Friday, November 21, 2014

The Revenant (2015)

Leonardo Dicaprio

I read with interest of your current filming of “The Revenant” and I was struck with the similarity to the family story of my great Uncle Jim Christie, also barely surviving a grizzly mauling in the Yukon. From there he enlisted in the First World War but he said nothing ever compared to surviving that grizzly attack. From the cited article below, his superior officer described Uncle Christie this way:

“His long life alone in the mountains made him the most observant man I have ever known. He saw everything and said nothing. He could put his hand on the ground in No Man’s Land and tell whether a man had walked there one hour ago, two hours ago, three hours ago. It was uncanny, and he was never wrong. He would lie out in the open behind our trenches, day after day ... and get his sight on some part of the enemy trench and wait for someone to put his head up. If he did not put it up today, he would be there tomorrow, and sure enough some German would come to that spot, and Christie would get him. This happened year after year. I have never known anyone outside an Indian who had the patience of Christie. He would concentrate hour after hour on one spot ... Christie could do it for two days.”

The difference between Christie and your Glass character of course, is that Glass did not have the support of his comrades, and Glass is driven chiefly by revenge.

It gives me great pleasure to consider how my Great Uncle, for all his adventure, lived through a silver retirement in good cheer. After the Great War he married the spinster who knitted his socks for him and other boys on the front. She had slipped in a small note in his sock. Their correspondence led to love and marriage, and ultimately gentle retirement on Salt Spring Island.

Best of success in this undertaking, and may you channel the heart of the great adventurers who haunt our hinterlands still. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

PIcked up by Charter for Compassion!

A few weeks ago a posted an info-graphic on the common threads of faith. I don't know about you, but I am distressed by the increasing polarization of our society. Conservative vs Liberal. Rich vs Poor. Athiest vs Religious. Muslim vs Christian.

Some of my views are conservative, others not so much. It is annoying when I am lumped in with a group that do not share all my views. I would much prefer to be challenged directly on what I say and do.

It sure is easier to attack a paper cut-out, an assumption of attitudes and beliefs it is assumed that all those "others" share. Arguments become repetitive as the assumed ground is tread over and over. Instead of finding common ground, people become entrenched and secure in their original beliefs. Movement is not possible.

Out of that frustration, I took a page from Karen Armstrong's book and created a graphic of some common principles among all religions. To emphasize how much we have alike rather than our differences. I believe if we wish to see movement away from radicalism, there has to be a joining, a mutual understanding. 

Then to my great delight, Karen's website, Charter for Compassion, picked up my thread! Boy, that feels great. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Today I picked an old draft in my blogger portfolio, where I had jotted down some ideas for safekeeping, then forgot about it. I must have been in a high-minded mood, pondering how individual action can influence a world.

I want my actions to count. I must behave as if what I do matters. Call me selfish, but I want a better world in small ways and large. I see this determined optimism also in William Ury, as he talks about some of the most intractable problems of our day. He asks if the problems in the Middle East bother us, even if we are not immediately affected. I have to say yes. This concern may be as primal as distressed bystanders watching tribe members duke it out. We may not be fully aware how much these disputes affect us, until it is resolved. I cried when the Berlin Wall fell, even though I had no German relatives on either side of that accursed wall. It's very existence carved a scar on the human psyche. Ury encourages us all that as bystanders, we offer perspective. We help disputants find a way out of their death-grip.

Have you heard of the Butterfly effect? The idea is that a chance flutter of a butterfly deep in the Amazon may start a chain reaction that results in a hurricane. The idea is that a seemingly small action on our part might have monumental consequences.

This idea has been explored oh-so-creatively by various SF writers, especially through time travel. Can a seemingly inconsequential action in the deep past affect our present? Cancel a war perhaps? Or would such tinkering result in unintended side-effects? Here is an example, A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury.

