A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Did the Dinosaurs Die From Boredom?

On the surface, this sounds like a ridiculous title. Everyone knows that the dinosaurs were wiped out in a mass extinction event about 65 million years ago. An asteroid hit the Earth near the Yucatan Peninsula, and the debris displaced by the impact caused an extended global winter. The dinosaurs, being cold-blooded, were unable to maintain their body temperature as the Earth started cooling, and they eventually died.

Asteroid Impact Location v2

So, what’s boredom got to do with anything? As you know, this is The Bob Angle, so naturally there has to be another way of looking at it…

A few years ago, I was watching the movie Men In Black. Toward the end of the movie, there is a CGI scene in which the camera zooms out from Battery Park in Manhattan, into orbit, past our solar system, beyond the Milky Way … until it reaches the edge of the universe itself. Then it keeps zooming out until it is revealed that our universe is actually contained within a marble-like object, which is resting on the ground of a world from a higher plane of existence.

I found this sequence fascinating because it reminded me of Stephen Hawking’s concept of multiverses – multiple universes. Hawking speculated that ours isn’t the only universe; there might be hundreds or thousands of other universes, each formed by their own Big Bang, and each governed by different laws of physics.

Marble Universe

This scene also proposes the notion of life on a higher plane of existence. Instead of a singular, managerial God, an entire society of superior beings may exist on some unreachable, god-like realm. In fact, our entire universe may be nothing more than a sophisticated physics experiment to the creatures who inhabit this plane. Naturally, every one of these creatures would be considered a god to us mere mortals.

If our snow-globe universe is a classroom experiment, then it’s possible that we are being observed by several of these god-like creatures, or perhaps an entire room full of them. That thought alone should make you want to be on your best behaviour – if Humankind destroys itself in a nuclear war (after evolving from single-celled organisms) the superior being in charge of our celestial marble may receive a lower grade for this science project.


The Game of Life

No, I’m not talking about the board game that you probably played during your childhood; this is a more esoteric life simulation that’s also known as cellular automata. If you took computer science in university, then you will undoubtedly be familiar with it.

The concept was developed in the 1940s by John von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam, and was turned into a simulation by John Conway during the 1970s. Calling it a game is a bit of a misnomer, since there is no continual user interaction. It’s essentially a simulation. It can also be run within a browser, if you’d like to give it a try.

You begin with a blank grid. Each square, or cell, represent a life form. You add one or more lifeforms by highlighting some of the sells. Each cell has eight neighbouring cells. Whether a particular cell survives to the next generation depends on the following set of rules:

Automata Grid

  • 0-1 Neighbours: The cell dies from underpopulation (or loneliness).
  • 2-3 Neighbours: The cell survives until the next generation.
  • 4-8 Neighbours: The cell dies from overcrowding.
  • A dead cell with three neighbours will come to life in the next generation.

Cell NeighboursIt seems absurdly simple, but this simulation can generate some surprisingly complex behaviour. Cellular automata are used in encryption, random number generation, and the arrangement of processing elements in CPUs. If you’d like to take a deep dive into this topic, M. Mitchell Waldrop’s book, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos is an excellent place to start. Waldrop elaborates on research into complex systems, done at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. Systems with just a few simple rules can generate complex, even unpredictable behaviour, and even act as if they’re intelligent.

In the Game of Life, the initial configuration of cells is called the seed. Seeds can evolve into stable, complex or chaotic patterns. However, many will becomes static patterns and others will simply oscillate forever.

Automata oscillator


The Dinosaur / Cellular Automata Connection

Dinosaurs reigned the Earth from 225 – 65 million years ago, a period lasting 160 million years. During this time, they were in perfect harmony with nature, having established an ecological equilibrium. In fact, one might argue that the dinosaurs were better stewards of the planet than we are, despite our larger brains and lofty perch at the top of the evolutionary ladder.

Dinosaur Illustration 1

What the Game of Life is to us – a simplistic model of evolution – is probably what our universe is to these superior beings. It’s just a dark snow globe, or perhaps a novelty item sold in their museum gift shops. It might be a science experiment or a game: generate an initial seed value by adjusting the laws of physics (and other parameters), and then sit back and watch the universe unfold – see if life develops, or how advanced the civilizations will become before they destroy their environment or themselves. On a god-like plane of existence, this might actually be amusing!

