Brave New World author Aldous Huxley used to amuse himself by reading up on water treatment systems, among others things.  He had an astoundingly comprehensive grasp of science and the arts, and may well have been the world’s last living generalist. Since his death in 1963, infoglut has outpaced us all, and today’s experts preside over deep, but narrowing, fiefdoms of expertise.

There’s an old joke that says a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less, until he knows everything about nothing. But when did full-on ignorance become a badge of pride among political leaders? During the recent debate in the US congress over the Internet bill SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act), North Carolina Democratic representative Mel Watt professed his ignorance on copyright issues, saying that he was  “just as an old country boy” who didn’t fully grab this “complex stuff.”

The fact that Watts was the ‘Ranking Member of the Intellectual Property Subcommittee’ might make you wonder who’s actually in charge in the US legislative branch. (If the word ‘lobbyists” just sprang to mind, bingo.)

“Maybe we oughta ask some nerds what this really does,” said Utah Republican representative Jason Chaffetz of the SOPA bill. “… Let’s have a hearing, bring in the nerds.” As Daily Show host Jon Stewart observed, ‘nerd’ is just another word for ‘expert.’ It’s the pejorative term of choice by the uninformed to describe the informed.

Before his flameout in the Republican race, Herman Cain tried his own I’m-no-expert approach with limited success.  He took a preemptive strike against what he called “gotcha questions” by saying he didn’t know the name of the president of “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.”

In the US, “elite” is often a code word for educated. Commentators have remarked how Republican candidate Jon Huntsman’s command of a second language worked against him when he spoke a few lines of Mandarin during the debates.

Left-leaning progressives are often kneecapped by the arrogant conviction of their own wisdom. But the right often positions a fundamental lack of knowledge as kinship with the common man; hence the unapologetic presidential tenure of the marble-mouthed George W. Bush.

There is no shortage of intelligence in the United States. It’s just not distributed very evenly.

That said, the proudly worn dunce cap is not limited to one side of the border. Serious crime rates in Canada have been dropping for years, but Justice Minister Rob Nicholson isn’t about to let the facts get in the way of Harpers’ Omnibus Crime Bill, which threatens marijuana growers with longer mandatory sentences than child molestors.

“We don’t govern on the basis of statistics. If we see a need to better protect children or send a message to drug dealers, that’s the basis upon which we’re proceeding,” Nicholson told Parliament. In other words, when it comes to crime, the Tories govern by feelings rather than facts.

When facts are regarded as nuisances, books become a bother.  During a debate on proposals to close some Toronto City libraries, Doug Ford, the Toronto councilor brother of mayor Rob Ford, proudly confessed his ignorance of writer Margaret Atwood. “I don’t even know her,” he said. “If she walked by me I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.” He added that if she wanted to be heard she should run for office, according to The Toronto Star.

Such intentional lack of awareness isn’t limited to leaders, of course. The less people know about complex issues involving the economy, energy and the environment, the more they desire to stay uninformed, according to a study from the American Psychological Association. The more critical the issue, the more people prefer to avoid thinking about it.

Actually, there’s an entire TV network for that. A poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University determined that Fox News viewers are less informed about domestic and foreign affairs than those who don’t watch any news at all. And a 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently determined that atheists and agnostics are more knowledgeable about religion than believers.

Little of this may have surprised Aldous Huxley, who knew a thing or two about human nature and just about everything else. “Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don’t know because we don’t want to know.”

The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 27


Money talks, and these days it’s just about screaming at us. If the rise and fall of stock exchanges aren’t front and centre on the evening news, then it’s our overheated housing market. It seems like almost every other discussion in our daily lives involves some riff on money or debt. Filthy lucre is both a conversational strange attractor and our social policy yardstick.

Economists tell us human social organization is ultimately based on “exchange relations.” In other words, the market came prior to everything else. The golden calf-or bronze bull if you prefer-demands constant sacrifice.