Mathematically, my gut tells me this is not so. Small inconsequential actions tend to cancel each other out. It's a good thing too, because at the atomic level, there's a chance always that an electron may not behave as expected. But the mass average of all atoms means our desk stays solid and our clothes remain knitted together on our frame.

Nevertheless, I choose to grab opportunities to make my immediate world better, whether it is a free compliment, a spare smile, or a small act of kindness. I figure the deliberate push towards kindness surely will add up.

Here are some ways to take small actions towards big changes.

Pay it Forward

Random Acts of Kindness

Abraham Path

Free Hugs Campaign

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

My 8 Mantras

I am in the middle of a physical transformation with an ambiguous ending. Thanks to the Weight Wise team at the Royal Alexandra Hospital I have lost a significant amount of weight, retired some chronic health conditions, and gained a great deal of energy.

It's amazing, really, how much more I can do when I don't have a spare 75 pound pack on my back. Looking forward, I am warned that to sustain such a transformation, I will have a different life. Eating is different, activities are different. I must shed my formerly sedentary lifestyle and find new ways to be active. I am motivated twice over to keep moving, as I don't want to reduce my portions so much that eating is no longer a pleasure.

So with my newfound energy and restlessness, I have been setting new goals. This fall I joined the CIBC Run for the Cure for the first time.  I walked it. And I wasn't even that winded. This past Sunday I joined Groovin' for the Cure at the Enjoy Centre. I got my sweat on for sure there. Which got me to thinking, what shall I do to challenge myself next?

I am also adding twenty minutes of swim lane at our pool dates. The twenty minutes goes by pretty quickly, but my restless mind needs focus. Most of the time I have my iPhone to keep my jumpy neurons happy But I can't take that in to the pool. Which leaves my mind wandering, too often on intractable problems.

I know from experience that my performance drops if I dwell on the unsolvable problems of life. I need to retrain my mind for the empty spaces. Some of my ideas about mind training come from my reading and practice of mindfulness (thanks, Kathryn Burwash!). When we train our minds to be fully in the moment, we get all sorts of health side-benefits, including lowered blood pressure. Mindfulness I believe may be a form of self-hypnosis but I find the two fields (hypnotism, meditation) to be too steeped in their own forms and terminology to have a meaningful conversation.

I learned from long distance swimmer Diana Nyad that she keeps going by singing an internal playlist during her long swims.

Then there's the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his discovery of the state of flow. This is the pleasure of being completely absorbed in an activity, and time disappears.

Which got me thinking about mantras. Again, the mind is taken in to a different state while chanting a particular phrase over and over. It is pleasurable, and for a while, time stops.

At least I won't be trying to solve the world problems while I swim!

But I am dissatisfied with existing mantras (such as the rosary and Hail Mary), as these do not fit my particular beliefs. I could set aside my disbelief to participate in the moment, but that does not fully satisfy either.

So as I did my laps back and forth, I asked myself, what is it that I believe in? Some of these come from Covey's book, Seven Habits... Reverence life is from Albert Schweitzer.
  1. Life is good
  2. Listen First
  3. Share what you know
  4. Reverence life
  5. Stand tall
  6. Food is lovely
  7. Leave a legacy
  8. Seek Win Win

    So there you have it folks. That's how I ended up with my own mantra. I've tested it out and at least in the memorization phase, I am indeed fully occupied.


In my last post I gave an example of the ongoing dispute between Israel and Palestine. In his book, The Better Angels..., Pinker cites an ingenious study, where various scenarios were offered to both sides of the dispute. Offering purely monetary rewards for peace were summarily dismissed (likely triggering disgust).

"We report a series of experiments carried out with Palestinian and Israeli participants showing that violent opposition to compromise over issues considered sacred is (i) increased by offering material incentives to compromise but (ii) decreased when the adversary makes symbolic compromises over their own sacred values. These results demonstrate some of the unique properties of reasoning and decision-making over sacred values." Sacred bounds on rational resolution of violent political conflict by Jeremy Ginges, Scott Atran, Douglas Medin, and Khalil Shikaki (2007) [emphasis mine]

Now comes the hard part. I have an ongoing dispute with a long-standing colleague, after having volunteered as a moderator of his discussion board for twelve years. The dispute revolves around the cause and resolution of gratuitous violence as displayed by ISIS and its oddball adherents. Is the entire religion of Islam to blame? If so, can the world community force Islam to reform?

