Meet the Human Race

This is quite possibly the most important video I have cut together to date. Not because I shot it. In fact, I’ve taken liberally from HOME, Journey of Man, and Short History of Progress.

It’s important not because the ideas are original. They are drawn from Leadership Calgary and from the work of the Action Studies Institute.

It’s important because it’s a vivid reminder to me every day that I am part of the human race whose history is my history, and whose journey is also my adventure.

I use to think my history was tied to who my grandparents were or where I was born. As it turns out, that is only a tiny part of my ancestry.

I used to just assume I was a global citizen perhaps because I’m part of that “new generation”. In reality, scientifically, historically, pragmatically we must learn to become global citizens.

And so this video is in a way an introduction to the human race and the situation we find ourselves in and the need to move forward.

I’d much enjoy hearing your response to it.


Wilderness Survival for City Slickers

Last weekend a friend and I decided a few months ago to get some hands-on experience with wilderness survival in backcountry Alberta. No sleeping bag, no tent, no thermorest, or blanket. Just our clothes, knife, kit and wit.

Here were the parameters of our challenge to ourselves:

Are we motivated by some “Into the Wild” romantic notion of escaping civilization and living off the land? I am sure there is an ancient desire in us to play the game of life hunting, stalking food, but also to be hunted and stalked.

Unfortunately, while the desire is alive and well, the skills have long been forgotten in my generation of city dwellers. YouTube is where I have to go now to learn how to skin a squirrel. So here was a chance to practice and test out our skills. The results of our trip:

For me, I wanted to revisit the fundamentals of life, to appreciate what civilization gives me and also what civilization depends on. In the one wilderness survival course I took, I felt that it was a visceral and real experience.

Not that life in the city isn’t real, but it can be hard to tell the difference. Documents are signed, meetings are held, events planned… but its importance seems minuscule or so we think. In the wilderness, what you do matters. Your survival is a struggle between your understanding of reality and reality itself.

Out there, civilization seemed an insect to the elephant that is nature. The earth was an infinite sink of coldness where the sky rained down misfortune even as the mossy forests inspired a moment’s pause from everything in my life.

Isn’t it funny that this is what it takes to remind me that civilization is like that first band of human beings that fought for survival. Life is on the edge. Our survival is always on the edge. And it doesn’t matter if we stop paying attention or get caught up in the latest television show, nature still trumps civilization.

Egypt’s Example for Us

I confess. I’m overwhelmed. In a month of catching up from my trip to Sri Lanka, I’ve witnessed millions of people rise up to overthrow their government, observed revolutions spread like wildfire sparking events as far as Wisconsin, and seen an earthquake and tsunami devastate whole towns. Humanity is experiencing shock, and it’s hard not to feel numb to it all.

So I want to stop for a moment to reflect on how significant the Egyptian revolution is to us. Even as Egypt fades from the headline news, the events continue their twists and turns. It would be a shame if we didn’t draw into ourselves the example that Egypt has provided for us.

If the revolution of Tahrir Square seems hazy to you now, then here is a good re-telling.

To start with, I find myself frustrated with the one-dimensional interpretation of Egypt. Trumpeting social media as the lesson learned from Egypt or fearing the revolution as a threat to US foreign policy doesn’t help us learn from the richness of all that it represents in this moment of history. Every image coming out of the Middle East should serve as a seed of thought that grows our caring and understanding of the world.

Here are a few seeds that sit in my mind:

  • The Power of Image to Reveal Injustice: When Khaled Saieed was dragged from an internet cafe and beaten in front of witnesses, the images of his assault spread on the internet to the Egyptian consciousness. This image later became the rallying cry of Wael Ghonim’s (Google VP) Facebook page, “We are all Khaled Saieed”. Images make it hard to deny injustice. Consider that it was the Kodak Camera that made the abuses of King Leopold in the Congo blatantly obvious in the US.
  • People Can Self-Organize (duh): In Tahrir Square, protesters with different views organized to arrange their own security detail and cleaning duties. They organized food, water, shelter and wi-fi internet all without a formal bureacracy. In an age where everything is run and organized by institutions it surprises us when people self-organize. Yet, that’s how human beings have done it for millions of years, and we should well remember that in our highly modernized and institutionalized environment.
  • People Learn from Example: I think it was Einstein who said, “Learning by example isn’t the best way to learn. It’s the only way to learn.” When you watch a revolution starting in Tunisia, spread to Egypt then to Libya, Jordan and other Middle-Eastern nations, you can’t help but notice how societies learn from the example of others. In this way, social media and the internet allow us to learn from others more easily. The protests and strikes in Wisconsin show that we have as much if not more to learn from them than they do from us.
  • The Revolution is Never Done: Despite the inspiring example of they Egyptian revolution, we have to remember that currently the military is still in control. It was because of their restraint that Egypt’s revolution did not turn into what Libya is experiencing now. One has to wonder why the army hasn’t intervened. The army claims that they will release power six months from now, but historically armies have not so easily given up their reins.
  • The Power of Delusions: C. C. Colton, an English cleric from the 18th century, said, “Power multiplies flatterers, and flatterers multiply our delusions by hiding us from ourselves.” Mubarak’s 30 years as a dictator had insulated him from the realities of Egyptians on the ground. Like Nixon’s slip of the tongue that “when the president does it, it is not illegal” or Wall Street’s rationalization of fraud, people with power often become enamoured with their greatness to the detriment of all. If this is the case, then it is up to all of us to see reality more clearly and demand it of the institutions we have built.

