by Geoff Olson

You may have heard that dogs share a hormone with humans called oxytocin, which is associated with bonding behaviour. Scientists have found that when a dog looks at its owner the oxytocin levels rise, which they interpret as the biochemical signature of love.

This finding probably comes as no great discovery to most dog owners, including me. It wouldn’t have surprised Charles Darwin either.

“The fact that the lower animals are excited by the same emotions as ourselves is so well established, that it will not be necessary to weary the reader by many details…The love of a dog for his master is notorious,” the English naturalist observed in his 1871 book, The Descent of Man.

Surprisingly, the word ‘love’ appears over a hundred times in The Descent of Man, in reference to both humans and non-humans. Yet the term was destined to be exorcised almost completely from 20th Century scientific literature on animals.

The ‘L word’ didn’t fare too well in citations for Homo sapiens, either. In the effort to rid personal bias of any kind from their research, academics reduced human activity to kinship patterns and economic relations, and dismissed subjective states as side-effects of hormonal secretions and nerve impulses.

When anthropologist Laura Bohannan studied a remote tribe in Nigeria in the forties and fifties, she fell in love with the people. While this state of mind opened her eyes in a new way, she could no longer regard the tribe with the objective detachment expected of a serious anthropologist. Fearful her scientific career would be ruined by acknowledging this attitudinal shift, she published her 1954 study of the Tiv people under a pseudonym, in the form of a novel.

When Return to Laughter was reprinted years later, it became a classic in the field of ethnography, and Bohannan finally felt comfortable acknowledging authorship.

Similarly, young Jane Goodall broke academic ground with the release of her moving 1971 date book, In the Shadow of Man, which detailed her close-up observations of wild chimpanzees. Scientists are now prepared to accept the idea that primates have complex inner lives, but many serious-minded people still refuse to to extend this notion to other social animals.

Darwin knew otherwise. “The social animals which stand at the bottom of the scale are guided almost exclusively, and those which stand higher in the scale are largely guided, by special instincts in the aid which they give to the members of the same community; but they are likewise in part impelled by mutual love and sympathy, assisted apparently by some amount of reason,” he observed in 1871.

In 2013, former San Diego Seaworld orca trainer John Hargrove told NPR that the killer whale Takara was still a calf when aquarium staff separated her from her mother Kasatka. Hargrove said when the calf was put on a stretcher and trucked out to Florida, Kasatka “was emitting vocalizations that had never been heard before ever by anyone,” which went on for an extended period. The mother was calling – or screaming – for her missing daughter.

Orca, beluga, or any other cetacean: can anyone seriously believe that a creature with a brain more complex than Homo sapiens can feel any less grief in maternal separation, or less despair living out a life in a tank only a few times greater than its own length?

The good news is this: across the world, from animal captivity to factory farming to trophy hunting, there’s a seismic shift underway in cross-species compassion. Earlier this August, animal rights activist Virginia Ruiz leapt into a bullfighting ring in Malaga, Spain, to comfort a dying bull. Ironically, in 2007 the Balearic Islands of Spain introduced the world’s first legislation granting legal rights to all great apes. And in 2014, a Argentinian court ruled that an orangutang named Sandra is a subject of rights and not a thing.

Speaking of personhood for great apes, after the worldwide uproar over the crossbow killing of Cecil the Lion, dentist and trophy hunter Walter Palmer may have to change his name to Persona Non Grata.

I started with Darwin, but I will leave the last words to physicist Albert Einstein: ““A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” [Italics mine]

Amen, Al. Cheers, Chuck.

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 27


By Geoff Olson

In mid-August, a statue of a naked and pregnant she-devil appeared briefly atop a building at the intersection of Main and Kingsway. It was reminiscent of the mysterious installation last September of a statue of a nine-foot tall red demon with an erection, near the VCC/Clark Drive SkyTrain station.

Photo by Dan Toulgoet, The Courier

Perhaps the preggo devil and her horny associate were guerrilla art responses to Mount Pleasant’s dog on a stick. I’m referring to the seven-foot tall, aluminum-cast white poodle erected on a 25-foot pole at Main and 18th. The city, federal government, and TransLink were involved this 2013 canine-by-committee installation piece by Montreal artist Gisele Amantea. Taxpayers shelled out $62,000 for it, according to The Vancouver Sun.

“Definitely not a fan of the Main St. poodle but public art is important and at times provocative!” Mayor Robertson helpfully tweeted at the time.

Yep, the first thing I think of when I visit Mount Pleasant is poodles. At least now I do. When I gaze up at this thing, which looks like a scaled-up bauble from a dollar store, a line from media guru Marshall McLuhan comes to mind: “art is whatever you can get away with.”

But that’s not quite right. Art doesn’t get to be public in the Lower Mainland without meeting some tight parameters. In the long alimentary process of municipal approval, bureaucrats must find the proposed project palatable, or at least digestible, before the finished work is excreted out into the streets. It must not challenge any viewers’ beliefs or be hurtful in any manner, up to and including structural collapse.