First of all, I don't think the entire religion is to blame. My colleague does. He rages over the despicable acts of violence, I rage over the implications of blaming billions of people for the actions of a few. The hard part as an open advocate for peace, I am obliged to live by my principles. An unsettled dispute like this sits wrong. Is there anything I can do to restore relationship with my colleague?

Going from No to Yes in the Middle East by William Ury

After all the insults, barbs, and accusations, the cutting off of a working relationship of  dozen years, what could I offer first across the negotiating table? If such an olive branch were offered, what would I need in return?

I would need an admission that the original accusation is too strong and neither Simon or I know enough about Islam and how it is taught to say that it is fundamentally flawed (diseased). [Most interesting. I could not even entertain a concession until I resolved my need. I guess that makes me human - J]

What do I offer first? I agree that the community of Islam itself is to be shamed in to dealing with it's demons within, and provide the first and strongest response against extremists like ISIS. The world community can support the Islamic communities in any way they ask, such as air, advisory support. This may require a critical admission that Islam itself is not united in thought and deed, and some elements deserve to be expelled.

I finish this three-blog rant with an offering of my dignity, something I dearly treasure and loathe to sacrifice. For a whole-hearted life, I offer my vulnerability. Long-standing friendships are worth fighting for, much more than the fight.



I have an annoying husband.

He teases constantly, thieves minor-ly, hates unreasonably, chatters endlessly, and tidies up behind me. Generally, I am tolerant or amused. He found out quick and I figured out much later that he suddenly becomes intolerable when something else is bothering me. If I snap, he approaches cautiously, " was work today?"  Turns out, work has been great. But I am losing a a long-standing connection with a volunteer community, and I am very, very angry.

The community of which I speak is a discussion board where I have moderated for years in the Ex-Jehovah's Witness community. I'm not an ex-Witness myself, but I've lived in hope for my husband to become one. The board is dynamic, funny, and real. It is one of the few places on the internet where there's a cachet of intelligent conversation where subjects as diverse and politics and religion are debated openly. And usually civilly.

Except when the board owner takes offense to the violent streak in Islam. I resign as a moderator, and protest. I won't go in to the mechanics of our difference just yet. I'm angry enough to have four or five blogs' worth of comment left in me. But in fairness to my annoying husband, I'm confronting the source of my anger, taking a step back and dissecting the dynamics of dissension.

Who knows? When I am done perhaps my anger will have dissolved, there will be apologies all around, and there will be some sort of reconciliation. Maybe.

The fierce emotions coursing through me can be predicted from some of my readings lately, especially Haidt's The Righteous Mind and Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature...  Most encouraging is that the studies referenced by these authors (likely fierce opponents themselves) also point to how we can disentangle ourselves from old hatreds. It might be interesting to see if the techniques hinted by the studies referenced might work to resolve this seemingly irreconcilable difference.

So how am I feeling? So asks my indefatigable iMood Journal several times a day. The gentle request is preceded by a meditation gong. Oh, how annoying is that gong to my long-suffering husband. He asks, "Is there any way you can turn that off?" So of course I will never give it up. At random times of the day, my iPhone gongs and I turn to hubby and ask sweetly, "How are you feeling?" Hahahahahaha.

So how am I feeling? If I go anywhere near that heated discussion, I am angry. I see ignorant, bigoted posts allowed to stand unmolested. My quiet protests get buried under a flood of fellow-feeling for the board owner's disgust and anger towards the Islamic faith. My arguments are called "lame", my honest response to a disaster "hypocritical". I feel disrespected, my contribution over the years swept away in the heat of crude argument.

