Stop with the Categorical Thinking Already!

Robert Sapolsky is a Stanford University neuroscientist. In this video he introduces a course he taught (7 years ago at least) on human behavioural biology to a freshman class. As he explains in this video, students don’t need any prerequisites for this course. They don’t need a science background. 

Although the course is called Introduction to Human Behavioural Biology, it’s about avoiding categorical thinking in science but also generally in life. 

Sapolsky is one of the most talented and entertaining lecturers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to and watching. I would have loved to have taken his course. It’s well worth watching this video in its entirety (57 minutes). The second video in the series is  1 hour and 37 minutes long, but again well worth the time to watch and re-watch. Aside from these YouTube videos Sapolsky was featured in a 2008 National Geographic video called Stress (available on YouTube) which I used in my classes. It compares olive baboons in Africa with stressed out British bureaucrats in Whitehall, London, the seat of the British civil service. 

If you want, you could watch the YouTube video now and after watching it continue reading below to see why I suggest you watch it. 

I’ve recently had to think about categorical thinking because of a comment made by a commentator to my blog who suggested, very innocently I’m sure, that it’s probable that older people get set in their ways. She wasn’t denigrating that outcome as she saw it suggesting that it’s likely natural (as I interpret her meaning). I had to think: is categorical thinking inevitable as we age and am I a ‘victim’ of categorical thinking? My answer to both questions is a categorical no! Categorical thinking is not inevitable and if there’s anything I have spent my whole career trying to avoid, it’s categorical thinking. 

At the moment I’m reading a (1999) book by Ellen Meiksins Wood called The Origin of Capitalism. Well, over the years I’ve read dozens of books on this topic from various perspectives within various disciplines. Every time I pick up a book, any book, I’m open to having my mind changed and my ideas modified. Otherwise, why read anything? In this case, Wood is presenting me with a viewpoint on the subject I haven’t seen before and I’m still wondering what to make of it. I keep shaking my head because her perspective is quite foreign to me. For one thing, she is focussed on the origins of capitalism. Capitalism is a word Marx never used. At best it refers to a political-economic system. When Marx discusses capital or the capitalist mode of production, he’s not referring to a system, but to a period in history. I have to re-read Wood to ensure that I understand her notions of capitalism and especially her contention that capitalism originated in English agrarian life. Equally strange is her use of the terms revolution and class. 

Reading Meiksins forces me to rethink categories. I will assess her perspective and incorporate it wholly or in part into my worldview or reject it based on the evidence. 

I just received another book in the mail today. It’s by R.D. Laing, one of favourite rogue psychiatrists. It was written in 1976, the year I entered grad school, and is entitled The Facts of Life.  After I’m done reading these books and watching more Robert Sapolsky on YouTube, something which always helps buoy my spirits, I’ll re-read Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. Sapolsky is really high on this guy so I have to read it again in light of the video posted above. 

Please, enjoy Sapolsky. Find his other videos on YouTube. He’s a delight!

My Life as Teacher: Addendum

So, in my blog post on teaching I left out a major part of my teaching experience. That was writing and presenting 254 live-interactive telecourses on the Knowledge Network. These telecourses were North Island College courses, but used the Knowledge Network as the transmission medium. I started with a studying skills course then added another one to be followed by an introductory sociology course and then a second sociology course.

When I say that my courses were live-interactive, I mean that I went on live with only an 8 second delay. No rehearsals, no retakes. It also means that we opened the phone lines during most of broadcasts to entertain questions or comments from the audience, sometimes they were even my students. One of my favourite comments came from a guy living in Masset in Haida Gwai. He was obviously drunk, slurring his words, but he was able to get out a comment: “I think your program is a crock of shit!” I did the only thing I could do and entertained the next caller. Never a dull moment. Mostly I got kudos, even from people in prison. I had a number of students in prisons in Saskatchewan. My courses ran all over Western Canada and I had students from many small and large communities, close to a thousand one year. I think it was 1987 or 1988, I accounted for 10% of the college’s course enrolments.

I did my courses live from the Knowledge Network studios first at UBC then in Burnaby on Mathissi Place. I travelled to Vancouver mostly be plane, often a twin or single Otter, stayed in Vancouver overnight at a hotel close to the airport, did my shows then flew home. I did this every week during the Fall and Winter terms from 1987 until 1992. During the summers I worked on scripts and new material. I also was in charge of courses on campus too so I was a very busy guy.

I learned much later that some of my colleagues thought that I was getting extra money for doing the Knowledge Network work. Absolutely not. It was just part of my job. It was exciting to do  television teaching, but it was also exhausting and I paid for it health wise.