Once the simulation began, and the primordial ooze coalesced into stars and planets, circumstances on Earth were interesting as it slowly took shape and developed. Life began, and started to evolve, growing increasingly complex.

Now consider the reign of the dinosaurs. They have evolved into a stable configuration, and remained that way for 160 million years. After this ecological equilibrium was established, things plateaued, evolution-wise. If I were a superior being, I would quickly become bored. Life on Earth would be much like watching a static or oscillating cellular automata pattern… dull as ditch water. Ar this point, I could throw out my snow globe universe, or being the resourceful being that I am, I could find a way to hack it… just a little.

This is what I think might have happened. The owner of our universe-in-a-marble decided to make an infinitesimal change to a tiny sliver of our universe – just enough to disrupt the equilibrium on a single planet. Our universe owner either created a new asteroid by breaking apart a large object, or nudged an existing asteroid so that its orbit would collide with Earth. The impact wouldn’t be forceful enough to destroy the planet or all life on it, but enough to cause a global extinction event and leave a few survivors who will take evolution in a new direction. In fact, the BBC reported that the asteroid hit the Earth in just the right spot to accomplish this.

Another article speculates that our sun had a sister star that hurled a few meteors in our direction every 27 million years. One of them hit the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. There are countless ways in which one can hack the universe.


Could This Happen To Us?

In a word: no. We homo sapiens are just too darn interesting. We’ve settled all over the planet. We’ve drawn and redrawn political boundaries as empires rose and fell. We’re constantly inventing new things and are now extending our reach past the planet itself.

If that weren’t enough, we’re already the architects of our own demise. For over a century, we’ve been extracting raw materials from the ground, processing them, and then feeding them back to the planet in an indigestible (plastic), or even poisonous configuration (spent nuclear fuel rods) – a perverse form of reverse dialysis on a planetary scale.

Will we smarten up in time to stop the ecological damage we’ve caused to our planet, or will be perish as a result of our own stupidity? Even to a superior being, that’s some pretty decent cliffhanger material!

Even if we do manage to save ourselves, we still won’t be out of the proverbial woods. Achieving a net zero carbon footprint sounds like an admirable goal, but let’s not rest on our laurels for too long. After 160 million years of living in harmony with the planet, the watchers may once again decide to stir things up…

Asteroid Earth



To The Edge Of the Universe!

The End Is Near 1

This protester’s sign may be a little premature, but he is correct. Humankind’s reign will eventually come to an end, and there is important work that (I feel) we must complete before we are extinguished.

There are three events that will cause the end of our collective existence: two are naturally-occurring and are in the very distant future. However, the third is one that we created ourselves, and may occur within the next 100 years. Let’s examine each one individually.

The Red Giant

Everyone who’s taken a high school science class knows that our sun will become a Red Giant in about five billion years. At that time, its diameter will increase until it becomes 200 times its current size, and its outer edge will be in the Earth’s orbit. This means that Mercury, Venus and the Earth will be consumed by the sun and completely incinerated. I admit this sounds disastrous, but during the next five billion years – assuming that humankind hasn’t nuked itself out of existence or rendered the Earth uninhabitable in other ways – I expect that we will have devised a way to travel to and colonize other planets, in order to continue our lives elsewhere. This event doesn’t particularly concern me.

Sun, Red Giant-600

Now let’s zoom out a little more and examine things on a cosmological scale.

The Big Crunch

I assume that most of you are familiar with the Big Bang Theory – not the television series, but the hypothesis that offers to explain how the universe was created. About 13.75 billion years ago, all of the matter in the universe was concentrated in a single point called a singularity, which then expanded very rapidly, much like an explosion. At this moment, our universe is still expanding (as it has been doing since it was created), but many people who subscribe to this hypothesis also believe that at some point in the future, this expansion will cease and the universe will then start contracting. This contraction will continue until all of the matter in the universe collapses into a single point once again, which will be denser than a black hole. This event is known as the Big Crunch – the Big Bang in reverse. It will be the end of space and time, the universe itself, and (most importantly) everything that was ever created by its inhabitants.

