Category Archives: A — BLOG

Image of the Month — Art of Hannes Bok

Hannes Bok (1914–1964) was an Amer­i­can artist who pub­lished illus­tra­tions and cov­ers for fan­ta­sy and sci­ence fic­tion books and mag­a­zines. He also wrote two fan­ta­sy nov­els.

Thursday, April 16, 2020 — Report from Space Station 38

When Olive Fredrick­son pub­lished her auto­bi­og­ra­phy in 1972, after a long and hard life in Canada’s wilder­ness, her cho­sen title, The Silence of the North, was instant­ly mean­ing­ful to any­one famil­iar with the hard and emp­ty coun­try north of the tem­per­ate decid­u­ous forests. Most of the forests of the world are noisy. At night, the relent­less sound of cicadas, the scam­per­ing of ani­mals, the sway­ing limbs of trees and rus­tles of leaves, and the sounds of human­i­ty, even if only in the form of dis­tant trains or high­ways, are evi­dent. But the vast bore­al regions of Cana­da, road­less, train­less and town­less, dom­i­nat­ed by motion­less black spruce and tama­rack, are silent at night. You have to be near a water­fall or a stretch of rapids to hear noise. The cold lakes are like black sheets of obsid­i­an. Iron­i­cal­ly, if there is a noise, it will car­ry across a lake for miles, so that you can make out a qui­et con­ver­sa­tion by a camp­fire from the oppo­site shore, and when a loon makes its occa­sion­al solemn cry, you don’t know if it’s near­by or three kliks away. I have vivid mem­o­ries of that silence, and the phrase nev­er had to be explained to me.

I live in a small apart­ment in down­town Toron­to. In fact, it is known to sta­tis­ti­cians as the most dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed place in Cana­da. With­in a short walk from my door, there are more peo­ple than in all of the Yukon, North­west and Nunavut ter­ri­to­ries com­bined. Nor­mal­ly, this is a very noisy neigh­bour­hood. The streets are usu­al­ly crowd­ed with traf­fic, peo­ple pour in and out of the sub­way sta­tions, the stores are full of shop­pers. There is always music. A few blocks from my home, the gay vil­lage has been a con­tin­u­ous­ly live­ly par­ty for the last half cen­tu­ry, and it’s nor­mal to see flocks of peo­ple on the streets at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morn­ing. Forests of con­do­mini­um tow­ers fill the air with domes­tic nois­es, and con­struc­tion crews are always ham­mer­ing, hoist­ing, and mix­ing con­crete to build new ones. Motor­cy­cles, heli­copters, cop cars, fire engines and ambu­lances add to the din.

Now, under lock­down, my neigh­bour­hood has the Silence of the North. For most of the day, you hard­ly hear a sound. For me, it’s a bit of nos­tal­gia. For the hard­core denizens, those “bred and but­tered in Toron­to” as the say­ing goes, it must be very dis­con­cert­ing. It’s “damned eerie,” one elder­ly gen­tle­man told me. But, every day, at 7:30 on the dot, a rau­cous din erupts, and lasts for about five min­utes. You hear the nation­al anthem loud­ly play­ing. Peo­ple are out on their bal­conies blow­ing whis­tles, bang­ing pots, and singing. The cus­tom, which began in Italy and spread around the world, is a need­ed emo­tion­al out­let as well as a trib­ute to the doc­tors, first respon­ders, care-givers and store clerks who must risk infec­tion so that life can go on.