I would call the response classic dinosaur brain
A most useful metaphor to describe the fierce, unintelligent, and primal response to threat. We know better now, of course. The part of our brain that houses the fight response is not as old as the dinosaurs. It's alive and well in our primate cousins. Monkey brain.

So how do chimps fight asks Pinker in The Better Angels.... It turns out in fairly evenly matched confrontation between troops, there will be a lot of screaming and chest thumping. Neither group can risk loss of prime hunters, so the threat is kept verbal, a "Don't tread on me" sort of warning. Not to say that chimps won't turn violent but they do it in secret, and if the poor victim is vastly outnumbered. When done in secret, the threat to their own number is minimized.

I am sure you can think of a similar spillover in the human communities. Violent acts generally private or in the cover of darkness, to prevent detection and consequences. Presidential screaming matches are a good sign that both combatants would prefer to settle without resorting to violence.

I can't say my ancestors always took this to heart. I understand the clan of Fraser was greatly reduced in number by one battle from which they refused to back away. I credit my heritage for a personal refusal to back off when principles are at stake.

But my dispute with an old friend in this case, is not a battle between opposing tribes. We are participants in the same community. So there is another dynamic at play; this is a battle of dominance.

Within a tribe, one of us has got to go.

The logic is pretty plain. I have been a happy and active participant of the discussion board for many years, but I am not the owner. If the owner won't back down, I must go. If this were the local pub, I am virtually throwing in my towel.

Dinosaurs, chimps, wolves, and the local pub.

Hence, my grief and my rage. I must bow out of a community I have supported and admired for these twelve years.

Next, I'll explore "hot buttons" and why disputants polarize.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Hot Button Issues - Sanctity and Disgust

"This is a list of Wikipedia articles deemed controversial because they are constantly being re-edited in a circular manner, or are otherwise the focus of edit warring or article sanctions. This page is conceived as a location for articles that regularly become biased and need to be fixed, or articles that were once the subject of an Neutral Point of View (NPOV) dispute and are likely to suffer future disputes." Wikipedia list of controversial issues

Not surprising, politics, history, religion, science (biology, health) and sexuality top the list. Why as a people do some subjects become so heated? I propose that for some issues, opponents feel that their fundamental values are violated in some way. If these issues were strictly a matter of logical discourse, surely they could be resolved fairly quickly.

More than Cost-Benefit

I've known we are far more than cost-benefit machines because of the things that we value. There's motherhood, apple pie, goodness and a fair shake. This challenges the perception of evolution as a brutal dog-eat-dog, the Devil take the hindmost filtering to the fittest. I call this perception of evolution because survival of the fittest is a far more sophisticated concept than simply lopping off the weak.

I am convinced that evolution got us here, but what do we do with these intangible values carried from ancient traditions and religions? Where did they come from? Are they part of our fundamental nature and if so, what possible evolutionary value do they have?

There's been some fascinating studies in the primacy of group behavior and the evolutionary advantage of cooperation. One such study is of bats:

"Individuals, whether they be humans or animals, live in groups. They form social organisations of variable nature and composition, and for various purposes. Whilst the adaptive benefits of sociality are generally understood, comparatively little is known of the precise mechanisms by which individuals in a social group establish and maintain social bonds. In this thesis, we expose and discuss some ruling principles of collective social behaviour, specifically by using animal groups as models of complex societies."  Comparative analysis of social interactions in animal groups by Perony, Nicolas (2012)

Sanctity and Justice

Then I came across Haidt's moral foundations, and my dilemma was resolved. As human beings we share some fundamental values that help us form groups, cooperate, and defend our group against outsiders. These may not be the universal morals that religion has sanctified, but they are "holy" orders for getting along. At least with each other. It's not quite as universal, say, as the speed of light or gravity, because as people we still readily attack outsiders/aliens. Not too long ago wolves were treated as vermin. Our values are fundamentally human values. 