University of London anthropologist David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years, turns this received wisdom on its head. For centuries, there were institutions that put social controls on debt, in recognition of its potential harm to society. Whether it was Mesopotamian sacred kingship, Mosaic jubilees, Canon Law or Islamic Sharia, the leaders of society reigned in the debtors. No longer, observes the author. We are now witnessing the rise of the first planetary administrative system designed to protect the interests of creditors over the social contract. The banksters and beancounters rule the world.

The standard story on the beginnings of money goes something like this: way back in prehistory, someone had one goat too many. A neighbour had a flock of chickens. The two met and decided to exchange a goat for an agreed upon number of chickens. Later, barter gave way to coinage. Currency could stand in as a quantifiable measure for goats or chickens, or anything else. After that came credit-promissory notes, bills of exchange etc.

Wrong, says anthropologist Graeber, who argues that “the earliest forms of money were the kind that one finds in stateless societies (Solomon Island feather money, Iroquois wampum) that were mostly used to arrange marriages, resolve blood feuds, and fiddle with other sorts of relations between people, rather than to buy and sell commodities.”

The first economic exchanges, in a tribal setting, were based on networks of mutual support and reciprocity. Early tribal societies were more about giving away than hoarding, because the gift economy strengthened the network of mutual obligations. Graeber’s anthropological point of view supports the ideas of University of Bologna professor of economics Stefano Zamagni, who has long argued that reciprocity runs prior to market relations. (A family governed entirely by market relations would be a nightmare, Zamagni observes.)

Graeber, who approaches money from the discipline of anthropology, insists that currency-gold and silver in particular-emerged in the markets that often followed armies or royal entourages “or formed near palaces or at the fringes of military posts.” Commodity money has long gone hand-in-hand with violence, he contends. In fact, one of the principle uses of money by warring states involved slavery.

War fuelled debt, which demanded taxation, and debt was payable in slaves. No one was safe from this dynamic. If a farmer could not pay his debts, he could lose his property, his wife, his children and his own freedom, which became a commodity to be bought and sold. The debtor could only return to his or her homebase after working for a term set by the creditor. Wisely, Biblical patriarchs instituted the custom of jubilee, where all social debts were cancelled after seven years. (Graeber observes that the first word for “freedom” known in any human language, the Sumerian amarga, literally means, “return to mother.”)

“Debt slavery” is no arbitrary term, either for indentured servants of the past or grad students in the present. To use a Seussian analogy for a complex historical process, social conflict and debt enslavement have been like those agents of chaos, Thing One and Thing Two-and money has been like the Cat in the Hat. Graeber notes that the value of gold and silver rises in times of war, when the social contract crumbles and credit can no longer be relied on.

From the coffee shop to the faculty lounge, we can’t shut up about money and debt. Perhaps with the wide-angle view of Graeber, Zamagni and other intellectual gadflies, we’ll get a better fix on the commodification of our lives-and be less eager to bow down before the golden calf.

The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 19


One night last week my partner and I, battered by a persistent cold, decided to rent a movie online. We chose the plague thriller Contagion. (If you have to be sick, what’s more fun than watching characters even sicker than you?)

Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 production sidesteps the Zombie genre for a scientifically rigorous horror flick, which makes the plot that much scarier. It starts with a single cough and the words, “Day 2.” It’s not until the film’s end that the pathogen’s beginnings are revealed on Day 1.

Contagion clips along like a police procedural, with officials chasing down infected victims as the mystery virus plays hopscotch across the world’s airports. Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet play pathologists handling the outbreak in the US, while Matt Damon’s character is left with little to do other than mope after the death of his wife, Gwyneth Paltrow. (You know it’s a deadly Hollywood virus when an A-list actor is polished off in the first five minutes.)

In one scene, Kate Winslet offers a chalkboard explanation of the basic reproductive rate, or “R-naught,” which measures how likely one person will infect others with any given disease. The devastating 1918 Spanish flu was between R2 and R3. Smallpox is closer to R6. The mystery illness in the film is R12, which means its exponential spread across the planet takes only a matter of days. (In the real world, other factors limit the usefulness of using R-naught to calculate infection rates.)

