

The trip lasted almost three hours. There were pauses while the rest of the party descended, but it was pretty much continuous motion. The water was below body temperature and it did feel a little cold to some of the party after a couple of hours. I have an internal furnace that is set permanently to “High”, so it bothered me less, but the wetsuit was a definite comfort.

This is a lovely library, full of books. On a rack adjacent to me there is a tome called “The Wisdom of the Ancients” above a history of Berlin in 1945, beside a history of the Victorians, with a scattering of Clive Cussler, Jack Higgins and Elizabeth George in between. I want to be fourteen again and read them all, safe and secure in this sacred space, knowing they were opening up the greater world, but never guessing they would lead me to a place where I would rappel and swim and jump down a deep river gorge surrounded by tropical jungle with a woman who loves me.

There was one deep pool near the bottom of the gorge that had water dripping over the cliff-top far above. Streams of droplets fell lazily under the force of gravity through the almost still air, spreading out as they fell, taking well over a second to fall the thirty meters or so to the surface of the pool. They broke up as they fell, shedding mist that was wafted in all directions by the gentlest of breezes. And the lines of falling droplets wobbled under the influence of the turbulent rills they were born from, the squiggly pattern of the water across the rock being reproduced and amplified in the stream that fell. It was magical.

At the bottom, just past a fragile natural bridge of stone, we paused for a drink and a snack, and hiked about twenty minutes up a relatively easy path to get back to our starting point. While we were taking off our gear, before she even had her wetsuit off, Nathalie stuck a cigarette in her mouth and lit it up. This is possibly the most French thing I have ever seen.

Many things were wonderful about this trip to Dominica, including some truly fantastic skin diving where I saw an eagle ray, a fair-sized lobster, a puffer fish (unpuffed, and I did not disturb it) and more. But this trip down Ti Tou Gorge was easily the outdoor highlight of the trip, full of beauty and adventure. I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who is is decent physical shape, not afraid of a jump or two (all the jumps are optional, but so much fun!) and willing to take a little reasonable risk for an unreasonably beautiful experience.

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2016 in Review

2016 was not a good year for a lot of people. Mine got better as it went on.

In the first part of the year a ten-year relationship came to an end, and for all the difficulties of that time I am going to remember one important thing: we both fought as hard as we could to save what we had, and when we reached the end of that part of our journey together we could both honestly say, “I gave it all I had.” That is no small thing, and may be the essence of love, even between two people who could not in the end bridge the gap between them. We remain friends, and that too is no small thing.

There were other adventures in the first half of the year in skiing, improv, sailing, and business that kept me insanely busy until the end of June. There were also some interesting interpersonal times in there, too.

In June I decided it was time to take the summer off of having a personal life, to say goodbye to all that and focus on just two things: sailing and musical improv. Which if you’d told me at the start of 2016 is what I’d be doing in the summer I would have laughed. Not so much the sailing–I was already looking for a new boat–but musical improv?

I got into musical improv in early 2016 because I had the opportunity, and I was afraid. Terrified, really. I’ve always been told I “can’t sing”. I had a non-singing part in a musical in high school, and the audition for the singing parts of that show is probably the last time sang alone in public. On top of that life-long fear, my hearing aides were wearing out, and I was having more and more trouble catching the sense of scenes in regular improv, so the thought of dipping my toe into musical improv–as a deaf man who “can’t sing” and who was dealing with some pretty significant social anxiety issues on top of that–was even more scary.

Going to Jennifer Pielak’s first musical improv happy jam makes it into the top ten scariest things I have ever done, including the time I had to deploy my reserve parachute because my main had opened as a tangled collection of brightly-coloured garbage flapping merrily above my head as I plunged toward the ground at lethal velocity.

The difference is that pulling the reserve rip chord in the lonely autumn sky is one of the most solitary things I’ve ever done, whereas opening my throat to sing the first time at that drop-in workshop I was surrounded by supportive, wonderful people. There were certainly stumbles all along the way, but from that very first happy jam I knew I wanted more. Musical improv combines two of my very favourite things: poetry and theatre. And it does it in all the right ways, grounding the theatre in authentic relationships and expressing the emotions through the poetry of song. All of it with amazing people.