Big Crunch

Although the Big Crunch won’t happen anytime soon, this is still a distressing thought. Everything that humans have ever created and accomplished – every book, building, invention, language, medicine, piece of art; all of our, music, poetry, sculptures and computer software – the entirety of our accumulated wisdom along with the fruits of all of our labours – will one day cease to exist. Preserving our collective knowledge as our sun becomes a Red Giant is a trivial matter – we simply have to move to Mars or to the outer planets in our own solar system – but there is no escape from the Big Crunch. There is no place in the universe where we can safely store this knowledge – no celestial bank vault or safety-deposit box – because, ultimately, all of the matter in the universe will eventually be destroyed. I realize that matter cannot be created or destroyed, but during the Big Crunch, the knowledge and wisdom and beauty contained in that matter will no longer exist.

A Global Catastrophe Of Our Own Making

While there’s still plenty of time before the universe collapses, there is another calamitous event that is just around the corner. Climate change could start making our planet uninhabitable, starting in less than a century.

CO2 Emmisions Chart-600

  • In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the shows host, quoting Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, warns of dire and potentially irreversible consequences for the planet’s food supply if we aren’t able to limit the global temperature rise to below 2°C, or our cumulative global CO² emissions to less than 2,900 gigatonnes. This upper limit is represented by the gray bar in the graph on the left. The red bar represents our present cumulative global CO² emissions. At our current rate of CO² emissions continue, we will exceed that threshold in about 20 years, as indicated by the graph on the right.

  • Author and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in an interview with CNN, is also worried that we are reaching the point of no return, and added “The longer we delay, the more I worry we might not be able to recover from this.”

  • Stephen Hawking, in a recent interview with the BBC, warned that humanity was in danger of destroying itself within the next 100 years. Not only from global warming, but also from nuclear war, and genetically-engineered viruses. He then suggested that we need to colonize other planets if we hope to ensure our survival.

Saving Everything Humankind Has Created

When the Big Crunch occurs, everything that humankind has ever created will be destroyed, but now we no longer have billions of years to think of a way to save it. Unless we can curtail our carbon emissions, we will have less than a century before we reach the point of no return, and the beginning of the end.

However, I have an idea – not to save the planet, but a way that we might be able to preserve everything that we’ve created. I will admit, this is a long shot, both literally and metaphorically. Here’s what I propose: We can launch a space probe – one that contains a digitized version of all of our accumulated knowledge (in a multitude of languages), along with a device that will read and translate this data) – and send it hurtling toward the edge of the universe.

Space Probe 2

Right now you’re probably thinking “If the entire universe is going to collapse, then why bother sending out a space probe anywhere, since it will also be destroyed in the Big Crunch?” Yes, that is a reasonable question. The next step in this plan, after launching the probe, is ensuring that it will reach the edge of the universe. Before we can do that, we first need to find out if this is even possible. The universe is still expanding, but how fast is it expanding? After doing a bit of research, I found out that the rate of expansion has its own special unit, called the Hubble Constant. There is some debate over its exact value, but the best guess so far is 71 km/s/Mpc (kilometres per second per megaparsec). The expansion rate is actually a bit more complicated than a simple velocity, but for the purposes of this article, let’s just assume that the rate of expansion is 71km/s.

If we can get our space probe to exceed the speed at which the universe is expanding, then it will eventually reach the edge of the universe. Luckily, space is practically a vacuum, so as long as our probe doesn’t hit anything, it won’t slow down. A continual propulsion source (from solar panels or a small nuclear reactor) can ensure a continual increase in speed. As a reference, the Helios 1 and 2 space probes, launched in 1974 and 1976, respectively, achieved a speed record of 70.22 km/s in their orbit around the sun. Exceeding the speed of the universe’s rate of expansion does appear to to be attainable, which means that we can launch a space probe, filled with our accumulated knowledge, and (theoretically) have it reach the edge of the universe.

The crucial question is: what will happen when our space probe hits the edge of the universe? I have no idea, but after giving it some thought, I think that it will be one of the following scenarios:

  • It will it bounce off the universe’s “wall”, and then simply proceed in the opposite direction, like a cosmic game of Pong.

  • It will disintegrate or otherwise be completely destroyed because it came into contact with an out-of-bounds area.

  • It will become stuck to the edge of the universe by some previously-unknown attractive force.

  • It will re-appear on the other side of the universe, as is if entered a wormhole (much like the arcade game Asteroids, where moving your ship off the right edge of the screen makes it appear again on the left).

  • It will re-appear in some random place in the universe, much like pressing the hyperspace button in the arcade game Asteroids.

  • It will penetrate the edge, and enter some other dimension.