If you want, you can now transport yourself back to 1990, pretend you’re sitting in your living room with the TV on and my program comes on. This is what it was like:

Yes, you can have a laugh at my expense. I can take it.

 

Reconciliation or Conciliation?

I’ve been pondering this issue for some time and it seems clear to me that reconciliation is not the word we should be using to describe the relationship the Canadian governments, and we as a whole, have with indigenous peoples in Canada today.

Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines reconciliation as “the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement.” Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but the reality is that the Canadian Government has never been particularly friendly towards indigenous people in this country. How can the Canadian government then make friends with indigenous people when they never were friends in the first place?

There was never a ‘disagreement’ between the Canadian Government and the hundreds of indigenous nations on this land we call Canada, which also extend into one of the other colonial countries on  this continent. During the French regime, there was some coöperation between the colonial administration and some of the indigenous nations on the north shore of the St.Laurence river. However, there was no doubt that the values of the colonial administrators and indigenous leaders often clashed. Indigenous people were quite understandably taken with copper pots after having to cook their food by throwing hot rocks into cedar containers filled with water and victuals. They were happy to trade beaver pelts for them and for firearms. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before the colonial administrators undermined the indigenous way of life using the Recollet and Jesuit clergy who promised the indigenous people trade goods if they were to convert to Catholicism. Many did.

Of course, events and circumstances in the French Regime were not ‘Canadian’ events. The British took over from the French what we now call Canada in 1763. They let the colony govern itself after 1867 but had by then instituted an Indian Affairs Department which was perpetuated by the colonial Canadian administration of John A. Macdonald and his cronies after Confederation. By 1876 they passed the Indian Act to clearly cement the master/slave relationship that has lasted ever since.

Obviously, many indigenous people as individuals have often succeeded in their chosen endeavours as lawyers, fishers, business people, university professors, administrators, elected officials, carpenters, plumbers, social workers, etc., but individual success does not deny the collective degradation that colonial powers have consistently tried to burden them with historically. The fact that reserves exist and are legally owned by the federal government, the fact that the statistics on poverty, mental illness, suicide, etc., demonstrate that as a group, indigenous people have suffered immense harm over the course of Canadian history. You would have to be a hardcore bigot to argue that collectively indigenous people are inferior to white folk as a means of explaining their poor statistical profile. Unfortunately, our culture, our societies, our political structures including our cities, police forces, and courts are built on the tacit assumption of indigenous inferiority.

Over the last 150 years, indigenous leaders have challenged the colonial arrangement that governed their lives. They signed treaties, fought battles with firearms and resisted in many ways. Every time the government felt the least bit threatened by ‘uppity Indians’ it passed amendments to the Indian Act further restricting the movements and activities of indigenous peoples. The potlatch ban, pass laws and the overarching presence of the Indian agent made for difficult times for indigenous people. Still, they never gave up. They faced racism and discrimination, marginalization and exploitation of the worst kind. There were exceptions, of course. There always are.

Now, indigenous leaders, most of them using great restraint and patience, are looking for recognition of traditional culture and ways of life and the revitalization of their languages, but they’re also looking for a better economic deal than they’ve ever had, and its working. New treaties are being signed and new relationships with the federal government are being forged with indigenous people no longer willing to take whatever crumbs the Canadian government offers. They are no longer interested in tokenism and false promises and they have lawyers.

What this amounts to is ‘conciliation’ not ‘reconciliation’. It’s a tribute to indigenous communities all over this country that their preferred way of negotiating is respectful and patient. We need to learn from them. What really strikes me is that indigenous success in business and other ventures will enrich us all.

Conciliation is a process that is slowly happening now. Reconciliation was never possible and is not even realistic given the colonial history of this country. The word implies a past where we all got along splendidly and for some reason grew apart. Anybody who believes that has been living in a dream world or in Tierra Del Fuego. We need to talk about conciliation, not reconciliation. More than that, we have to live conciliation with patience and love.

 

What’s So Scary About Women? Introduction

In my last few blog posts I promised I would tackle a most difficult topic and that’s the misogyny embedded in many of our institutions. Well, that’s what I will do over the next few blog posts.