You may recall the real-world SARS and Swine Flu outbreak from a few years back, the two pandemics-that-weren’t. The overkill from the media and the pharmaceutical-industrial complex doesn’t negate the threat of a major plague at some point in the future – manmade or otherwise – requiring a coordinated international response. And considering how some scientists have been behaving in the lab, the bioterror threat could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’m referring to recent research into the H5N1 virus, the so-called avian influenza (bird flu). As of November, 2011, H5N1 had infected only 571 people across the world, because its basic reproductive rate is very low, but killed 335 because of its lethality. In its current form, it is less deadly on a global scale than the common flu, a mild microbe which kills thousands yearly through high transmission rates. Yet recently, scientists have found a way to mutate the H5N1 virus so it is just as transmissible among animals as the seasonal flu virus is to u s. Alert the Nobel committee!

At a September conference on influenza in Malta, Dr. Ron Fouchier from the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam proudly announced he and his team “mutated the hell out of the virus.” According to a December report in Wired magazine, Fouchier said initially the virus wasn’t spreading airbore among laboratory ferrets. And that was when “someone finally convinced me to do something really, really stupid” with his test animals, Fouchier added. With a bit more tinkering, he got the virus airborne and ready for publish-or-perish prime time.

“It’s just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus,” said Dr. Thomas Inglesby, a bioterrorism expert and director of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “And it’s a second bad idea for them to publish how they did it so others can copy it.” So far, no medical journal has agreed to publish the genome of the altered virus – although the precedent is there with the 2005 publication of the full sequence of the 1918 Spanish influenza virus.

In Contagion, Lawrence Fishburne’s character notes that “Someone doesn’t have to weaponize the bird flu—the birds are already doing that.” It’s more scientifically sound to give the credit to the microbes themselves. The planetary complex of viruses and bacteria constitutes the fastest supercomputer in existence, which can evolve much faster than our paper-pushing responses. Knowing this, it’s sheer madness for scientists to nudge this Gaian software in the killer app direction.

According to a November report in NPR, Fouchier his work is now under scrutiny by a committee called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (and hopefully the investigation includes his US funding stream). To call this sort of research Faustian doesn’t even begin to cover it. Even without a cold, I’m allergic to the smell of brimstone.

The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 13



It’s extraordinary how potent cheap music is.
– Noel Coward

Nostalgia strikes when you least expect it. You’re sitting in a café putzing away on your smart phone when some long-forgotten tune comes on the radio in the background. Suddenly, you’re caught in a Proustian tractor beam and boarding the mothership of memory.

Song supplies a key that opens the door to the past. This implies there is a keyhole somewhere in the brain. According to some neuroscientists – and there is a long-running academic debate about this – everything we’ve ever heard is encoded holographically in our nervous systems. In the early sixties, Canadian neurologist Wilder Penfield explored the brains of patients with severe epilepsy in search of causes for their disease. He would stimulate the exposed brain tissue in fully conscious patients and by observing the patient’s response, as the electrode was moved gently from point to point over the temporal lobe, he was often able to pinpoint the area of damage responsible for seizures. Occasionally, he would alight on a spot where the patient would experience an extraordinarily vivid scene from the past, a voice or a fragment of music. If Penfield stimulated the exact spot a second time, the recollection would repeat, like a vinyl disc scratched by a DJ.

We’ve all experienced a moment where a piece of music has teleported us back to some joyful or painful time in our lives. This budget time travel can even be instigated by a disliked song or an advertising jingle. The brain is promiscuous when it comes to musical attachments. Personally, I will forever associate Paul Young’s Every Time You Go Away with dental work, ever since a Richmond dentist hummed it all the way through a root canal.

Music will often conjure up a complex constellation of feelings, with an attached sense of longing or loss. We call this sense “nostalgia,” a Greek word combining nostos (returning home) and algos (pain or ache). The term “nostalgia” was coined by 17th century Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation as an umbrella term for symptoms displayed by Swiss mercenaries in the service of European monarchs. When they were stationed far from the Alps, the mercenaries apparently fell prey to a morbid state of homesickness. Hofer described the illness as a “continuous vibration of animal spirits through those fibres of the middle brain in which the impressed traces of ideas of the Fatherland still cling.”