For myself, I’m as sat­is­fied as a well-fed cat sleep­ing near a fire­place. Well-stocked with sup­plies, blessed with good neigh­bours who are self-dis­ci­plined and mutu­al­ly help­ful, and sur­round­ed by a vast col­lec­tion of books, films and music, I am in no posi­tion to com­plain about any­thing. While the pub­lic author­i­ties made some errors in the begin­ning, on the whole they are act­ing respon­si­bly ― even the ones I vot­ed against. None of them are wast­ing time with self-pro­mot­ing pro­pa­gan­da videos and all of them are pub­licly com­mit­ted to fol­low­ing the sci­ence to deter­mine pol­i­cy. Alber­ta, which began plan­ning for the pan­dem­ic last Decem­ber, and is con­se­quent­ly less seri­ous­ly affect­ed, is shar­ing its sur­plus med­ical sup­plies with the oth­er provinces, and Air Cana­da has vol­un­teered three large jets to move them. Pol­i­tics in Cana­da is not as a rule much con­cerned with race or reli­gion, as it is in our neigh­bour to the south, but it has always been char­ac­ter­ized by extreme rival­ries and con­stant bick­er­ing between the provinces, each of which sees itself more or less as a mini-nation. But in this cri­sis, all such rival­ries seem to have dis­ap­peared. I’ve nev­er seen the provinces get on so well, or co-oper­ate so effi­cient­ly. The one sour note is that the cri­sis has revealed the shock­ing lev­el of ill-pre­pared­ness and incom­pe­tence in pri­vate­ly-run homes for the aged, where half of our deaths have occurred. In one case, crim­i­nal charges are being con­sid­ered. On the brighter side, a com­pa­ny in Ottawa has devel­oped an effi­cient portable test­ing kit, giv­ing results in less than half an hour, that meets the government’s stan­dards, and mass pro­duc­tion of this kit is already under­way. Mass test­ing, when com­bined with social dis­tanc­ing and con­tact trac­ing, is the solid­ly proven way out of this mess. Let’s hope that the kit is real­ly as good as it seems, and that it is prop­er­ly deployed. I fol­low all the avail­able covid sta­tis­tics dai­ly. New Zealand and Ice­land, both of which are places whose sta­tis­tics are unques­tion­able, demon­strate that the virus can be beat­en if the cit­i­zen­ry, med­ical pro­fes­sion, and elect­ed offi­cials co-oper­ate and are pro-active. Cana­da is, of course, a much larg­er and more com­plex coun­try than those two, with some inbuilt dis­ad­van­tages that nei­ther the Kiwis nor the Jáarar have, but the evi­dence so far is that the meth­ods should be basi­cal­ly the same. We will not come out as squeaky-clean ― the scan­dalous fail­ure in our care for the elder­ly will be a stain on our record ― but we may at least get a “good effort” report card. As I write, test­ing lev­els have been con­sis­tent­ly bet­ter than aver­age, with imme­di­ate prospects of dras­tic improve­ment, no region­al med­ical sys­tem has been over­whelmed, though some are work­ing at a fren­zied pace, pro­cure­ment of essen­tial sup­plies seems to be assured, pub­lic response has been as good as any­one could rea­son­ably expect, social sol­i­dar­i­ty and pub­lic morale have remained high, the co-oper­a­tion between pri­vate indus­try and gov­ern­ment has been exem­plary, and there are no food short­ages or sig­nif­i­cant fail­ures in the sup­ply chain. I went to a super­mar­ket to stock up on fresh veg­eta­bles on Tues­day morn­ing, after more than a week spent entire­ly at home. I arrived just at store open­ing, and there was as yet no line-up to get in, though it had start­ed to form when I left, with all the pro­to­cols adhered to. I scanned the shelves, and every­thing appeared to be well-stocked, and even toi­let paper, cleansers, eggs, and canned goods were plen­ti­ful. The selec­tion of pro­duce was excel­lent. There was no evi­dence of price-goug­ing, but some items had lim­its-per-cus­tomer, and there were none of the usu­al “loss-leader” sale prices. If this nor­mal­cy can be sus­tained, I know not, but in any case my per­son­al stock­pile is suf­fi­cient for months, and I am only shop­ping for fresh items.