  • It will penetrate the edge and enter the Creator’s World – much like an ant discovering a way through the plastic case of an ant farm.

Edge Of The Universe 2

Of these possibilities, the last two are the most intriguing, because they hold the promise of continuity along with the notion that something may exist outside our universe. When we die, most of us hope that there will be some form of afterlife, because we believe in the continuity of our awareness, or soul. We can’t accept that our essence can just cease, and that we will simply wink our of existence. Similarly, it would be just as tragic if all of our civilization’s accumulated knowledge and wisdom also vanished during The Big Crunch. The last two items in the list give us hope that our collective efforts may not ultimately be in vain, and that we, as a species, might be able to preserve what we’ve created, or present something of value to the creator of the universe.

For all we know, this may even be the purpose of our existence: to find a way to breach the universe’s barrier and give something back to its creator (or impress the creator with our literature, art, poetry, music and wisdom) before everything is ultimately destroyed in The Big Crunch. Our entire universe could even be a creator’s game: design a universe, let it unfold, and see how many civilizations will develop from the primordial ooze, and how many of them will eventually become technologically advanced enough to break through our universe’s barrier and send a message, before they annihilate themselves, destroy their homeworld or time runs out.

I have no idea which of these touching-the-edge-of-the-universe scenarios will turn out to be correct (if any), and I can’t even calculate the odds of a space probe reaching the edge of an expanding universe intact (although I’m sure they are astronomically low). However, if we do nothing, then all will be for naught – everything that every human has ever created will be destroyed. As for the most immediate threat, climate change, we have become a modern-day personification of Ebenezer Scrooge: unless we drastically change our polluting ways, we will also see our names on a (metaphorical) gravestone.

What are our chances for success? No one knows, but however infinitesimal they may seem, I believe that we have to try. Besides, you do buy the occasional lottery ticket, don’t you?



We Are Worshipping The Wrong God

The top news story across the country this week is the raging wildfire that was encroaching upon and is now consuming Fort McMurray, Alberta. The video footage of the fire and of those affected is both horrific and heartbreaking. Thousands of people have been evacuated and may have nothing to return to. Hundreds have already lost their homes and as of this writing the fire is still spreading; more than 200,000 hectares have already been destroyed.

Fire 1

Television reporters have described the devastation as hellish and even apocalyptic, with the burned-out areas compared to a war zone. This fire is now so enormous that it can be seen from space.

Fire From Space

As I was watching the news coverage on television, it seemed as though I was staring right into the very bowels of hell itself. At that moment, I had a religious (or more accurately, a secular) epiphany. If I may quote Leonard Bernstein, it “all came together in one luminous revelation”: we are worshipping the wrong God.

There is another god who has been in the vicinity for just as long – one whom we should be worshipping – but we’ve been so pre-occupied with our God v1.0 that we’ve failed to notice what was right in front of us. Therefore, I’d like to propose that we elevate Mother Nature to a similar God-like status and then start worshipping her as our new deity.

I admit this sounds like a bizarre thing to think while watching the news, but keep in mind that I am looking at the world from The Bob Angle. Allow me to detail my thought process as I contrast our current God with Mother Nature, and then explain why we need to start paying close attention to her.

For 2,000 years, many of us have believed that God first created the universe, and then created the Earth and everything in it for our benefit. In fact, in Genesis 1:28 (KJV), God said that we humans “Have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth… Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree“. It seems reasonable to assume that the more literally you interpret the Bible, the more likely you are to feel that everything around you has been created with you in mind, and that the planet is yours to exploit. To be fair, God didn’t tell us to plunder the Earth’s resources, but one could make the following counter-argument: since the oil beneath the ground used to be animal protoplasm and organic matter, we can do what we like with it, since Genesis 1:28-29 gave us dominion over every animal and every tree.

The problem with this world view is that it’s self-centred, self-serving and ultimately destructive. We are not (in my opinion, anyway) the masters of our domain. We are a decidedly small part of a vast and intricate ecosystem. The reason we are able to exist on this planet is due to the establishment and maintenance of a delicate equilibrium with a relatively narrow temperature range, an abundance of sunlight, oxygen, water, food, and arable land on which to grow food. If we disrupt this equilibrium – much like an asteroid did 66 million years ago – then the Earth will simply establish a new equilibrium which may or may not include Homo sapiens.