As noted by psychologist Charles A. Zwingmann, “to ward off [this debilitating] nostalgia, Swiss soldiers were forbidden to play, sing or even whistle Alpine tunes” because Alpine melodies haunted the listener with “an image of the past which is at once definite and unattainable.” Nostalgia was regarded as the soul’s yearning for a home to which the sufferer could no longer return. (You might say the 17th century Swiss mercenaries were the world’s first emo kids.)

You might not be able to go home again – in the sense of returning to the vanished world of your youth – but thanks to digital technology, the soundtrack of your life is always on tap.

Musical nostalgia in its current form is a joint discovery of the American music and film industries. The founding document is the 1984 film The Big Chill, which starred an ensemble of A-list Hollywood actors as a group of supernaturally droll and attractive boomers who gather at a weekend memorial for a dead friend. This was one of the first Hollywood films that did not commission theme music. Instead, director Lawrence Kasdan put on his hardhat and took a trip down the pop cultural mineshaft. Rock classics like Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine and The Temptations’ My Girl lent the film a depth and resonance it might have otherwise lacked.

With The Big Chill, it was like the entertainment industry had discovered a whole new continent. On Hollywood’s side, there was the big box office effect of attaching musical nostalgia to blockbuster films. On the music industry’s side, it was a double win: songs leased to Hollywood productions could revive the radio play and resale of old hits.

This was back in the glory days of vinyl albums, well before the balance-sheet terrors of CD ripping and digital downloading. Today, with their profits under siege, music labels are pushing musical nostalgia through a different angle: boxed sets. I’m talking about those multidisc packages that honour an artist’s entire career, complete with b-sides, bootlegs, big hits, live versions and filmed performances.

In 1990, Atlantic Records repackaged Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits as six vinyl albums or four compact discs, in a stunning boxed set decorated with crop circles. 1995 saw the release of The Beatles Anthology, in which a collection of tinny demos found in the vaults of the BBC seeded a television documentary series, three double albums and a book focusing on moptop history. Over the next two decades, the packaging of boxed sets became increasingly elaborate, the multimedia spin-offs more impressive and the prices stiffer. (Elvis Costello recently discouraged fans from buying his compilation, The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, calling its $249.00 price tag “either a misprint or a satire.”)

Yet these past efforts are chump change compared to EMI’s recent remastering of Pink Floyd’s catalogue. From the PR blurb, it sounds like the marketing equivalent of the Normandy invasion, featuring “CD’s, DVDs Blu-ray discs, an array of digital formats, viral marketing, iPhone Apps and a brand-new single album “Best Of” collection.”

The marketing angle is to convince Floyd purists this seductive package is a need, rather than a want, while persuading file-sharing freeloaders their mp3 Floyd collections sound like AM radio tracks broadcast through mercury amalgam fillings. The Discovery Box Set contains all 14 digitally remastered Floyd albums, for the grand price of $175. Or if you prefer, you can purchase each album separately, in either the entry “Experience” format or the full-scale “Immersion” format. The $113 “Immersion” format of Wish You Were Here includes live and unreleased tracks on five discs, including SACD and vinyl LP, plus booklets and even a freaking scarf. (No word yet if the “Immersion” version of Roger Waters’ bummer classic, The Wall – $119, seven discs, available February – will come with a bag of weed to take off the misanthropic edge.)

Who knows? Perhaps the boxed sets of the future will come with nanotechnology and gene-splicing kits, allowing fans to grow miniaturized musical artists like sea monkeys. The next generation will be able to grow their own itsy-bitsy Pink Floyds, with tiny roadies rebuilding The Wall out of packing peanuts.