I’m able to keep my finances on an even keel, since my income is not depen­dent on leav­ing the apart­ment, and I have a small cush­ion in the bank to deal with any tem­po­rary short­fall. I’ve nev­er eat­en so well! Since the best way to relieve the inevitable cramps from sit­ting at the com­put­er is to get up and pre­pare a meal, and I no longer have the temp­ta­tion to run out and get three slices of piz­za or indulge in oth­er unhealthy whims, I am steadi­ly improv­ing my cook­ing skills. My neigh­bours tell me they are also doing this (except for the one who is a pro­fes­sion­al chef). I have fresh herbs grow­ing on the win­dowsill. I’m going to be using a lot of basil. If you plant basil it will just leap out of the soil and over­whelm every­thing, like the Blob in the 1958 Steve McQueen movie, while every oth­er herb has a tough Dar­win­ian strug­gle. My only regret is that I didn’t stock enough car­away seed, so my goulash and my borscht will no longer have the taste I pre­fer. But with all that basil, my Ital­ian dish­es will shine.

At the moment, I’m lis­ten­ing to Otmar Mácha’s Dou­ble Con­cer­to for Vio­lin, Piano and Orches­tra ― a some­what melo­dra­mat­ic piece. The cats are snooz­ing. After writ­ing the next few sen­tences, and post­ing them, I’ll curl up with the cats and read The Jour­nal of Nicholas Cress­well, 1774–1777. Am I trou­bled or incon­ve­nienced by the lock­down or social dis­tanc­ing? It’s a laugh­able idea. When Olive Fredrickson’s hus­band drowned in a lake, and her three chil­dren were near­ing star­va­tion, she walked forty miles in a bliz­zard to reach the clos­est neigh­bour in order to get food for them, and remarked that the expe­ri­ence left her with lit­tle love for wolves. There were as yet no phones or radios in her part of the world. There was no inter­net.

I have an apart­ment full of tech­nol­o­gy that, in my child­hood, I would have con­sid­ered a fan­tas­tic sci­ence fic­tion dream. The speed of light is 299,792,458 metres per sec­ond. My aver­age down­load speed is 28 Mbps. My friends are not far away in time, though some are pret­ty far in space. And I have very, very good friends.

Image of the Month

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 — “I see day like smoke.”

While the response of Cana­di­an author­i­ties to Covid-19 has not been ide­al, it at least makes a bet­ter-than-aver­age grade, and the ini­tial slug­gish response is quick­ly giv­ing way to a sci­ence-based one. Test­ing lev­els are still woe­ful­ly inad­e­quate. I have to admit that even Ontario’s noto­ri­ous­ly slimy Con­ser­v­a­tive admin­is­tra­tion is show­ing com­pe­tence, and Pre­mier Doug Ford, a con­gen­i­tal fat­head, has been on his best behav­iour. The Prime Min­is­ter is in iso­la­tion because of his wife’s pos­i­tive test, and gives press con­fer­ences alone. Nine­ty per­cent of gov­ern­ment busi­ness is now being con­duct­ed by skype or oth­er vir­tu­al plat­forms. Here in Ontario, pub­lic gath­er­ings are sus­pend­ed, restau­rants are closed except for take-out, and deliv­ery car­ri­ers wear face-masks. Only super­mar­kets and phar­ma­cies remain open. The bor­der is now closed with the Unit­ed States, with var­i­ous eco­nom­ic and med­ical-based excep­tions. There was con­sid­er­able “pan­ic buy­ing” over the week­end, and you can’t find either eggs or toi­let paper for the moment, but even at the height of this pan­ic buy­ing peo­ple remained polite and well-behaved. Super­mar­kets are assur­ing that they will be restocked quick­ly, and prices will remain the same. As of this writ­ing, eight Cana­di­ans have died. The supe­ri­or­i­ty of a sin­gle-pay­er pub­lic health insur­ance sys­tem in such an emer­gency is self-evi­dent beyond the slight­est doubt.