There is so much more to be said about the history of Egypt and the Middle-East that I do not understand. I hope that you will add your understanding and interpretation of the unfolding events below. Hear from you soon.



Break the Consumer Habit

A conversation with a friend led to the question, “What pisses you off the most about the world?” Many things deserve that title, but in the spirit of the holiday season, I ranked consumerism as the thing that drives me crazy.

It’s not only the fact that after every Christmas, applications for Payday loans, bankruptcies and other financial instruments skyrocket. Or that it wastes tremendous amount of resources on a limited planet which could be used for other wiser purposes. And I could live with, if only for a moment, the twisted logic of economists who measure an increase in GDP every time a disaster happens, natural or man-made.

No, what drives me crazy is how thoroughly the spirit of commercial Christmas trashes the human spirit. Here is a sampling of Christmas commercials I’ve heard:

“Christmas is about feeling rich and luxurious.” – some home decor company
“If you love your wife, buy her a gift this season.” – paraphrasing from a jewelery skit
“Get that ‘oh my gosh’ reaction.” – from something on TV

It’s the kind of thing that makes you realize how thoroughly programmed we are by our culture. So much so that even if we know that Christmas isn’t about the gifts, we act as if it is about the gifts. Our kids expect it. Our peers expect it. Our society expects it. Is there no escape from it?

I’m not against buying things. I am all for bringing into our lives items that enrich our lives or help us to more fully realize ourselves. I draw the line when gift-giving becomes a replacement for caring or the representation of our character.

I’m determined to kick the habit. But how? I’m reminded of a quote:

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

And if we were to ask, where do our thoughts come from? If you think that your thoughts are your own, you’d be mistaken most of the time. Why do we buy for status? Why do we have an impulsive need to acquire things? Why do we associate happiness with money? The reality is that much of what we think comes from our natural inclinations as well as our socialization. We never question whether those thoughts supplied to us are helpful or not.

So to break free from a consumer habit, we have to feed our thoughts differently. We have to be mindful of the signals sent to us by advertisement, by our peers, by movies and books. It’s a revolutionary act to resist our socialization. We do know better and if we don’t play to our lowest common denominator, maybe others won’t either.

Teaching Kids How to Read

What do you need to know to help children learn to read in their first 2000 days on Earth? In this exclusive presentation hosted by Calgary Reads, child development expert Maryanne Wolf breaks down the genetic and cognitive aspects of reading for those crucial first years of a child’s life.

This is a long presentation clocking in at almost two hours, but well worth it if you’d like to see the leading research in this area.

Some really interesting points:

  • Reading is not a natural ability like speaking. It is a cultural invention that requires multiple features of the brain working together. A breakdown in any one of those areas may lead to problems in reading later in life.
  • Not surprisingly reading to your kids is important, but what is surprising is how early you should start (i.e. – from birth). This early experience creates in the child an association of love with reading as well as developing connections between sounds and print on a page.
  • Socrates was illiterate. He refused to learn how to read because he thought that reading would ruin memory and critical thought. He was right in some ways, but he also didn’t anticipate all the benefits.
  • Exposing kids to as many words as possible through talking, singing, and rhyming in the early years will go a long way to helping them be prepared for school.
  • Digital tools like Google, YouTube, Facebook are radically transforming how kids are thinking and learning in both good and bad ways. The jury is out on which one will outweigh the other.

If you’re interested in more, check out her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Keep in mind that she focuses primarily on the genetic and brain aspects of reading, and thus doesn’t say much about what one does with that reading ability or the fact that most of us stop reading critically or deeply after schooling beats it out of us.