2016 included three courses and countless drop-ins and mixers, plus extra coaching with a musical improv troupe I’m part of. And three improvised musical performances, as well as many songs on various stages with a wide variety of wonderful people. I took singing lessons over the summer–should have done that the first time I was told I can’t sing!–and plan to continue to focus on musical improv in the new year. Because joy.

So that was kind of unexpected. I got new hearing aides in the midst of it all, and a friend who hadn’t talked to me for a couple of months after I got them commented when we ran into each other again, “Your voice is different.” That’s what being able to hear yourself will do!

Then there was sailing, which started out with me falling on my (thankfully-wetsuit-covered) ass on a sea urchin and ended in finding love.

In late June I single-handed up the Sunshine Coast and over to Lasqueti Island, where I spent few days canoeing and snorkeling around the bays and rocks and reefs–and falling on my butt–and hiking on Jedidiah Island Marine Park. I needed to spend time alone.

“Murrelet”, the old Bayfield 29 I bought in January, proved to be a comfortable and easy sailer, although I had a fairly amusing adventure in anchoring in Smuggler’s Cove Marine Park on the second night out, which involved every imaginable global failure on my part while doing everything locally right. The good news is, through excellent seamanship I managed to avoid collisions with other vessels, while at the same time having everything else go wrong. It was an educational experience.

That trip was cut short by a call from my brother, saying our mother had had a stroke, and I ran under power for Nanaimo across the quiet sea, through the long summer dusk, as a gentle rain fell out of the iron-grey sky. I made it into hastily-arranged moorage just before dark, and saw Mom in hospital. Since then she has made a remarkable recovery, and I’m still betting she’ll outlive me. Old people, as Sir Terry Pratchett reminded us, have a lifetime to practice not dying. They’re really good at it.

The second trip was different. Much earlier in the year my friend Hilary and I had arranged to sail together through the Gulf Islands in August. We were briefly a couple many years ago, and have since made a lot of art together from poemed illustrations to goofy Dr Suess-style stories to experiments in illustrated web-serials. She lives in Montreal, and we see each other every year or so, and go sailing when we can.

We’ve sailed together before, but this was the first time in over ten years that we were both single, and there was something in the air between us. I’d been single for only a few months, though, and it took us by surprise, so we both simply enjoyed being with each other, and let it be. It was a great trip, despite running out of fuel off Saltspring Island and a very rough crossing of the Strait in a moderate North-West gale on the way home.

In early September she called me from Montreal and asked, ‘Why didn’t things work out between us?’ I could have answered in a few simple words, but I wasn’t sure they were true any more. So we talked. And we talked. And we talked.

In early October I said ‘I have to know’ and booked a ticket to Montreal. I flew out on the last weekend of October, and was there for a very few minutes before I realized this was probably who I was going to spend the rest of my life with.

It’s early days yet, but she’s turned in her resignation at work and she will be moving out to live with me early in the new year. I’ve found a place for us in Kits.

All of which surprised the hell out of me while at the same time seeming completely inevitable.

This year reminds me of a line from Steven Brust’s much-under-rated Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grill: “I laughed. I cried. I fell down. It changed my life.”

That’s what this year has been like, from falling down while clambering over reefs off Lasqueti, to crying while breaking up, to laughing with Hilary. It changed my life.

2016 was the Year of Self-Acceptance. I have struggled with who I am versus who I’m “supposed to be” for a long time. Most people do. In 2016 I made a very fundamental choice to simply be who I am, and everything else followed from that.

At the end of last year I wrote:

The year to come? I dunno. I never know why I do what I do until I’ve done it, and I never know where I’m going ’til I get there, and then look back and see the inexorable logic of the decisions that determined my way. I have another book or two in the fermentation phase beyond the novel mentioned above. There’s one about god and there’s one about science and there’s something to do with iron, or coupled stochastically driven oscillators, or something, which is apparently why I upgraded my Mathematica license.

But I also said:

My life experience tells me that when I set my course and am clear about my objective, I get where I want to go.

In 2017 I have increasingly clear objectives, and am setting my course to pursue them. It is going to be the Year of Creation, or pursuing the new direction I have set myself. A few of my goals have to do with work, which I won’t talk about here, but which has been going fairly well and which is a necessary thing to enable the rest. The others involve business, sailing, music, improv, poetry, and writing. And joy. And love.