Here is Haid's list:

There are two moral categories, Sanctity/Degradation (disgust) and Fairness/Cheating (justice) that can bring the classically democrat and the conservative to loggerheads. The values of care and fairness are common among all peoples, but the conservative element in addition value loyalty, authority, and sanctity. 

"If a value is sacred in the minds of one of the antagonists, then it has infinite value, and may not be traded away for any other good, just as one may not sell one's child...People inflamed by nationalist and religious fervor hold certain values sacred, compromise them for the sake of peace or prosperity is taboo." (The better angels of our nature....Pinker Page 738)

We have for example, the ongoing dispute between Israel and Palestine. Pinker cites an ingenious study, where various scenarios were offered to both sides. Offering purely monetary rewards for peace were summarily dismissed (likely triggering disgust).

"We report a series of experiments carried out with Palestinian and Israeli participants showing that violent opposition to compromise over issues considered sacred is (i) increased by offering material incentives to compromise but (ii) decreased when the adversary makes symbolic compromises over their own sacred values. These results demonstrate some of the unique properties of reasoning and decision-making over sacred values." Sacred bounds on rational resolution of violent political conflict by Jeremy Ginges, Scott Atran, Douglas Medin, and Khalil Shikaki (2007)

Breaking Through to Understanding

Pinker continues,

"All of this would be pretty depressing were it not for Tetlock's observation that many ostensibly sacred values are really pseudo-sacred and may be compromised if a taboo trade-off is cleverly reframed....In a third variation of the hypothetical peace deal, the two-state solution was augmented with a purely symbolic declaration by the enemy in which it compromise one of its sacred values.." (
The better angels of our nature....Pinker page 739).

For example, a Palestinian may be asked if Israel were first to agree in principle to their land rights, might they be more ready to reach a settlement? What if the other guy were to offer the olive branch first?

My Fight

My dilemma, which I hinted at in my last post, is that I am fundamentally opposed to the position that a board owner has taken towards Muslims. We are both affected by our own principles of fairness and sanctity. If I dare put words in his mouth, my long-standing colleague was horrified with the image of a fifty-four year old woman beheaded by a knife-wielding zealot in Oklahoma.

The death is senseless, the method brutal. Of course, we are repulsed by the images this offer. In his rage over the events, my colleague offered that there is something fundamentally wrong with Islam if it permits, allows, or creates such brutes.

This is when my own sense of fair play was outraged. I am all for containing and eradicating brutal fundamental organizations like ISIS. But these subsets of humanity do not characterize entire groups! There are 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. How many have membership in ISIS? Maybe 15,000.

Condemning an entire religion is disproportionate. The images that come to my mind are other groups, "outsiders" who were similarly rounded up and punished for their perceived "threat".

Japanese Internment Mess Hall

These are the sorts of images that horrify me. 

My colleague has tempered his comments somewhat, suggesting that the religion should abandon the violent passages in their holy book, the Quran if they are serious about putting to bed the violent streak in their brand of extremists. My argument is that even Christianity continues to hold it's entire bible sacred, even it's violent bits. It is entirely possible for a devoutly religious person to hold a book sacred, even as we have evolved past it's violent past. We have a finer sensibility these days, and genocide is simply out of the question.

We have broadened our sensibilities of what it means to be human, and it includes all of us.

Compelling Religious Reform

My colleague has been silent on the mechanics of how we might compel a religion to become a kinder, gentler version of itself, to reform its education and decry it's violent past. Whenever I see examples of say, governmental intervention in religious affairs, I see disaster. We're talking about treading on a community's sacred values and frankly, government lacks the finesse.

Waco Siege
Consider also the example of the Marrano forced Jewish converts to Christianity. Even those who publicly converted were treated with suspicion and later they were put to the inquisition. Convert or die; lousy idea.

Then there's the succession of civil wars in England, some of it spurred on by opposing Catholic and Protestant sensibilities.

Next, I'll talk about detente and how it is possible for fierce opponents to reach across the negotiating table.