Wednesday, May 29, 2019

My Log 736 May 29 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth decade: 171; I battle my way through a sea of graduating students; forcing me to some thoughts about “us” and “them”; and to take some pride that “we” are helping “them” to better their lives

Within the last hour, wending my way home from my customary morning coffee, I walked, as usual, through the McGill University campus, only to find that what was going on there was far from usual.
It just happened that as I passed the immense tent that has covered the front lawn for the last week or so, Wednesday’s edition of the annual spring graduation ceremonies was just concluding, and graduates, their attached proud families and friends, and I suppose the occasional professor, came pouring out. The families came out of one door, and around the other door, watching the graduates emerge in their mortar boards and flowing gowns, adoring relatives formed a guard that reminded me very much of how the Rugby teams I watch on TV every Saturday emerge from under the grandstand on to the field of play, the fans waving and cheering (or, in this case, taking selfies.)
By asking a very pleasant young woman who was standing free of friends or family, I discovered something I never knew before. Many of the graduates were wearing bright red --- I guess you could classify them as scarlet --- gowns, and she told me such a gown indicated someone who has just graduated with their doctorate.  I was surprised at how many, what a high proportion they seemed to be.  I asked her what she had graduated in, and she said she had won her master’s in architecture. It had taken her five and a half years, she said in reply to my further questions, and she had a follow-up internship set up which was to be with McGill University itself.
This outpouring  of graduates really seemed like a lot to me, especially since  the entire ceremony is repeated, apparently, for seven consecutive  days. I tried to find out from their web site how many students have graduated this year, but all I could discover was that there have been 40,000 full-time students at the university, comprising more than 27,000 undergraduates, 10,000 post-graduates, and about 2500 post-doctoral, residents, fellows and others. (If we figure that, on average, maybe something less than a third would graduate each year, that would mean at least 12,000 graduates stepping forward for their diplomas, at the spring and fall ceremonies. This is just an uninformed observer’s guess.)
Of the student body one in every three is international in origin, and 10 per cent are studying for doctorates. They are taught by a staff of more than 1700 brainy people, and the university has a research budget of more than  half a billion. As I am certainly not the first to remark, the modern university is as big as a good-sized city, with a plethora of faculties, schools, just the list of which is kind of mind-blowing --- 11 faculties, and 14 schools or “other academic units,” as the web site says, covering just about every subject of interest in the modern world,
That a third of this immense intellectual factory is at the disposal of foreign students is a fact that should be taken into consideration when arguments are raised about the supposed habit of economically and socially developing countries to steal our technological and scientific achievements. In short, it makes nonsense of such arguments. Why would we worry that a firm like Huawei is, like a thief in the night,  taking advantage of our technologies and so-called  “intellectual properties”, when we  are already willingly devoting untold millions in educational spending to help along the upgrading of the educational level of their young men and women?   That  many millions of these costs come from our domestic taxpayers is a fact that should fill us with pride, for it means simply that in this particular at least we are helping the poor and dispossessed nations of this world to claw and fight their way out of the poverty in which a cruel history apparently had consigned them for good.
 McGill is only one of the many Canadian universities that are playing host to some 533,000 international students across the country at the last reliable count. Of course, like other students they are paying for the education they are receiving, paying handsomely for it, it seems. 
In 2016 the $12.8 billion foreign student enrolments provided Canadians with an estimated 168,000 jobs, and tax revenue of $2.8 billion. Still, these students and the countries they come from were using  the facilities of the universities that are kept in business by the contributions of Canadian taxpayers, 48 per cent of McGill’s revenues, for example, coming from the Canadian and Quebec governments.
It is churlish, in the extreme, it seems to me, to argue that China is stealing our intellectual property, the theft of which is so common as to have become a permanent feature of human society. That is exactly what Japan did, in an earlier generation, exactly what the United States and Canada did. And, if you want to go further back in history, exactly what Europe did as the achievements of the Chinese percolated around the world ---  something that is elaborated in detail in Joseph Needham’s monumental16-volume work on the history of Chinese science and technology.
Well, this brings me to a point in time where I really can summarize by using my by now well-worn mantra:
Wot the hell, wot the hell, toujours gai, toujours gai.
Just as all those students, foreign and domestic alike, were feeling today.