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An Individualist Humanist in a Tribal World

Stand on a beach some time, somewhere well up on dry land. Above the high water mark. Notice you don’t drown.

Then walk down toward the water. If the wind is blowing and the water is rough, there will be a boundary region that’s maybe a metre or more wide where the land is wet but the water isn’t really there.

The boundary, the edge, isn’t really very sharp. In fact, the very word “beach” was invented because there is no infinitely crisp line between land and water. The edge is so fuzzy that it was useful to invent a word for the breadth of it: beach.

Keep walking, and pretty quickly you’ll be swimming.

This is important. Reflect on it: you started off on dry land. You ended up in water over your head. This despite the complete lack of any infinitely sharp dividing line between the two.

Remember this the next time you hear someone say, “Where do you draw the line?” as if the difficulty in drawing a line between two things means there is no difference between them. It isn’t easy to draw the line between land and water, but most of us still have no problem not drowning when we’re on the right side of it.

The world is not given to us in sharp, crisply divided categories. Water and land overlap. Good and evil blur into each other. That doesn’t mean there is no difference between them. It means that the sharp edges we draw between them are somewhat arbitrary. They are constrained by reality but not determined by it: anyone who decided that the appropriate place to draw the edge between land and sea fell somewhere in Saskatchewan would be wrong. But different people might will draw the line in different places on the beach.

Each one of them, though, will likely have the sense that there is a line, and that it is a sharp line, a discontinuity between land and water. That is because there really is a discontinuity: the discontinuity of our attention. We choose to attend to one side of the line as “water” and the other side as “land”. Our attention has no mass, no energy, no momentum. It can move vast distances instantaneously. It can react to changes in the world without us even noticing.

All edges, all crisp, discontinuous, categorical distinctions, are the edges of our attention, imposed on the world by us, constrained by the underlying reality if they are to serve our purposes as knowing subjects.

Not everyone has the same purposes, though. Many people–most people–go out in the world each day with the intent to divide, to Other, to tribalize. They use the way they attend to the world to draw lines around groups of people, to create edges within the human population: this group is separated because of skin colour, that group is treated differently because of their Y chromosome or lack thereof, or the way their sexuality is presented. Tribalists have a desperate need to use their attention to draw edges between groups of people.

Tribalists disagree both on where to draw their edges and what the relationship between the tribes should be. Most tribalists identify themselves with the dominant tribe and attempt to impose both the edges they draw and the value judgements they make on the tribes they have created by doing so. To one group of tribalists “Christians” vs “non-Christians” is the dominant division. To another “Progressives” vs “Conservatives” is what matters. To another it is “Whites” vs “non-Whites” or “Women” vs “Men” or “Gay” vs “Straight” or “Vanilla” vs “Kinky”.

All tribes are created by the edges of the tribalist’s attention to human beings. The world is not given to us in sharp edges.

Tribalists insist that the edges of their attention have traced out the contours of something that is real and important to the world, although unlike edges that are more usefully constrained by reality, tribalist’s edges are all over the place. Tribalists always end up insisting that they have special perceptions and that the people they are busying Othering not only lack those perceptions but are permanently unable to experience them.

This is a good way to win arguments, apparently, that has worked for thousands of years: claim special privileges and perceptions for yourself and your tribe and then viciously attack anyone who suggests you’re just a power-hungry wanker with an axe to grind. It worked for the Church for many centuries, and in the 20th century secular wankers got in on the scam in a big way.

To a humanist–someone whose understanding of the world is informed by a deep belief that nothing human is alien to me, that no one’s experience is beyond my imagining–these claims of special perception by one tribe or another don’t even look self-consistent: they necessarily claim to have special knowledge of what the other tribe can or cannot have special knowledge of, but once you have granted that one tribe can know things others cannot, how can you possibly claim to know what another tribe knows? Tribalism is necessarily viciously hierarchical and anti-humanist, because the answer to that question is always, “My tribe is special, and I will kill/shame/attack/destroy you if you dare disagree.”