The second problem with our current God is His empty threats. He and His son try to keep us with line by threatening us with eternal damnation, but this is really more bombast and posturing than anything else. First of all, this will scare only those who actually believe that hell exists. Secondly, the punishment doesn’t even remotely fit the crime. I will admit that the “eternal” part may initially give one pause, but if you look at it objectively, you’ll realize that it’s utter nonsense. How can one legitimately deserve an infinite punishment for a finite transgression? Thirdly, the punishment doesn’t even begin until after we die. In the meantime, you can live a full, rich life and are still free to behave any way you like until then. With a lag time that could often be more than half a century, we may not always make the connection between hell and the specific behaviour that brought us there. Finally, no one has ever returned from hell (or even purgatory) to tell us what is was like. There are no eyewitnesses and no proof that such a place even exists. As a behavioural modification technique, I think it’s pretty ineffectual.

The third difficulty we’re facing is that our current God is a passive deity. Some of my outwardly religious friends believe that God is hovering over their shoulder, 24/7, and giving them continual guidance. However, I disagree; I think that God is following His own version of Star Trek’s Prime Directive. We’re all pretty much free to do whatever we like without any divine intervention, including polluting our planet until it becomes uninhabitable. Unfortunately, as a species, we’re not quite mature enough to govern ourselves yet – we’re still too inward-looking. What we need is a no-nonsense, hands-on deity; one that won’t hesitate to let us know when we’re engaging in self-destructive behaviour or otherwise behaving foolishly.

Interestingly, we’ve already touched upon this “deifying nature” idea a couple of times already with Gaia in Greek mythology and Terra in Roman mythology, but there wasn’t really much traction with either of them.

Mother Nature has always been characterized as a friendly and benevolent personification of nature: a kind lady who created for us, a beautiful planet with an abundance of resources – full of everything we need to live, eat, drink, and flourish. In fact, the only fleeting glimpse we’ve seen of her malevolent side was during a commercial for Chiffon margarine, when she warned us “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature”.

That is, until now… as I was watching the graphic news coverage of the Fort McMurray wildfire, I realized that Mother Nature has a darker side – a side that is revealed to us only when her life-giving gifts are being squandered and destroyed.

Unlike God, Mother Nature doesn’t make empty threats. After seeing the extent to which we’ve been polluting and poisoning our home – her gift to us – she makes her wrath known in a more immediate and pragmatic way: she creates an actual fire & brimstone version of hell, and places it right on our planet. God merely threatens to send us to hell after we die; Mother Nature brings hell right to our doorstep… and if that wasn’t enough, she then proceeds to consume our homes and destroy all of our material possessions with the hellfire she spawned. Memories accumulated over a lifetime, items of immense sentimental value – all reduced to ashes. This isn’t some ethereal theoretical concept – this is real, immediate and devastating.

Fire Aftermath

As I was watching the news, one reporter said “It was the perfect storm. Global climate change is creating conditions that will spawn intense, unstoppable wildfires like these more frequently in the future“. This is our wake-up call. We have pillaged the land and polluted the seas. We have extracted organic resources from the ground and then polluted the air as we burned them. Now Mother Nature is saying “You are destroying the home I created for you, and acting as if you’re the only ones who live here. I tried to give you a gentle warning by raising the global temperatures, but not enough of you were paying attention. In fact a large number of you were even in denial. Now it’s time to dial things up a bit and tap into your collective fear of hell and eternal damnation. Rather than simply reading about it, perhaps it’s time for you to see hell up close.”

One news source stated that only the weather can stop this inferno; extinguishing it is now beyond our collective firefighting capability. This is a truly horrifying statement because Mother Nature is essentially humbling us by explaining “This isn’t a run-of-the-mill forest fire – I have conjured up hell itself and brought it to Earth. There is nothing you can do to extinguish these flames. Only I possess enough power to call it off.”

I think it behooves us all to make a perceptual shift in our ecclesiastical world view and consider the deification of Mother Nature – a hands-on, no-nonsense taskmistress who will not hesitate to give us the biggest smack-down of our lives. It’s a discomfiting hypothesis, but it may be the observational adjustment that we all need in order to continue living our pleasant life on this planet.

Tonight, turn on your television, watch the news and then stare into the very pit of hell itself. Mother Nature is our new god, and she is badass…

Fire 2


We Are Humans! We Are Afraid Of Nothing!