Take it from me, if you have a car, you already have a Pink Floyd boxed set; it’s called a radio. David Gilmour’s guitar workout Money has been in AM radio rotation since I was in tube socks. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of the band myself. I just keep my enthusiasm to subclinical levels. Rock stars and rappers are the closest things we have to religious figures in secular culture and boxed sets are the marketing equivalent of church reliquaries containing the fragments of saints. Of course, not everyone’s a saint or interested in owning a piece of one. These productions are mostly limited to musical acts beloved by boomers, the principal target demographic. They’re the only folks who can honestly afford this sort of archival overkill.

We’re a long, long way from that famous pre-punk moment in 1975 when John Lydon walked into rock impresario Malcolm McLaren’s London boutique wearing a tattered T-shirt with the words “I hate” scrawled above “Pink Floyd.” You’d think the wall-eyed former lead singer of the Sex Pistols would prove resistant to the nostalgia biz. Not so. When nostalgia combines with the preservation industry, even punk rockers are found to have a stately charm.

Exhibit A: Last month, British archaeologists expressed their delight at the discovery of some graffiti behind cupboards in a London apartment. Not just any apartment, but one once rented by the Sex Pistols. The graffiti – consisting of eight childlike scribbles by John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) – is “a direct and powerful representation of a radical and dramatic movement of rebellion,” according to Dr. John Schofield at the department of archaeology, University of York and independent researcher Dr. Paul Graves-Brown. In the latest edition of the journal Antiquity, the two argue the graffiti is worthy of archaeological investigation and historical preservation.

Dr. Schofield writes, “The tabloid press once claimed that early Beatles recordings discovered at the BBC were the most important archaeological find since Tutankhamen’s tomb. The Sex Pistols’ graffiti in Denmark Street surely ranks alongside this and – to our minds – usurps it.”

With a bit of luck and heritage society finagling, the London flat will become the punk rock version of the Lascaux Caves. It only goes to show if you allow a pop culture artifact enough time, it will age into respectable, preservation-worthy status, like a Charles Manson doodle on Antiques Roadshow. The surviving punkers are old enough to prefer PIN safety over safety pins and the “Immersion” set of Dark Side of the Moon might as well come packaged with Depends. The boomers and Gen-Xers are now the museum-going class and like any other generation, we love any new discovery that puts a spotlight on the soundtrack to our glorious youth.

There is something poignant about the impulse to archive the pop culture past into gallery items and fetish objects. There is great artistry in some of these works and their archival collection is meant, in a certain sense, to ward off time. A song that survives its composer is the closest thing we have in the material world to a tangible spirit (or, at least, the acoustic tracing of a vanished temperament). It’s little wonder we attach a sense of the sacred to music, whether it be Gregorian chants or Seattle grunge.

When you are completely absorbed in a task, a sport, making a piece of art or lovemaking, you are ‘not there.’ This sense of timelessness is most evident with music, in either its performance or its appreciation. The player merges with the played and the listener with the listened. This timeless dimension of music was captured perfectly in a BBC documentary entitled Prisoner of Consciousness. Musicologist Clive Wearing was stricken with a severe brain inflammation that left him with a memory span of just a few seconds. Without a recognizable past or an imaginable future, Clive Wearing told his wife his purgatorial life was “like being dead.” Although he can never remember his wife, he is thrilled each time he sees her.

This is not a man capable of nostalgia, at least not in the usual sense. When he is asked to play a composition by Bach, Wearing initially says he doesn’t know any. Yet he manages to summon up a prelude by the composer when he is at a piano. In examining Wearing, Dr. Oliver Sacks proposed that musical recall is not quite like another kind of memory: “Remembering music is not, in the usual sense, remembering at all… Listening to it or playing it is entirely in the present,” he writes in his book Musicophilia.

There are well-known health benefits from music, for both the healthy and the sick. Even non-speaking patients with brain damage can sometimes be brought to energetic vocal life with music. Sacks notes how remarkable it is that, even in the worst cases of dementia, “there is still a self to be called upon, even if music, and only music, can do the calling.” The best music resonates with what’s deepest inside us.

Carl Jung once lamented to a colleague he had “failed to open people’s eyes that man has a soul – a buried treasure in the field.” If you’re a big music fan, you may prefer to think of the soul as a boxed set.