So not only are the edges tribalists draw mutually inconsistent they are not even self-consistent unless you grant one tribe or another the privileges of special perceptions that allow them to tell all the other tribes what they are or are not capable of perceiving. Tribalists always end up claiming special privileges for themselves because they can’t defend their preferred divisions of humanity by reference to any interesting constraints found in reality. To gain power for themselves and their tribe is the only use and purpose that tribalist’s edges have.

Tribalists–like all humans–are only able to keep five or ten things in mind at once, and so they necessarily insist on imposing on hundreds of millions or billions of people a small, stupid, simplistic set categories that has almost no explanatory power regarding anything of significance.

Unsurprisingly, there is a war of tribalisms going on today.

That these tribalists are fighting for different tribal divisions and privileging different tribes within their preferred scheme of tribal hatred does not make one group better than the other. They are all equally sad, at root. Lost children, ur-humans, huddled in their caves and denying the humanity of others.

I am an individualist humanist, or possibly a humanist individualist. That is not my nature: I am, like everyone else, heir to the tribal impulses that have divided humans from each other for as long as their have been humans.

But like any ordinarily decent person I do what I can to overcome those impulses. I don’t found political parties or university departments or think tanks or websites dedicated to Othering most of humanity for power and profit.

I don’t entirely despair of humanity, despite current events. We have come a long way since when our tribe was our family, or our village, or our county. We now have tribes that span the world, and anyone who isn’t a completely hate-filled husk of a human being is trivially capable of seeing that what supposedly divides us is far less than what actually unites us.

We are all humans, sharing the common vagaries of the human condition, and we are all individuals, each unique in our perspective and experiences.

Our uniqueness is part of our commonality. We each of us know what it is like to be alone in the world, the only one who sees through our eyes, who knows and feels what we feel. It is something we all share with every other human being on the planet, and the unfortunate people who would divide us into tribes based on irrelevancies necessarily try to erase all of that. As artists and as human beings we need to politely decline to do so.

This is important, because not only does tribalism make our lives smaller and poorer and uglier, attempting to divide humanity into tribes or to unite individuals into tribes always results in a mess, often the large economy-sized mess known as “war”. Tribalists today are working hard to make that happen, because war serves their end: by convincing arbitrarily created tribes to hate each other, the people of their own tribe will band together more tightly. That makes tribalists feel less alone, more powerful, and more loved.

Tribalists lack the intellectual capacity to feel at one with humanity–to make humanity their tribe–so they necessarily choose a smaller division as their own, and then foment hatred and division to solidify the feeling of security they get from that. Tribalists thrive on hate because for them, love of humanity isn’t enough. Without the contrast of another tribe to hate they cannot feel fully bonded with their own tribe.

Tribalists, like all humans, need love, and they sow hatred to help them feel that. If we love them regardless of their hate-mongering and divisiveness we may be able to get them thinking on a large enough scale that they can see themselves as simply “humans” rather than left or right, rich or poor, Muslim or Christian. Of course, there is a rather strong implication regarding both the rule of law and a certain level of social and economic equality in that. It’s unreasonable to talk about our common humanity if we aren’t serious about making sure everyone is fed and has a roof over their head and is reasonably secure in their person.

Tribalists need love. I’m going to do my best to remember that in the coming weeks and months and years, as more and more of my friends succumb to the powerful and natural tribalist impulse, and willfully contribute to the hatred and divisiveness that is currently encroaching on our world.

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Notes on the Next War

There have been major populist movements in every century since the Reformation. The English Civil War was essentially populist, or part of a general populist upheaval with oddball hangers on like the Levelers and Diggers. The American Rebellion was likewise a populist uprising, as was the French Revolution. The Long Peace between 1815 and 1914 was an elitist era in the British Empire, and the Civil War was a populist revolt in the US. The wars and revolutions of 1914-1949 were populist in nature, driven by a belief that “the people” could represent their own interests directly in politics, possibly channeled through a World Historical Figure or Spirit that manifest the popular will.

Populism as a political movement pits the nominal will of a pure and homogenous people–“Old Stock Canadians”, say–against oppressive and corrupt elites. The NAZIs were a populist movement and Hitler was seen as a virtuous “ordinary man” by most Germans.

Typical NAZI-era joke: Hitler walks into a bar and orders a glass of milk. Everyone else in the bar rapidly orders milk, except for one old man who adamantly orders a beer. Hitler turns to him and says, “I am glad to see I am not the only honest man here tonight.”