I’ve always liked to try to figure out how things work. When I was a kid I used to dissect and disassemble things all the time. I was forever curious about how things were made, especially mechanical things. Taking them apart was not usually too much of a problem, but to my father’s dismay, putting them back together was sometimes not so easy. My favourite targets were toys and motors but clocks really topped the list. As I got older and went away to a Catholic boarding school in Edmonton for high school, I still had a live curiosity but the priests were not too keen on seeing things taken apart and strewn here and there on campus. They were especially protective of the lab equipment. Looking back on it, I remember also having a keen interest in why people did things the way they did them. I had a hard time making sense of what I came to know as institutions (crystallized habits of thought and life). And, of course, figuring out why I had a penis and my sisters didn’t was top of mind. That said, I would never have dared, after turning 4, to bring up such a subject at dinner time. The disapproval would have been swift and sometimes mildly violent. I felt very early on that certain subjects were absolutely taboo. Still, lots of sniggering went on because we children weren’t yet completely indoctrinated. Of course, we learned a few anatomical things by playing doctor but it wasn’t easy to figure out the moral issues involved. The questions definitely outnumbered the answers in my first two decades of life on earth.

In my early twenties, after a serious sawmill accident, I had back surgery and wondered what to do next. Well, I went a little crazy for a while, smashed up a few cars, got drunk and stoned frequently but I had a couple of mentors that made a huge difference in my life. They prompted me to go to university. I applied to Simon Fraser University (SFU), but was rejected because my grades in high school were lousy so I attended Douglas College in New Westminster for two years, got an A average, had some great teachers and decided at that time to study sociology. On I went to SFU. That time of my life was super exciting and difficult too because of money, to be certain, but also because of sex. I couldn’t seem to get enough of it and too much of my energy went into pursuing it or worrying about not getting any. The sex drive for me was very powerful. It’s hard to concentrate under these conditions. I was clumsy and ridiculous like most of my friends and acquaintances around the subject of sex, but this was the early seventies for god’s sake. We would have been into some promiscuity and there was definitely some loosening of mores but we were mostly unsatisfied. But when all else failed, we always had some beer and weed to make us feel better. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about sex and women. I should now say sorry to all the women I was a dickhead to in those days. It wasn’t me, it was my gonads. Now that I’m 71 that drive, thankfully, is largely attenuated. Frankly, I don’t know how most of us get through our teen years. Our bodies are yelling at us YES and our damned superegos are blocking our genital paths to glory. Oh well, such is life. Eventually, I met Carolyn and that was that. We fit together nicely.

It took me a while to get settled into the academic life. For a long time I called myself a Marxist but I stopped doing that for the same reason that Marx pointed to French syndicalists in the late 1870s saying that if these people are Marxists then I’m not. I still find Marx’s analysis of history very compelling, but I I strayed from looking only at economic matters to studying schizophrenia (R.D. Laing, Thomas Szasz, etc), mental illness, depression (with which I’ve been on intimate terms with), crime, deviance, social solidarity, morality, Norbert Elias and other things. In my last couple of years teaching I taught a sociology course on love and sex. Given what I wrote above, this fit right to my curiosity bag. I got interested in pornography. What is it about porn that makes it such a lucrative business? It’s one of the top internet money makers( yes, people sniggered.) And, of course, I had a long standing interest in Ernest Becker’s work. You just have to check the archives on this blog to ascertain that. Becker’s book Escape From Evil has a lot to say about sex and about misogyny. In fact, Becker’s work is the foundation of my views on this topic.

So, in the next few blog posts I will address Becker’s work to start with, especially his emphasis on evil, animality and our institutional denial of death. Then I want to look more specifically at woman as temptress, as devil. I will follow that up with a look at language and women before turning to marriage and some of the other cultural institutions of sexual relations. Things may evolve as I go along. The order I present issues may change. Your comments might modify my approach too.

I must say, in concluding this introduction, that I, by no means, intend to glorify women and vilify men. We are all ‘guided’ in our actions by our social relations, our language, our sex, our gender, our economic interests, our egos, and a myriad of other factors. Morality plays a huge role although we barely ever mention it. We swim in a moral world but we seldom recognize it. Like fish who don’t know they swim in water, we are the last to recognize that we swim in a moral world. In this series of posts I’ll try to open up that moral world a bit so that we can see more deeply into want makes us tick as humans.

Recent Developments in the Canadian Economy: Fall 2016

This Economic Insights article examines the extent to which the lifetime income of children is correlated with the lifetime income of their fathers—a topic known as intergenerational income mobility. The analysis uses data from Statistics Canada’s Intergenerational Income Database, which links together children and their parents using tax files. The data provides information that permits the comparison of the income of children to those of parents at a similar stage of the lifecycle.