That brings me to sturdiness. The art work must be able to survive years of inclement weather, along with potential earthquakes, hockey riots, and attacks by vandals. (That’s probably why Main street’s poodle is affixed on a 25-foot poll: to protect it from the neighbourhood it’s theoretically mean to represent.)

Also, the assigned artist should either be from outside the province or be Douglas Coupland.

Occasionally even the art itself hails from elsewhere, like the set of rusty metal legs with oversized feet temporarily placed along North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Avenue as part of the 2014-2016 Biennale. Based on a sculptural installation in Chicago by Polish artist Magdalea Abakanowicz, they look like a Play-Doh megaproject abandoned by a Godzilla-sized four-year old.

As for Mr. Coupland, his Terry Fox monument at BC Place is a big improvement on the mystifying construction that preceded it: a pagoda topped with little lion sculptures but with nothing on the exterior to indicate it had anything to do with the running hero. The new installation consists of four sculptures of Fox in motion. The only problem is their placement, next to a three-story LED screen displaying ads for mobile phones and pop drinks. The figures are facing away from the screen, as if the one-legged athlete is trying to outrun a wormhole of consumerism. I doubt this was intentional on Mr. Coupland’s part.

The Emily Carr School of Art graduate has become the go-to guy for public pop art in Vancouver. Hopefully his creative contributions will balance out a number of postmodern puzzle dispensers scattered across Vancouver, including the huge engagement rings eyesore at Sunset Beach, and the Mr. Potato Head “Flame of Peace” at Seaforth Park, a work which tourists have successfully bypassed since 1986.
“The TransAm Totem” on False Creek has had better reviews. Marcus Bowman’s playful structure, consisting of a stack of five muscle cars resting on a trunk of old-growth cedar, might be seen as a religious monument to Vision Vancouver’s bicycle-mad bureaucracy.  (I have no problem with that, but as they say in auto ads, “your mileage may vary.” One person’s “TransAm Totem” is another person’s “Trying Too Hard.”)

After years of humdrum public art, I say bring on the playfulness. “The Drop” by German artist collective Inges Idee at the Vancouver Convention Centre? Yes, thank you. “Digital Orca” on the opposite side of the Convention Centre, by the inescapable Coupland? Why not. “The Birds”, those two mammoth sparrows by Myfanwy MacLeod at Olympic Village? For sure.

But please, Vancouver: no more poodles. It’s a fine line between frisky and farcical.

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 20


by Geoff Olson

According to Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars (121 AD), the mad emperor Caligula attempted to install his beloved horse Incitatus in the Roman senate. Historians believe the stunt was  intended to humiliate senators, by implying their work was so meaningless an animal could do it. In any case, the assassination of Caligula by members of his own Praetorian Guard pre-empted the political installation of Incitatus (“At Full Gallop”).

trump-toupeeA succession of late-Roman sleazebags and crazies emptied the treasury to finance wars in foreign lands and gladiatorial spectacles in the Imperial city. I’m certainly not the first and last commentator to make a connection between Rome’s decline and America’s twilight, which seems more palpable with the rise of real estate magnate and reality TV fixture Donald Trump as the front-runner in the Republican horse race.

Although Trump will likely return to his gold-plated stable before the presidential selection, the fact that he’s now at full gallop is a good measure of the bread-and-circuses state of the US electoral process.

Up until this year, the curiously-coifed real estate magnate, described by comic John Oliver as a “clown made of mummified foreskin and cotton candy,” supplied fodder for comedy circuits rather than campaign launches. His bizarre candidacy speech, in which he condemned illegal immigrant Mexicans as ”rapists,” was initially seen as a spectacular act of political suicide, certain to derail his quixotic campaign before it even got started.

Nope. As of this week, the Donald is reportedly at 24 percent support in polls, twice that of Florida governor Jeb Bush. Apparently some US voters appreciate Trump’s habit of freely spilling the contents of his head – however tiny the container and toxic the contents.
In the US, television dialogue has been reduced to yelling matches between talking heads. Print media annotates trash-talking exchanges between rappers and other celebrities. In the online world, chat rooms and Twitter feeds are spittled with cheap shots and slurs. Trump seems like the next logical step in this culture of snark and bark: a celebrity Internet troll who’s taken the digital age dictum to “brand yourself” to its terminal station: the Oval Office.

The casino owner’s unapologetic tirades make Jeb Bush seem like a model of serious statesmanship, which conveniently moves the whole Donkey/Elephant spectrum of debate (“Overton’s Window”) another step to the right.

That said, the guy is no slave to consistency. He has a few surprisingly progressive if feigned ideas, including universal health care. When questioned at last week’s Republican debate about Hillary Clinton attending his 2005 wedding, he responded that she had to because he gave money to her charitable foundation.

Seriously off-script as always, he implied that politicians are bought and sold like soap by moneyed interests, which is obviously true.

Instead of supporting a pre-owned candidate, he’s saying, the public should vote directly for a billionaire – himself. The GOP is now terrified that he will make good on a threat to run as an independent candidate, and split the vote on the right.