Monday, May 27, 2019

My Log 735 May 27 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 170; Memory of Joe Fafard's wonderful wolf statue; I thought it was permanently on guard over McGill, and us; but it disappeared, and now it's my symbol of our need to co-exist with Nature

Whenever I walk along Sherbrooke Street past the McGill University campus I cannot help but regret that Joe Fafard’s wonderful larger-than-life sculpture of a wolf is no longer there.  It was one of several sculptures that McGill University hosted as part of Montreal city’s 375th anniversary --- was that already two summers ago? --- and I became so accustomed to its presence, looking out for it every day as I passed by, that I began to think of it as our defender, on which not only the university, but also all of us passing humans, depended for our safety.
That may sound a bit far-fetched, but if you think of the wolf as symbolic of the other creatures with which we share this earth, it is an idea that makes perfect sense.
It is estimated there are 50,000 wolves in Canada, the highest number of any country in the world. But before the arrival of Europeans, of course, there were infinitely more.
Our forebears regarded them as pests, and got rid of them. Even when we established our first National Park in 1885, we cleared the area of predators, and from 1920 until wiser heads prevailed around 1970, wolves bit the dust with dramatic, deleterious results to our entire ecosystem.  
In 1995 the United States National Parks service decided to re-establish the wolf in Yellowstone National Park --- if my memory serves me, some wolves were brought in from Canada for the purpose --- and what they have found is that the presence of wolves “continues to astonish biologists with a ripple of direct and indirect consequences throughout the ecosystem.” For example, when they were re-introduced there was only one beaver colony in the park; today there are nine, and results in improving the ecosystem in other ways have been equally dramatic.
How this worked is described by wildlife biologist Douglas Smith on the Yellowstone web site: when the wolves were killed off in the 1930s, their absence made life easier for the elk, even though elks were still preyed upon by bears, cougars and coyotes. Subsequently the elk population, under less pressure, did not move around as much as before during the winters, but because they were relatively more stable,  they browsed more heavily on young willow, aspen and cottonwood plants. This made life tougher for the beaver that need aspen to survive the winter. With the return of the wolves, elk are more constantly on the move, not browsing those plants so voraciously, thus allowing willow stands to recover from the intense browsing, which allows the beaver to rediscover an abundant food source that hadn't been there earlier.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-forties that I paid any attention to the workings of Nature, to its central importance for every living thing, and to the dangers inherent for us all in the modifications we so carelessly make of the natural system. I did not know it at the time, but New Zealand had been brought to the edge of complete ruination of its landscape by the careless introduction of imported animal species without any predators, a state from which it was rescued only by the devoted activism of an English expatriate professor before World War II. The particular agent of destruction was the rabbit, and as a result of the professor’s intervention, the entire country was divided into Rabbit Boards, each one surrounded by a fence, within which their hired rabbiters were active trying to wipe out the miscreants. (As a cub reporter I remember covering meetings of the local Rabbit Board). It never worked until myxomatosis was introduced decades later, from Australia.
Only when I sat in the court case in 1972 by which the Grand Council of the Cree attempted to challenge the Quebec Government’s attempt to build a huge hydro-electric generating project in their traditional hunting grounds, was I wakened to the beauty of the natural processes by which the Earth is kept ticking over so that it may be used as habitation by us, and all other living creatures.
The Indians of Quebec had been trying to negotiate some kind of land deal with the Quebec government for some years, a process that was given urgency by this new challenge to the indigenous people living in northern Quebec.  They had found that  the government refused to take  seriously any evidence they presented about the environmental effects of physical changes to the landscape, so, confronted with the need for emergency action, they decided to send a group of friendly scientists north to cobble together some authentic sounding language that would support their case.
