CORRECTIONAL FACILITIES AND CONVERSING CABBAGES

This time around, a miscellany of news items that caught my attention recently.

Premier Christy Clark was in the Interior this week to announce the building of a new correctional facility on land owned by the Osoyoos Indian band. Those in attendance were all smiles, including aboriginals, over the hundreds of jobs the first prison ever built on native land in BC will create for the community.

“Our people want to be involved in the rehabilitation of our people and we hope this project sets the standard for what can be done in Corrections,” said Osoyoos Chief Clarence Louie. I hope it works out to the betterment of his people. Yet with the numbers of First Nations people in jail far exceeding their representation in the Canadian population, it’s an open question whether more prison-building represent an advance in either race relations or job creation. Money talks, and the prison industry’s ballooning infrastructure programs count as a big plus in economists’ GDP projections, just as they do in politicians’ get-tough-on-crime pandering to voters.

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A January article in The Boston Review notes that Brazil has mandated the teaching of philosophy in all high schools since 2008. Brazilian law codifies this teaching as “necessary for the exercise of citizenship.” What a concept – getting kids to exercise the faculty of reason so they can think outside the ballot box. But I’m not so sure such a mandatory program would succeed in Canadian schools – at least not without throwing a few softballs to our digitally-addled students. I’m thinking of exam questions like, “If Kim Kardashian sends out a tweet and no one reads it, has she still communicated nothing of substance?”

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A 1973 bestseller, The Secret Life of Plants, profiled a lie-detector expert named Cleve Backster, who allegedly proved that plants sense danger and can respond to human intentions. For gardeners who mutter sweet nothings to their begonias, the book was confirmation of their fondest hopes. To the scientific community it was four-star pseudoscience, and the book ended up a tattered footnote in remaindered book bins and Tarot shops.

Yet this week we moved one step closer to Backsterville, with research indicating that plants really can communicate danger to one another. A team led by Professor Nicholas Smirnoff, Professor of Plant Biochemistry at the University of Exeter, found that when a cabbage plant had a leaf cut off with scissors it started emitting a gas – methyl jasmonate – that ‘told’ its neighbours there might be trouble afoot. Two nearby cabbage plants picked up the gaseous message that they should protect themselves. They did this by secreting toxic chemicals on their leaves to fend off predators such as caterpillars.

Impressive yes, but it still underscores why scientists believe cabbages face a steep evolutionary learning curve. Any creature brighter than a Venus flytrap knows that toxic chemicals offer no protection against scissors, which caterpillars can’t wield anyway.

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My partner and I have been thinking seriously of putting a bullet into our cable package, since we don’t watch a lot of television. (Depending on the channel, when the TV left on in our place it’s like leaving the lid up on an unflushed toilet.) Besides, most of what I want to see is available online anyway. So after all the print attention to last Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show, I decided to check out the video online.

I understand that this choreagraphed event doesn’t bear much scrutiny, especially when it involves Madonna. In any case, I expected the age-denying singer to trot out her usual pastiche of meaningless visual themes. She didn’t disappoint, but this time around the Roman centurions, swordsmen, and imagery of predatory birds gave the halftime show an air of celebratory militarism. When Madonna performed “Like a Prayer” Gospel-style with Cee Lo Green and a formation of black-robed singers, it looked like a cross between a black mass and a very confused episode of Glee.  In a chthonic closer at the ground zero of American gladiatorism, Madge disappeared with a puff of smoke into a hole in the ground, as the words “World Peace” glittered across the stage in a thousand points of light.

I can’t imagine what websurfers in the Mideast made of this dispatch from Absurdistan. Actually, I think I can.

The Vancouver Courier, Feb. 13

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