In the U.S., var­i­ous state gov­ern­ments have been tak­ing up the slack of a pathet­i­cal­ly inept and cor­rupt White House, and Amer­i­ca must place it’s hopes in local infra­struc­tures. Notable is Wash­ing­ton State, which has been hard hit and requires dras­tic mea­sures. Wash­ing­ton has about twice as many cas­es as all of Cana­da and has had 52 fatal­i­ties. Washington’s Pub­lic Health author­i­ties are fac­ing a fierce foe. But to demon­strate that state’s cre­ative spir­it, the best online web­site for con­sol­i­dat­ing cur­rent world Covid-19 sta­tis­tics was built as ear­ly as last Decem­ber — by Avi Schiff­man, a sev­en­teen-year-old high school stu­dent in a Seat­tle sub­urb.

Amer­i­can State-lev­el author­i­ties have been respond­ing admirably, but to show you the dif­fer­ence between the two Fed­er­al admin­is­tra­tions, I sub­mit the fol­low­ing image from a White House press con­fer­ence tak­en a few hours ago:

The most basic pro­to­cols in an epi­dem­ic are being vis­i­bly vio­lat­ed by the Pres­i­dent, Vice Pres­i­dent and his staff. This is idio­cy, incom­pe­tence and cor­rup­tion in a nut­shell.

By con­trast, this is a press con­fer­ence, for iden­ti­cal rea­sons, con­duct­ed at the same time by Finance Min­is­ter Bill Morneau and Bank of Cana­da Gov­er­nor Stephen Poloz fol­low­ing the Prime Minister’s solo address:

They are main­tain­ing the prop­er six-foot dis­tance, the few jour­nal­ists present are as well, and the bulk of ques­tions are being asked through the inter­net. This is fol­low­ing pro­to­col. 

Cana­di­ans have had lit­tle expe­ri­ence with epi­demics since the polio out­breaks of the 1950s and the glob­al flu pan­dem­ic of 1918. The most seri­ous recent issue was the SARS event of 2003, which killed 44 Cana­di­ans and was large­ly con­fined to Toron­to. I was work­ing in a med­ical lab­o­ra­to­ry at that time, han­dling poten­tial­ly infec­tious mate­ri­als, so I was kept abreast of the issue and had to fol­low very tight pro­to­cols. To this day, I keep my own home well stocked with dis­pos­able gloves, swabs, clean­ing agents and large quan­ti­ties of hydro­gen per­ox­ide — so I didn’t have to run out and buy any of these items. For that mat­ter, I am also stocked with enough house­hold sup­plies (such as bins of rice, dried beans and peas, flour, cous­cous, mil­let, as well as canned goods) to stay at home for months, if nec­es­sary. Toron­to hos­pi­tals were caught with their pants down dur­ing SARS, and I’m told that stan­dards are con­sid­er­ably bet­ter now. 

But if you go back in his­to­ry, you can learn what hav­ing to deal with the real hor­rors of epi­dem­ic dis­ease is like. I’m present­ly read­ing an amaz­ing book called The Many Voy­ages of Arthur Welling­ton Clah, by Peg­gy Brock. 

Arthur Welling­ton Clah was a Tsimshi­an man born in 1831 in a vil­lage in the Nass Riv­er val­ley of coastal British Colum­bia. At the age of 26, Clah [his hered­i­tary name was Sgała’axł Xsgi­igł] was taught to speak and write Eng­lish by William Dun­can, an Angli­can mis­sion­ary, and adopt­ed a per­son­al ver­sion of a Chris­t­ian reli­gious faith, giv­ing no alle­giance to either the Angli­can or Methodist sects that he was exposed to. Dur­ing his long life, he worked at a wide vari­ety of jobs, was often an ambi­tious entre­pre­neur, and trav­elled wide­ly in B.C., Alas­ka, the Yukon, and Wash­ing­ton State. 