I had made a film as part of the process, although I had concentrated on how the indigenous people in the region viewed the forthcoming invasion of their lands. But when they did finally get into court, I was staggered by some of the interactions in nature described by these scientists, along with the indigenous experts, who, in what might have seemed odd to the uninformed members of the general public, often did not know a word of English or French but yet had astonishing expertise in questions pertaining to landscape, changes in normal processses, animals and their behaviour, and so on.
I described some of these effects in five pages of a 342-page book, called Strangers Devour the Land, that  I wrote about the indigenous response to this challenge,, published by Knopf in New York, Macmillan in Canada, and various other publishers in the United .States in succeeding decades.
“The system has no real beginning since it never ceases to change, with life being created and destroyed during every minute of every day,” I wrote. “But the climactic event of the year in these northern climates is the immense spring flood that occurs when the warming sun rises higher into the sky, and begins in May and June to melt the vast blanket of snow that covers the entire country. The first function of these waters is to flush out the ice from the river. The ice has already begun to break during the winter as the river level has dropped, creating a sub-ice space that has been an essential value for many species of little animals during the winter.”
Next, the river waters flush the ice loose from the shore, breaks it into small pieces and carries it into the sea.  The rushing water has great power and energy, so it scours out deposits that already exist along the river, drops the silt in different places and carries much of it out to sea, where it warms the sea, and by being deposited on top of the sea ice cuts down the reflexivity of the ice, thereby enabling it to absorb more radiation and melt more quickly.
This water is a kinetic energy source that brings to the surface from deeper ocean levels essential  fertilizer salts --- phosphates, nitrates and silicates --- that feed the cells in ocean plants that feed animal plankton, which themselves are crustacea or shrimp-like creatures that form the basic food for many larger forms of fish life.
I go on for several thousand words with this kind of information, writing with the enthusiasm of a new convert. What I was explaining was also a new concept to me, namely, that every inch of  every ecosystem is already at its maximum carrying capacity of animals, fish, birds (or ultimately, people), ranging from the tiniest little scurrying creatures like bats, insects, flies, up to  muskrats, mink, weasels, and so on, and so up to the gigantic lumbering bears, elk, moose and so on.
 I thought this new discovery of mine was a mind-blowing concept, because what it means is that all the well-meant actions of men in transferring animal populations from one ecosystem to another are ultimately destined to fail. Their failure could be hidden from human participants --- and that is another mind-blowing concept, shared with me in interviews by Cree subsistence hunters, that humans are participants in nature on the same level as other forms of life.
One impact  of all this was to make me understand that, encouraged by our arrogant religious doctrines, human beings, with homo sapiens at the centre of everything,  have always operated from a mistakenly perilous attitude of superiority over every other form of life.
Well, so be it…. The evidence is accumulating rapidly in our own day --- as from the recent scientific warning that we have twelve years to abate global warming, or suffer the drastic consequences; or the concomitant revelation that one million species are in line for extermination if we don’t change our ways soon; these examples providing evidence that we need a total re-think of our system of living, to bring it into conformity with the inexorable process of nature that life is constantly being created, destroyed and reborn so as to continue the cycle indefinitely.
This brings me back to Joe Fafard’s wonderful wolf, standing there, I remember, through the succeeding year of its being set up, half covered with snow through the winter, immovable and strong, watching over us all. One of nature’s real beauties, the wolf, described on the website of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, as “a highly social and playful species,” that live in small, tightly organized family groups called packs, made up of four to eleven members who form extended families.
“Each pack is dominated by an alpha male and an alpha female who are the only mating pair in the group. The alpha female dens up to deliver and raise the pups. There are usually four or five pups per litter born in late April or early May. The rest of the pack helps to feed and care for the pups.”
An admirable species, marred only by the fact that it is feared and detested by many human beings, who have, over the decades, poisoned it, hunted it down, and tried to exterminate it. Maybe we are slowly learning the need to co-exist with it, as we must do with all other species. Let’s hope so.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