My expectation is that there will be much fawning and kowtowing in the US and Canada in the next few months and years, as people reconcile themselves to the Autocrat and hope he will be nice to them. I have a sick feeling that within a year some of my progressive friends will be defending Trump as an honest man who tells it like it is, who puts on a good show, who hasn’t been as bad as they feared, who only wanted the Sudentenland and now will stop.

I have a sicker feeling that in keeping with past populist eras, there will be war.

Precisely how that will happen is too far ahead to predict. We live in a multi-polar world: India, China, Russia and the West all have potential to do damage, with Russia’s demographic decline and China’s Four-Grandparents problem (a mathematically necessary consequence of the One-Child policy) make them the least stable, most bellicose players. India and the West are natural allies. The Arab world is at best a bit player and disruptor in the absence of that special game-piece that is required to get noticed on the world stage these days. Pakistan is as close to non-aligned as one can get.

Trump’s supporters will tell a lot of lies about him. They will say that he has walked back his misogyny and bigotry, and that in his victory speech he repudiated his entire campaign’s modus operandi by saying he would be a president for all Americans. This is not a plausible statement, particularly when it comes without an apology or any sign of contrition for his many decades of moral incontinence.

It will not do to simply say, “OK, reset!” after over a year of public pandering to bigots and sexists. It will not do to simply say, “Hey, I’m going to govern well” after lying about almost everything, flipping positions for no readily apparent reason, and demonstrating a vitriolic vindictive streak. It will not do to simply say, “Trust me” when he proved he can’t be trusted with his own Twitter account.

People do not get a clean slate in my book simply because they have won an election.

And Trump has already done damage. By even hinting that he might not honour America’s Article 5 obligations he is endangering the entire world. If I had to bet, I would bet that World War III will start with Russia invading Latvia to “liberate” the Russian-speaking population there. It worked pretty well for Hitler to do something similar in the Sudentenland.

At that point there are two options: either we fight under Article 5, or we don’t. If we don’t, we fight later. If we do… well, we fight.

Either way it ends badly.

There’s not a lot to be done. Nothing is going to induce Trump to behave sensibly. He is a very simple man: an arrogant bully who can’t stand to lose and will do anything necessary to “win”, where “win” is something he defines in such a way that it isn’t too hard to achieve. As a businessman he has been an abject failure by any standard except “I got mine”: he has left a trail of failed companies and investors behind him, while lining his own pockets, and for some reason he counts that as a success.

Brave men take risks. Trump has played things very safe for his whole career, which is one of the many reasons he’s been such a failure as a businessman. He’s never woken up in a cold sweat wondering where his next contract is coming from. He started with millions in secured credit and has done poorly with it since, not even beating the S&P500 over the decades.

Will a cowardly bully like Trump risk war? Not deliberately, because he’s too gutless. But he’s also profoundly ignorant, and doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. So he has already increased the odds of war without knowing it.

Trump has announced he wants to hold Nuremberg-style rallies during his term as president, which will help consolidate his status as Leader. He followers want a Leader, and as he makes the world more and more dangerous more and more people will follow him. That is what humans do: populists want a Leader, and they find one. The Leader does bad, stupid, ignorant things that make the world a more dangerous place. That leads more people to follow the Leader. who does more stupid things, which makes the world more dangerous. It’s a very simple process, and it always ends one way: in war.

“Not this August, nor this September; you have this year to do in what you like. Not next August, nor next September; that is still too soon; they are still too prosperous from the way things pick up when armament factories start at near capacity; they never fight as long as money can still be made without. So you can fish that summer and shoot that fall or do whatever you do, go home at nights, sleep with your wife, go to the ball game, make a bet, take a drink when you want to, or enjoy whatever liberties are left for anyone who has a dollar or a dime. But the year after that or the year after that they fight. Then what happens to you?” — Hemmingway, “Notes on the Next War”

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Reflections on Age

It’s not a particularly significant birthday in the decimal system. Not a big round number or anything. But I do notice that as each decade passes it’s around four years after the big round number that causes me to reflect more on age. As I see the big round number disappearing in the rear-view mirror I am more aware that I am here for a finite span of years and I’d better make the most of them.

It’s been a year of change.