RersolutionsIt’s a new year, and time to make some New Year’s resolutions! So, why do we make them now, and not during other months? Surely it would be more efficient if we resolved to do something as soon as we recognized the need, rather than wait until January 1st. We wait because we visualize our lives in annual blocks of time, rather than a continuous, flowing stream. Personally, I blame that traditional illustration of the New Year’s baby for reinforcing this paradigm. During the first week of January, the entire year is spread out before us, like a long, untrodden snowy path, or a pristine beach. However, drawing a line in the proverbial sands of time, and then stepping over it to gaze out at the vast, empty expanse that defines the coming year is also daunting. Each January 1st, we look at the year ahead and gaze into an unknown, uncharted and unpredictable future. Making New Year’s resolutions creates a framework and at least gives us the impression that we know where our lives are headed during the next twelve months.

New Year's Baby

I think that our New Year’s resolutions are fascinating, because when they are viewed from The Bob Angle, they reveal a new (and until now, hidden) aspect of human nature. In my opinion, we make our resolutions because we are afraid of nothing. That doesn’t mean that we are all courageous souls who aren’t afraid of anything – it means that we are uncomfortable with the concept of nothing, whether it’s silence, unallocated time, empty space or simply the lack of material possessions.

I believe that our aversion to this concept is because nothing is associated with the number zero. Zero has no value. If there is nothing, rather than something, then it must also have no value. Therefore, in order to add substance to our lives, we need to fill it with something… anything.

Naturally, merchants are more than eager to help us do this. Just browse any catalogue, flyer or magazine and you’ll see the same message expressed in hundreds of ways “your self-identity and/or your self-worth is defined by what you own”.

If you think that you’re immune to these messages, then take a moment and look around your own home. We spend years filling our living spaces with our purchases. In fact, at this moment, your house likely contains more material things than usual, now that Christmas has just passed. Not only are our rooms filled with items, but we also buy storage cabinets and closet organizers to fit even more stuff into our available space. Now imagine walking into a friend’s house and discovering a room that’s completely empty. Your friend sees your startled reaction and explains “Our house has seven rooms but our family needs only six to live comfortably, so this room is for future expansion”. Clearly, nobody does this; no matter how many rooms we have in our house, we will fill all of them with something because we can’t deal with the idea of empty or unused space.

If you’re a regular reader of advice columns, then you’ve undoubtedly noticed that Ann Landers, Dear Abby and everyone else will say the same thing repeatedly “it’s better to be single than to be stuck in a bad relationship”. Some people have this mindset; they need to have someone around, otherwise there will be no one in their lives, and someone (anyone) must be of greater value than no one.

In addition to having a fear of nothing, we often project it onto other people. During the past decade, I’ve met many parents who schedule just about every waking hour of their kids’ time with hockey and soccer practices, karate classes, music lessons, and a plethora of other activities. As a result, their kids don’t have any unstructured free time that will allow them to use their imaginations and make up their own games.

A recent New York Times column, entitled The Busy Trap, provides an insightful commentary on our society’s “glorification of busy”. The author suggests that our frantically busy days are merely a way of hiding the emptiness in our lives. If we are always occupied, then we never have an opportunity to be alone with our thoughts, which may be a terrifying prospect to some people.

Advertising executives are the best example of our this collective aversion to the idea of nothing. A blank wall must have a billboard on it, or else it’s not really functional. There are now logos on the soles of running shoes, advertisements on staircase risers, web site addresses on Popsicle sticks, and searchlights shining store logos on shopping mall floors. I’ve even read an article about the feasibility of placing short (two-second) ads between the telephone rings, when we’re placing a call.

Royal Baby Reporter

Television news reporters are an interesting breed; they abhor silence and will say just about anything to ensure that television viewers don’t experience it. This past summer, when the Duchess of Cambridge was about to give birth, a gaggle of reporters gathered outside St. Mary’s hospital in London, ready to report the news. They were waiting for hours, and even though there was nothing to report, and nothing new to say to the viewers, that didn’t stop them from speaking incessantly anyway, as this segment of Charlie Brooker’s 2013 retrospective illustrates.

I’ve also noticed another interesting behavioural quirk: not only do we have to fill all of the emptiness in our lives, we have to fill all of it, and as quickly as possible. Allocating everything vanquishes the void, and fills us with (I’m guessing) a Nietzschean sense of accomplishment. Personally, I think that a healthier approach is adopting what I call the “hard drive” method. When we buy a new hard drive, we fill it up slowly, over several months or even a couple of years.