My Log 734 May 25 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 169; Time for Canada to de-escalate the Meng affair; can we afford to let Trump walk all over us?; or should our nation say Wot the hell, toujours gai, and let her rip?


 I notice that faint suggestions have begun to appear in the mainstream newspapers that Canada should take some action to solve the stand-off with China caused by the December 1 arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the executive of the electronics firm Huawei.
I have been scribbling for a living ever since 1945 --- 74 years ago --- and I can never remember ever having written a laudatory article about a multinational corporation, or in fact, about any corporation. So I think I can absolve myself from any suspicion that sympathy with Huawei caused me, soon after Ms. Meng’s arrest, to throw doubt on the wisdom of the arrest. I remember one of the endless former diplomats who are always being quoted, offering the opinion that, since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knew about the arrest before it was undertaken, there was absolutely no need for  Canada to go through with it. In other words, it could and should have been avoided, if Trudeau had had the experience to navigate around it.
This weekend an article in the Globe and Mail by  Yves Tiberghien, professor of political science at the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, suggested it is time for Canada to de-escalate the quarrel with China by, first, sending a high level political  team  to China to offer “a complete and honest recognition of how exceptional the Meng extradition request was, as well as a clear willingness to listen to China’s grievances,” and secondly, to wrap up the Meng affair either through U.S.-China negotiations, or through Canadian legal or ministerial  processes.
This article drew a huge number of responses from Globe and Mail readers, both for and against the author’s arguments. The anti-Chinese group, citing that nation’s failure to apply the rule of law, in some cases suggested Canada should cease to trade with China; whereas another group made what sounded to me like cogent arguments in favour of taking our courage in both hands and bowing the knee as a diplomatic way out of the dilemma that has been causing such pain to our farmers, as well as to those Canadians being kept in harsh conditions in Chinese prisons, obviously being held as hostages against the release of Ms Meng.
Though I have no brief for Huawei, I do sympathize with Ms. Meng, arrested while in transit through Vancouver, and held in what amounts of house arrest until the extradition proceedings are over, which many commentators surmise could take years.
The anti group of readers kept mentioning Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in 1938 as a parallel for what the other side calls a sensible de-escalation. That seems to me a far-fetched analogy. Hitler was threatening to plunge the world into chaos; China is making no such threats, nor does it seem to have any serious negative expansionist intentions, even though it is extending its influence everywhere.
Professor Tiberghien argues: “A brawl is not a path to victory for Canada. This is a chess game with a sophisticated opponent. The current Chinese system is the result of the country’s traumatic pathway to modernity that involved colonization, 50 years of war and invasion, and gradual reform after the death of its mercurial postwar leader. The general trajectory since 1980 has been one of great progress, even if there’s still a long way to go toward a regime that fully respects human rights and the rule of law.”
That comes close to the argument I made two days ago, that China deserves respect for the tremendous effort it has been making to lift the poorest nation on earth, living on some of the most degraded agricultural land anywhere, out of the grinding poverty which has been their lot for so many decades and generations.  One would think from these China-bashers that we deal only with nations that are impeccably pure in their politics and their respect for individual rights. Like, for example, Saudi Arabia, where real freedom appears to be unknown; Egypt, or any of the Middle East satrapies whose friendship is the basis for United States policy (with Canada following loyally behind) in that region.
One of my arguments when this case was first raised was that the Canadian government position, that this is a question of “rule of law” with which politicians cannot interfere, is not in accordance with the facts, since only the Minister of Justice/Attorney-general can extradite a person from Canada to another country.  If the decision is his, or hers, whoever may occupy that office --- the decision to make the arrest must have gone through Jody Wilson Raybould, later the central figure in the SNC Lavalin affair --- then  clearly in the last analysis it is all subject to political decision, not legal. Prof. Tiberghien writes that the Meng case “marks the first time the United States has sought the arrest of a high-level foreign executive through extradition from a third country for violations of its own national sanctions on a fourth country – in this case, Iran.”
Clearly with this case we are launched into a Donald Trump nightmare, epitomized by his recent insistence that every country currently buying oil from Iran must stop immediately or suffer the consequences of frozen funds, sanctions, impoverishment, ruination of their local economy,  and God knows what further unreasonable impositions. As responsible observers in the United States have begun to point out, Trump is not only trying to impose decisions on third party countries in which United States  has no business interfering, but in the process he is trying to undermine the very basis of the American political system in which the  judiciary, legislature and executive branches  each exercise its functions as a  form of checks and balances. All of Trump’s recent measures appeared to thumb his nose at that framework, including  this escalation of our unnecessary quarrel with a country, China, with which we have had cordial relationships at least since the 1970 decision  to recognize Communist China taken by Justin Trudeau’s father.
The more conservative elements in Canadian politics --- epitomized by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney --- who sang when Irish Eyes Are Smiling with Ronald Reagan in a cringeworthy stage performance –-- have argued that whatever happens our leaders must, absolutely must, maintain good relations with the United States.  But one often has the feeling that they really mean our leaders should do what the United States tells them to do. Mulroney was recently heard professing this as the number one job for  Justin Trudeau. But a more realistic assessment might be that the occasional  whiff of independent thought from Canada would not go amiss, and might even have the result of pulling American leaders who are going too far in their demands on other nationalities back into some more reasonable line.
I think the time has come for some such demonstration of Canadian sovereignity.
It may offer some dangers, but as I often say, Wot the hell, wot the hell!  Toujours gai, toujours gai!

Friday, May 24, 2019

My Log 733 May 24 2019; Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 168; Something wonky seems to be happening in my head; counting the distance of my daily walk reminds me of a boyhood hero; but doesn’t resolve my suspicions about my aging head