Source: Recent Developments in the Canadian Economy: Fall 2016

This article by staff at StatsCan looks pretty straightforward at first glance. It tells the story of the ‘Canadian economy’ for the year leading up to this fall. However, the real story lies elsewhere. As I’ve noted a hundred times, Canada doesn’t trade, ‘it’ doesn’t produce goods. it doesn’t sell goods. Those activities are carried out by business, largely in the form of large multinational corporations. That’s where you have to look if you really want to figure out what’s going on in the world of ‘economics.’ More on this soon, although a search through my archives will yield a lot of writing on this topic.

 

Our Fleeting Lives.

I have two photographs to show you. The first one is of 634 Alderson Avenue in Coquitlam, British Columbia.

634now
Picture 1

The second is also of 634 Alderson Avenue in Coquitlam, British Columbia but this house no longer exists. It stood on exactly the piece of ground now occupied by the duplex in picture 1. It was my family home.

634then
Picture 2

 

Just so you know, the first image I downloaded from Google Earth street view. The second one I got from one of my sisters. I don’t want to relive my family’s life in the home depicted in the second photograph, the one I would call my family home but it would be an interesting journalistic exercise. After all, it was a very important place in my life for years. No, what I want to do is dwell upon another reality. But first a little background.

 

Look at photograph 1 and you see a relatively new duplex between a home on the right and a fourplex on the left. The fourplex has been there some time and existed when the house in photograph 2 was there. It was built after a very dilapidated home was torn down sometime in the sixties if memory serves me right. The house on the right stands on a lot my family sold after our property was subdivided into a number of parcels. It was built sometime in the sixties too. The photo is unexceptional in just about every way. The unit on the left of the duplex is 636 Alderson Avenue and the unit on the right is 634.

 

That (634) was the address of my family home for a long time. I’m not sure exactly for how long because I don’t really know when my father and his first wife moved into it. I think it was sometime in 1937. When my parents moved out of the house you see in picture 2 one of my sisters bought it from them, sometime in the 1980s, the house was still in the family for a period of time. Later, after my sister sold the house it was eventually demolished and the duplex in picture 1 was built to replace it. By the time it was demolished, the house in picture 2 had undergone extensive renovations. Although the house was ‘serviceable’ that mattered not, it was demolished. That’s just the way it is. I lived there for 12 years with my many siblings starting in 1947 before I went off to boarding school in Edmonton in 1959, then on and off for a few more years. Actually the details aren’t important except as background information.

 

What I want to focus on here is something that has been a preoccupation of mine throughout my academic career and even earlier, I’m thinking, and that’s the fleeting aspect of our lives, their finiteness within a field of infiniteness.  It’s a cliché to say that the generations come and go, that each of us is born and dies. That’s certainly true, but what interests me here is the substance underlying the cliché, how we think about these things, explain them to ourselves, reconcile them with the natural cycles of matter and energy and attempt to derive some kind of meaning for our existence.

The house I lived in, the house my family occupied for decades is gone. All the activity, all the sorrow, the happiness, the sadness, the love that permeated that place are gone. All gone. Yes, my sisters and brothers have many memories of life there. Stories abound. Yet the house is gone, forever. Poof! In a flash of time.

I’m thinking that the people who currently live at 634 Alderson Avenue in Coquitlam, BC, have no sense at all of what may have stood on the very spot they now occupy. To them, the property is what it is. Their lives are ongoing. They move easily from room to room. They have things to do, people to see, work to go to. They eat and sleep without ever thinking about the people who lived there previously. They may not even know that people lived there previously.

Yet, people did. I did. My brothers and sisters did. My parents did. There was life there, there was drama. There was tedium. The current residents don’t know that my father had the front yard paved over. I know that he did, but I’m not sure exactly why except to get rid of the patchy lawn that was there before and to increase parking spaces. They have no idea of the tons of laundry my  mother did every week, of the piles of soiled diapers that she cleaned, the Sunday pork and beef roasts my father used to put on the stove in the morning and the many loaves of bread my mother baked every three or four days. They don’t know about the laughter, the tears, the pain and the joy that characterized that home. They have no sense of anything that was there before them. Fair enough of course. I wouldn’t expect them to.

What is interesting, I think, is that the same kind of experience of things exists in cities, towns and villages everywhere. The current Rome is built on several past Romes that keep turning up in archeological digs. The same thing goes for Paris, Beirut and London and every other human occupied place on earth. I’m quite sure that the house I lived in at 634 Alderson Avenue was the first one built on that piece of property. I’m guessing trees, brambles and bushes stood on the homesite before the house was built. In Rome there are buildings raised on the debris and remains of several other generations of houses and homes previously erected there. Of course, at one time there were no man-made structures on the planet at all. Then, as a species, we moved like a fungus across the planet and occupied large tracts of land, building structures on them, some with a degree of longevity, some with none. It seems solid. It all seems so real, yet it’s all fleeting. Nothing is forever, not 634 Alderson Avenue, not Rome. We move silently through time glancing backward now and then but catching only glimpses of what went before.