With­in months of learn­ing to write, he began to keep a diary, and he main­tained this diary for the next fifty years. Over this half cen­tu­ry, he pro­duced over 650,000 words of hand-writ­ten entries, the equiv­a­lent of Tolkien’s com­bined Hob­bit, Lord of the Rings, and Sil­mar­il­lion. By 1890 it had evolved into a repos­i­to­ry of his per­son­al philo­soph­i­cal mus­ings and an ambi­tious attempt to write a his­to­ry of his peo­ple. Clah was proud of his work and want­ed to see it pub­lished for pos­ter­i­ty, but the man­u­script lan­guished for a cen­tu­ry in the stacks of the Well­come Library in Lon­don. It presents many dif­fi­cul­ties to researchers because Clah’s Eng­lish was very crude in the begin­ning, and was nev­er the lan­guage he thought in. It con­tains lit­tle punc­tu­a­tion, and because of its idiomat­ic speci­fici­ty can only be puz­zled out by some­one very famil­iar with the com­plex­i­ties of the Tsimshi­an, Nisga’a, Hai­da, Heilt­suk, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Tlin­git cul­tures of the region. Peg­gy Brock’s book draws on the diary and explains its con­text in order to pro­duce a bal­anced biog­ra­phy of Clah. This is admirable and quite dif­fi­cult schol­ar­ly work, so I will not dimin­ish it with any kib­itz­ing.

When Clah began this diary, there were but a hand­ful of Euro­peans in British Colum­bia, and the abo­rig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion count­ed hun­dreds of thou­sands. The Tsimshi­an and oth­er coastal peo­ple lived in sub­stan­tial towns of large wood­en build­ings dec­o­rat­ed with art that still daz­zles and amazes the world to this day. By the end of it, the Euro­pean and Asian pop­u­la­tions far out­num­bered them, and most of the 20 or so abo­rig­i­nal nations, who spoke dis­parate lan­guages and pur­sued wide­ly vary­ing lifestyles, had been mas­sive­ly dis­rupt­ed and dimin­ished by the effects of deal­ing with gold-rush­es, incom­ing set­tlers, the impo­si­tion of Colo­nial and then Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment, reli­gious con­ver­sions, the rise of forestry and fish can­ning, urban­ism, the sup­pres­sion of the Pot­latch, and most of all, infec­tious dis­ease. When he made his last entries as a some­what lone­ly and embit­tered man with fail­ing eye­sight, he described the streets of his native vil­lage:

I walk up Git­lax­dan­sk vil­lage. The place half emp­ty, use[d] to be big place. [F]irst time I take my wife in that tribe [,] good many peo­ple [:] strong tribe and rich peo­ple to all tribes on [N]ass riv­er [.] [N]ow tribe very poor. [P]eople very near all out. [G]o easy places the young peo­ple.

While the var­i­ous cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal shocks that abo­rig­i­nal soci­eties in the Pacif­ic North­west (on both sides of the Canadian/American bor­der) expe­ri­enced were seri­ous, noth­ing was as over­whelm­ing­ly destruc­tive as infec­tious dis­ease, par­tic­u­lar­ly small­pox. This began appear­ing as ear­ly as the 1790’s either intro­duced by the Span­ish ships that explored the coast, or more like­ly trav­el­ling up through the Basin & Range regions from the Span­ish set­tle­ments in New Mex­i­co, car­ried by the com­plex trade net­works of the Man­dan. But the real dev­as­ta­tion began in the 1820s, as Amer­i­can set­tlers along the Ore­gon Trail brought small­pox and measles. From then on, the death rate often exceed­ed 80% of the abo­rig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion in a sin­gle sea­son, and wave after wave of such pan­dem­ic slaugh­ter drift­ed north­ward into Clah’s home­land. Clah’s vil­lage expe­ri­enced a dis­as­trous small­pox epi­dem­ic when he was five years old.