As day passes day, week passes week, and, yes, even as the hours slip by, I am running into persistent evidence that there is something wonky going on in my head.
Let me explain. For many years I have had a strange compulsion to count things as I am walking around. For example, when I was visiting Dubrovnik, Croatia, I used to be very proud that I could walk up 287 steep steps every day and back into the town, just for a morning constitutional.  The friend I was staying with had lived in her apartment for  47 years without ever knowing, until I drew her attention to it, that she had to  climb 55 steps up from the street every time she came back from a shopping trip, but she thought nothing of it, was able to handle the steps with aplomb, until, a month or two after I told her how many steps there were, she began to find them difficult to climb. Back home in Montreal from that visit, I snapped my Achilles tendon while mounting my bicycle, which I blame on my false Dubrovnik pride. I have never been the same since.
Until about a month ago, having contracted an infection in addition to my lung cancer, I was unable to walk more than down to the nearest corner, a mere 200 yards, from which I would return exhausted. But since I shook that off with the help of some antibiotics, I am once again able to walk over to the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke for my favoured morning coffee. By dint of counting every fourth step, I have worked out roughly how far it is.
Though it is always hard to maintain one’s concentration on counting for a 25-minute walk, I have figured the customary count at about 450. Multiply that by four, and my total steps amount to about 1800. Multiply that by 2.5, which is the number of feet I figure I cover with every stride, and I come to the magic figure of 1500, which for reasons I will explain, I prefer to regard as meters rather than yards.
You see, 1500 meters is the distance covered at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936  by Jack Lovelock, the New Zealand middle distance runner, who breezed home in record time, leaving the Americans and all others in his wake. Lovelock, from the previously unheard of, tiny country of New Zealand, thus  became one of the athletes, headed by Jesse Owens, who poked a stick in Hitler’s eye, destroying his Aryan propaganda, in foiled celebration of which he had staged the most elaborate and nationalistic Olympics of all time.
In 1936 I was eight, and Lovelock became my boyhood hero, of course.  He later became a doctor, after serving in the war, and in 1949, at the age of 39, while on the staff of the Manhattan hospital, suffered a dizzy spell while waiting in the New York subway, fell on to the track, and was killed by an advancing train.
Lovelock’s win in the Olympics was for several years regarded internationally as the greatest 1500 metre race ever, largely because the years from 1932 to 1936 are regarded as the first  great years for mile runners, and the field was of the highest class. Lovelock had placed seventh in the 1932 Olympic final, and, a slight figure weighing no more than 134 pounds, he realized thereafter that he had the strength for only one major effort per season, so his Olympic victory was prepared and planned over the previous few years.
Lovelock’s Victory Oak from the Olympics was planted at the high school he attended, and is to this day considered a nationally protected landmark (when I was in high school we used to play Rugby against them every year). I grew up in a world in which streets, playing fields, sports bars had been named after Lovelock, and books, a stage play, a film, and a statue were devoted to him.
My devotion to his memory may have had an influence on me in that I developed some skill as a middle distance runner: but although like him in 1932 I came well back in the pack in the 1949 final of the New Zealand half mile championship --- I figured I came ninth, actually --- unlike him I never had what it took to go on to the Olympics. They were just beginning to get into the years of scientific training in 1949, which demanded a dedication of which I was quite incapable, and a devotion to a single goal that was far out of my ken. Besides which, I had sense enough to realize that I would never be able, no matter how much training I undertook, to run fast enough. I just didn’t have it in me.
To get back to my theme: I walk towards my coffee shop on Sherbrooke  along either Hutchison, Durocher or Aylmer streets, on which there are some handsome stone residential buildings, three or four stories high, running along a good part of each block, the  front doors of which are reached up stairs of ten or so  steps. A good while ago, on Aylmer street, I counted the number of habitations to be found in one such building, at 10. Not content with having counted them once, I keep recounting them, and every day I come to a slightly different conclusion.  In almost every case I counted a door below the main stairs as the entrance to a separate residence, probably in the basement, but only some of them were marked with a different street number, so my count could never be described as exactly precise.
But yesterday, as I walked past this same  building I found myself counting 26 habitations. Suddenly I told myself, whoa, there, old man, something seems out of whack. How  could I have made such a grievous error? 
Today I decided to count the habitations again, and on the way to the corner of Milton street I counted 36, an even more wildly out-of-context  number. I wondered if perhaps I had counted the habitations in two buildings, and determined to make a more accurate count on the way home.
Sure enough, I had counted two buildings, assuming them to be one, having passed without noticing the break between them.  But on the homeward trek my count  was such as to give me no more certainty than before. Each of the two buildings at my latest count house 16 habitations, far beyond the 10 I had originally credited one of them with months before. But is my count of 16 really reliable or is there something wonky in my head?
I doubt if I will ever be able to decide the answer to that question: for one thing, I can never be certain, without actually going up, knocking on the door, and asking, that the lower door beneath each of the stairways is the door to a separate basement habitation, or just the lower door of the upper house.
So where does that leave me? Readers will not be surprised to learn the answer to that.
“Wot the hell, wot the hell, toujours gai, toujours gai!”
As I suspect, something wonky seems to be happening.