At my last birthday I was still less than two months in to my current job and struggling pretty hard. I was managing a team of mostly new people who were learning to maintain and operate a software system that was extremely complex. Today we have it all well under control, and are working in a new way to simplify and streamline the development process under my guidance, and the company overall is doing good work in retiring technical debt while setting out in new directions.

So that’s a change: I think I can check off the “successful senior executive in an SMB technology company” box on my life list. There is still more to learn, so I’ll be sticking with it for a while.

My personal life had some challenges. I was in a long-term relationship that came to an end, although we have been able to transition into a viable friendship.

I bought a boat. I’ve taken some good trips. Likely one more this year, then some major upgrades over the winter: a composting head, and a rebuilt ice-box are the two big ones. Being on the water changes me, or at least rejuvenates me.

And there was much improv. Joe Bill’s improv intensive just before my birthday last year was life-changing, but not nearly so life-changing as Jennifer Peilak’s musical improv courses. I did really good courses with Instant, Second Storey and VTSL/ICI over the year, and all were valuable. The genre workshops with ICI were particularly good in terms of learning stuff about the way structures work in story. But nothing has come close to the joy, confidence, and pure fun that has come with musical improv, in part because of the amazing people I get to play with.

I don’t hear well, and grew up being told I can’t sing. I’ve been told I can’t do a lot of things, both growing up and as an adult, and while I rebelled against as much of that as possible, some of it slipped through.

When you think you can’t sing and you hate to look clueless, singing in front of people is terrifying. At this time last year it was easily my number one fear. Carrie and I had done a karaoke duet earlier in 2015, and with her support I could get through it, but it was a difficult experience. I was afraid. And I hate that.

So when Jennifer ran her first “Happy Jam” I signed up, and found the doors opening to a supportive, transformative environment that has continued to expand and offer new opportunities. There was a six week course on “Musical Improv Elements” offered after that, which I took. A group of us continued to practice together, and I’m currently taking a more advanced course with many of the same people.

It turns out I can sing somewhat, and while I’m still challenged in certain respects–new hearing aides helped a lot–I took singing lessons over the summer that have made a difference, and am practicing the operation of this odd instrument we all have within us. There’s more to learn, always more to learn, but it’s better to learn awkwardly than to gracefully remain unchanged.

I’m not afraid of singing in front of people any more. I do it at every opportunity. I don’t know where this musical improv journey is going to take me, but every single step has been more than worth the effort.

So that is another change that has occurred over the course of the past year, and continues to percolate through all aspects of my life.

I’ve written less prose than I had hoped, but I’m OK with that for now. I’ve done more writing for short film work than I’d planned, and that has been a learning experience and good fun.

Since I started dating again, I’ve learned that when I describe my life, people sometimes simply assume I am lying. This cracks me up, because it makes perfect sense, and yet it never occurred to me.

One of the fun things about breakups is they force you to look yourself sternly in the eye and say, “What’s wrong with you, dude?” This isn’t the first time I’ve been through this process, having done a lot of work with a cognitive therapist when my marriage broke up, but coming back for another look turned out to be a good idea. I learned a lot about emotional development in infant humans, and can say with some confidence where my almost complete lack of empathy comes from. Some of it is my basic neurochemistry, which falls well short of anything on the Autism spectrum, although you can definitely see it from where I am. But some of it is due to a poorly developed interpersonal self, which is a result of some of the circumstances of my infancy. Knowing that, which has given me a much clearer picture of what I’m not doing well, I have figured out how to exercise the capacities I do have to see if I can improve them. I think it’s helping some. Time will tell.

That’s another change that’s still in progress.

I’ve written some good poetry and some I’m not so sure of, and maybe one of the best poems I’ll ever write, inspired by Hilary’s novel take on the mandala form. I’m working on getting a poetry business up and running–there really are such things, which produce poems for weddings and graduations, speeches and retirement parties and whatnot–and have a long narrative poem that’s a kind of Robert Service/HP Lovecraft mashup coming out in the next edition of the “Mythic Delirium” e-zine. I’m also working on a long poem that’s a take-off on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”–working title, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Ham”–in Seussian anapestic tetrameter. Beyond that, I have something more Homeric in the wings that might prove interesting.