Speaking of going solo, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is running as as a Democratic rather than independent candidate. After Hillary’s foregone coronation as the Dem’s choice for president, the socialist-minded senior will be reduced to a historical footnote – a Socrates without the hemlock. The Elephant/Donkey duopoly is all about foreclosing any meaningful changes to a system which is shambling toward collapse.

Regardless of who gets to be hood ornament on the national security/surveillance juggernaut, “they” still win, at least for the short term. They being the .01 percent enriched through Wall Street’s Ponzi schemes, the Pentagon’s wars of aggression, the IMF/World Bank’s international loan-sharking, and patrimonial capitalism.

“The class stratification of Roman society was extreme. By comparison, Victorian England might seem a laboratory of equality. Rome’s wealthiest class, the senatorial aristocracy, constituted, by one estimate, two thousandths of one percent of the population, then came the equestrian class, with perhaps a tenth of a percent. Collectively these people owned almost everything,” writes Cullen Murphy in his short but substantial 2007 book, Are We Rome: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America.

Sounds familiar. Trump, a 21st century Incitatus, doesn’t have to occupy the Oval Office to highlight America’s decline. Another donkey will do just fine.

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 13


Empire State Building, New York
Empire State Building, New York

by Geoff Olson

Three recent scenes involving light and shadow from Vancouver.

The first scene: a luminous Sunday evening at the 38th Vancouver Folk Festival. The aptly-named band Phosphorescent is dealing with feedback issues at the main stage, but it doesn’t seem to be hurting the crowd vibe. The western sky resembles a crushed set of pastels, with a crescent moon adding a stroke of white.

The second scene: I step from the Burrard SkyTrain station late one afternoon to find a shadowy Gotham on Dunsmuir. Having somehow avoided this spot for years, I marvel how towers in the area have cut the sky down to a few slivers of light.

A visit to some places in the downtown core can feel like a walk through a Vegas casino floor: plenty of artificial light with no indication of the time of day. In contrast, the grassy amphitheater of Jericho Park, with its exposure to the sun, moon and (a few) stars, can give you a sense of riding spaceship Earth.

Third scene: some time ago I spoke with a “geospatial engineer” at a public hearing for a high-rise development in a Lower Mainland neighborhood. He tells me that at certain hours on sunny days, a proposed 22-storey high-rise would result in a kilometre-long shadow across suburban homes to the east – but he’s not prepared to be interviewed about his findings.

It’s a touchy subject. Our Tulipmania real estate market is creating a Jack in the Beanstalk skyline, with pinnacles of light for the players and a canyon of shadows for everyone else.

Most home and condo owners don’t think a great deal about light – beyond exposure to the four cardinal directions – until they lose it to a nearby development. As noted in a Washington Post story about the gloomy consequences of high-rise construction in the US, “shadows even turn light into another medium of inequality — a resource that can be bought by the wealthy, eclipsed from the poor.”

Controversy over civic light and shadow has a long pedigree south of the border. Public outcry in 1915 over the seven-acre shadow created by the 42-storey equitable Building in Lower Manhattan influenced the architecture of subsequent developments in New York. Skyscrapers like the Empire State Building and Chrysler building were conceived with tapered designs; setbacks at higher floors that allow more sky to be seen from the ground.

This contextual approach went sideways for a stretch. The modernist credo, expressed in Le Corbusier’s description of a house as a “machine for living,” led to writer P.J. O’Rourke’s nineties-era estimate of rectilinear additions to the North American skyline: “that’s not a building, it’s the box it came in.”

Developers habitually lose the plot with light – but the public is always there to remind them what they are really doing: constructing immense sundials. In 1984, San Francisco introduced a “sunlight ordinance” that requires the municipal review of proposed structures over 40 feet that might shadow public parks.

Today, geospatial engineers and ‘enlightened’ architects use sophisticated 3D modelling software to measure ‘shadow impacts’ of proposed developments.  As a bargaining tool, developers might negotiate the elimination of a few storeys from high-rise development proposals, so neighbouring developments receives a few extra minutes of sunlight through the day.

Big buildings don’t just generate shadows. The speculative enthusiasm for all-glass towers – which shows no sign of abating in the world’s urban hotspots – can result in unintended consequences. One such example is London’s “Fryscraper”, an infamous high-rise with a concave surface that has reportedly cooked cars parked in its focal point.

Yet the reflective property of such structures can also be used intentionally and intelligently. As recently reported in The Guardian, architects at NBJJ in London “used computer modeling to design a pair of buildings, one of which works like a gigantic, curved mirror. The glass surface of the northernmost building reflects light down into the shadow cast by its southern partner. And the carefully defined curve of that glass allows the reflected light to follow the shadow throughout the day.”

The above scheme is intended to create more ambient urban light, rather than a summertime death beam or all-season twilight.

City of Vancouver, take note. With a gravity-defying real estate market sending condos and prices into the troposphere, the streets below could use some brightening up.
The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 6