Arthur Welling­ton Clah [Sgała’axł Xsgi­igł]

Brock writes:

Clah remem­bered the small­pox epi­dem­ic of 1836 and the many who died from the dis­ease. His account of the epi­dem­ic of 1862 is much more detailed. In that year, small­pox, which had been intro­duced to Vic­to­ria via a ship from San Fran­cis­co, quick­ly spread through the Tsimshi­an Reserve at Rocky Bay and then to oth­er camps. Tsimshi­an expelled from Vic­to­ria took the dis­ease north. Fright­ened peo­ple were giv­en a day’s warn­ing to vacate the reserve. They burned their hous­es and blan­kets before leav­ing, and a gun­boat in the bay ensured their depar­ture. Although doc­tors start­ed vac­ci­nat­ing peo­ple in Vic­to­ria, three hun­dred Tsimshi­an had con­tract­ed small­pox and twen­ty had died by late April. Doc­tors also went up the Coast to vac­ci­nate the Abo­rig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion, as did Dun­can, who was con­cerned the vac­ci­na­tions were not tak­ing. It is impos­si­ble from the data avail­able to deter­mine their effec­tive­ness. The epi­dem­ic ran its course by Decem­ber, when Clah wrote to Dun­can that there had been 301 deaths and 2,069 sur­vivors among the Fort Simp­son tribes. Pre­sum­ably, Clah had been vac­ci­nat­ed, for he did not get the dis­ease, even though he nursed rel­a­tives with small­pox. The Tsimshi­an also tried treat­ing them­selves with reme­dies such as “woomash” plant, which Clah went up the Nass Riv­er to col­lect in July.

This cat­a­stro­phe rup­tured the spir­i­tu­al cos­mos and social fab­ric of Tsimshi­an soci­ety. Drink­ing and vio­lence were two symp­toms; burn­ing reli­gious para­pher­na­lia and mak­ing sac­ri­fices for abso­lu­tion were oth­ers. Clah believed the Tsimshi­an had angered the Chris­t­ian God by lying, steal­ing, com­mit­ting mur­der, and engag­ing in drunk­en fight­ing. He prayed for God to for­give them and take away the sick­ness. This cri­sis no doubt pushed oth­ers towards Chris­tian­i­ty. Duncan’s mis­sion cer­tain­ly ben­e­fit­ed. 

Epi­dem­ic dis­ease was one of the chief moul­ders of Clah’s life and world­view. Of his dozen chil­dren only three sur­vived to adult­hood. Two sons lived only to the ages of twelve and thir­teen, both killed by measles. Two daugh­ters died in their mid-teens. His last son made it to the age of 23. Far from any fatal­is­tic Sto­icism, the diaries are filled with accounts of the emo­tion­al trau­ma caused by these deaths. But Clah’s res­olute devo­tion to telling his sto­ry is best shown in an entry made as his sight began to fail: “My eyes half blind. I see day like smoke. But I don’t stop writ­ing.” 

Image of the Month — Towers of the Caucasus

Vovnush­ki — A pass-guard­ing tow­er com­plex in Ingushetia. Pho­to: Timur Agirov

Image of the Month

Image of the Month

Image of the Month

Image of the Month — Why you get great bargains at Walmart

Image of the Month — Why there will never be a wall between Canada and the United States

This man is stand­ing on the U.S. / Cana­di­an bor­der on a minor moun­tain range. The image faces north, with British Colum­bia in the back­ground. The bor­der is 8,891 kilo­me­tres (5,525 miles) long… and a lot of it is like this. In one place in Yukon Ter­ri­to­ry, it is 18,000 feet above sea lev­el and sur­round­ed by hun­dreds of miles of glac­i­ers. A tem­per­a­ture of −77.5 °C (−107.5 °F) has been record­ed there. A long por­tion cuts through the mid­dle of the Great Lakes, and bisects Nia­gara Falls. In the old­er, east­ern por­tions it pass­es through the mid­dle of small towns. In one case, it cuts diag­o­nal­ly through a pub­lic library, indi­cat­ed by a black line paint­ed on the floor. The book check-in and check-out are in dif­fer­ent coun­tries.