We, as a species, will evolve right out of existence. No doubt at all about that. But that’s nothing to be sad about, nothing to fear. That’s just the way it is. Fighting it has gotten us nothing but pain and grief.

We try to hang on to the past in many ways. We write history.  We practice archaeology and anthropology. We study how biological forms change and evolve. We measure tectonic action and we track the movements of stars and the galaxies.

We try to hang on to some sense of what we were. We take photographs. We write diaries in the hope of remembering something from the past. I have some journal writing from the 80s and 90s and when I look at them and read about what I was doing on a specific day in February, 1989, I’m not actually remembering those experiences. I’m not reliving them. I have an idea of what I was doing, getting a coffee, for example, but I’m not reliving that moment.

We record action, events, scenes of all kinds. We record human conversations and whale vocalizations. We film political speeches and we have buildings full of archives, artifacts, petrified bones and old art works. We try to hang on to the past. But all of it is fleeting.

 

As I approach my 70th birthday in January, 2017, I guess my death is more of a reality to me than it’s ever been. I’m not sad about that. I’m not depressed about that. My death will happen momentarily because life passes by that quickly, but that’s fine. Some of you will mourn my passing but don’t spend too long grieving. As I watched my father-in-law dying in a hospital bed in Burnaby General Hospital in 1989, the traffic outside just passed on by. Not many people took notice of his death. We did, of course, and we were sad. Same for when my father died in 2007. He as 94 years old and ready to go. His body was determined to go back into the pot of organic matter that makes our world go around. One day he was there, kissing babies, working his ass off trying to feed his many children, and the next moment he was gone. That’s our truth.

That’s our lives. I often think about my father these days. He was a man of tradition but he was also an excellent craftsman and inventor. After I got to be 14 years old or so we often worked together. He was my boss on many occasions, and he was a good one too. I don’t know why this is still with me, but I vividly remember the first time I heard him say ‘fuck’. My, I was shocked but impressed. I was 9 years old and with him on a Saturday visit to the sawmill he worked at on Lulu Island. As we left the plant in late afternoon he talked briefly to the watchman and that’s when he uttered the infamous word. Shocking and revealing. My father was human! I remember when he and I flew to Winnipeg to pick up my Austin Healy Sprite, a car I left there after a youthful infatuation with a young woman in St-Norbert, who at that time I would say was way above my station in life. He was great. He put up with my whining and snivelling. He was so forgiving and caring. I must say that I could be a jerk as a kid. But I wasn’t a complete waste of skin. We had some wonderful times as kids building forts, digging tunnels and just farting around. I was mouthy and bratty and that got me into trouble on occasion. As a teen, I was often sullen, thoughtless and miserable. Par for the course.  I smashed up the Volkwagen van parked in front of the house in picture 2. Damn near killed myself along with a friend of mine. I was careless. I was irresponsible, and after that crash, I was brain-damaged for years, something that didn’t improve my outlook on life. Eventually, I grew out of it and up, went back to school and the rest is history. The people who now live at 634 Alderson Avenue know nothing of this and I’m sure they wouldn’t care if they did. That’s the way it is.

We look for continuity in our lives, we look for meaning. We even crave immortality and have created countless ways of convincing ourselves that our bodily deaths aren’t real and that our ‘souls’ will live on. I know people, irreligious people even, who at celebrations of life, still insist that the deceased loved one is somewhere up there, looking down and waiting for us to follow. It’s so hard to find any meaning in the minutia of life, in the fleeting memories and impressions we have of past events. So we look elsewhere and we create elaborate cultural schemes to convince ourselves that our lives have ultimate meaning and that there is life after death. It’s kind of a natural reaction, I’m thinking, that our big brains have devised to deal with death, the ultimate evil. Of course it depends on what we think life is and what death is.

Enough for now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My personal statement from 1990 on the Knowledge Network.

Why not post a video I did in 1990. That’s only 26 years ago! Frankly, what I say in this 7 minute clip I still relevant to me today. I think it’s a good way to start off my new set of blog posts. Hope you enjoy it, although ‘enjoy’ may not be the best word to use here. The clip was filmed in Vancouver with a Knowledge Network crew over a 12 hour period in one day. It was part of my North Island College tele course on the Knowledge Network that ran from 1986 until 1992. Interesting times.

Roger