There isn’t enough time in the day, and I’ve had some pretty intense periods of activity over the year, with just enough downtime to stay healthy. I’ve lost some weight and plan to lose more. It’s going slowly. I’ve been running again recently after a six month hiatus. My legs hate me.

After a year that has had more than it’s share of bumps, my life is more filled with joy than it has ever been. And there is more to come.

So here is my reflection on age: live well, be true to yourself, surround yourself with people who appreciate who you are and who want you to feel good about being who you are, and keep creating whatever it is you are moved to create. Keep learning. Embrace change. Do that, and getting older can be ridiculously joyful. There are sad and difficult bits, and you die in the end, but that doesn’t preclude joy. It’s right there. It’s all around us. It’s in us and of us. Embrace it, and grow old in it. That’s my plan.

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Not Dead Yet

Beneath the dark and cloudy sky
there comes a time to do or die
so screw the grave and give the lie
to the fear that lives in the hills.
This be the curse that is laid on me:
to be in the place that I need to be
to loose my hold and go falling free
like the wild wolf after its will.

[With apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson: http://bartleby.com/103/15.html]

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Surreality

Some surreal certainty suffices
to turn turgid temerity toward
ponderous political pronouncements
exhorting exceptional extremes.

Another asshole assessing America
finding fearful followers
groking gargantuan goals:
crime, corruption, Clinton.

Lying liars laying legerdemain
on odious obligers
who wishfully, whitely, wander
behind bellicose belligerence.

Trumpets trace tearful transcendence
down dreadful dialectic drifts
quite queer quislings
upend unending unities.

Nowhere nations naturally name
itinerate idiots idolizing
joking jesters jettisoning junk,
metastasizing miracles:
ludicrous, lazy, loquacious, lugubrious.

Killers keep
ridiculous riots repeating,
vile vicious victories
which would wreck

xenophobes
young, yearning yobs,
zealots, zeroes.

Why yes, this is a political poem, because the “conservative” movement is completely off the rails and flirting with fascism worldwide, and in the US is stripping off its clothes and getting ready to get into bed with it. Also: I like alliteration.

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The Speed of Light

[Hilary quite correctly pointed out there was something rong with this poem in it’s original version. This is the revised version, which I’m still not entirely happy with but which is better. The problem is the first quatrain came to be entire while greeting the sun from my balcony one morning last week. I noticed how different each day was as we progress toward the equinox, now less than a moon’s turning away. The rest of the poem, though, remains obscure to me. The original version can be found below.]

Each day the morning sun slips down the sky
changing light of seasons moving fast
shadows lengthen like a lover’s sigh
future sliding softly into past.
Each day beneath the sky so clear and blue
above the dew-dropped Earth that smells of autumn
winds of change are blowing straight and true
scrubbing down the world from top to bottom.
Each day the trees are turning brighter shades
of red and yellow, oranges like fire
lit by morning sunlight, burning glades,
unconsumed, growing each year higher.
Each day the changing light greets morning new
Each day there’s time and still much work to do.

Autumn is a season of renewal for me, and yet at this point in my life I’m aware–very aware–that there are quite likely more days behind than there are ahead. But there is still a lot I plan to do in the late summer and early autumn of my life, and I am in fact busily engaged in doing much of it, with more to come.

Original version:

Each day the morning sun slips down the sky
changing light of seasons moving fast
shadows lengthen like a lover’s sigh
future sliding softly into past
day by day. The speed of changing light
announces Autumn, parabolic curves
blow silent fanfare, welcoming cool Night
through the gates of evening to preserves
once ruled by Day alone. And yet there’s time
before cold Winter blusters through the gates
and freezes out the last remaining rays
of Summer sunshine with a glance of hate
making final end of all our days.
The changing light greets each morning new
And promises there’s time and much to do.

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Riverrun

Deep clear cold running water
down from shadowed upper bend
distance dancing with time’s daughter,
no beginning, without end.

Sunlight dappled river bed
cedar overhearing
what the roaring thunder said
down rapids, water rearing

over rocks and into pools
where currents softly twist
plaits of shadow, catching jewels,
like fireflies in the mist.

Down around the lower curve
still the rushing river leaps
past the rocks in graceful swerves
water running cold clear deep.

From notes taken on the path to Brandywine Falls.

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