This desire to eliminate all of the nothingness at once is what I think is behind writer’s block, and a writer’s paralyzing fear of the proverbial blank page. We stare at the blank page and feel that we need to fill it completely, rather than just a small portion of it.

That’s also why we make New Year’s resolutions. You don’t make January resolutions – you make them for the entire year. Rather than live one day at a time and take whatever opportunities present themselves that day, we have a need to schedule the entire year through our resolutions. This gives us a sense of victory over the vast swath of free time that we suddenly see before us each January. Once all of the space on the calendar is allocated, then we are victorious, since the entirety of our perceived block of time has been filled.

Young people often talk about how they intend to change the world after they graduate. Part of this is attributable to a youthful idealism, but I think that some of it could also be our desire to fill the vast swath of time that makes up the rest of their lives. When Steve Jobs started Apple Computer in the late 1970s, he didn’t merely want to sell computers, he wanted to “make a dent in the universe”. When we’re in university, our entire lives are in front of us – decades of time, waiting to be filled. That’s why I think that many of us have such grandiose ideas. We need ambitious dreams to fill all of that space, and we will speak grandiloquently of our plans to make our mark upon the world.

A recent television series called Underemployed inadvertently illustrates this point. It’s a fictional, scripted series that follows the lives of five people who have just graduated from college, and who each have grandiose plans for making their mark upon the world. One year later, reality gets in the way of their dreams of world domination, and they each find themselves working in jobs that they would (a year previously) consider beneath them. The first 45 seconds of the show’s trailer illustrates this contrast quite well.

New Year's Book

Think of your life as a blank notebook. Each day, we write a little more of our life story in that notebook, and the remaining space decreases. As we age, we have fewer blank pages to fill, and with each passing day/week/month, we fill up an increasing percentage of that remaining space. That, in my opinion, is one reason why we develop a greater appreciation for the little things in life as we get older. One of my Facebook friends, a lady in her late 40s, posted the that she glad to be home, in her PJs, and lying on the couch watching her favourite television program – and then added “Life is good”. Another Facebook friend, a man also in his late 40s, posted “Home… fish & chips for dinner… cold beer in the fridge. Yes indeed, it is the simple things that make us happy”. A 20-something would never find happiness in these ordinary activities.


Conquer Your Fear of Nothing

Let’s start by studying someone whom I consider a true visionary: Steve Jobs. You can say what you like about his abrasive personality, but Steve Jobs actually embraced what most of us avoid. Unlike the vast majority of the population, he (at least during the early 1980s) didn’t have a need to fill up his entire house (or even a single room) with stuff. He bought only what he needed, and was comfortable being surrounded by empty space.

Steve Jobs' Living Room, 1982. Photo credit: Diana Walker

This is a photo of Jobs sitting in the living room of his Los Gatos house. It was taken on December 15, 1982, by Diana Walker, who was a White House photographer at the time. The accompanying quote by Jobs was “This was a very typical time. I was single. All you needed was a cup of tea, a light, and your stereo, you know, and that’s what I had.”

Clay Pot

The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, had an interesting perspective on the balance between things and the absence of things. In his book Tao Te Ching, he writes “Clay is moulded to make a pot, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the clay pot lies.”

While I certainly can’t compete with Steve Jobs or Lao Tzu, I did make an attempt to notice and appreciate the nothingness in my life by writing a blog post about my new philosophy called A Speech About Nothing.

Someone else who stands out from the crowd is John Cage. In 1952, he “composed” a piece called 4′ 33″ – a recording of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. This wasn’t merely a reel of blank tape re-packaged as a song – Cage brought an entire orchestra into the studio, and conducted the piece while they sat there and simply didn’t play their instruments. When I first read about it, I thought it was the most moronic idea in the history of composing, but now I finally understand it (at least in this context). John Cage had the courage to embrace what the rest of us assiduously avoid – the concept of nothingness in a society full of “stuff”. He was brave enough to acknowledge it, experience it, and then invite us to experience it with him for several minutes. Here is a live performance of 4′ 33″.

A Quiet Moment

There is an ebb and flow in the world and in our lives: each day has periods of light and darkness; we are awake for 16 hours and then we sleep for eight. Each month we can observe a full moon and a new moon. As you begin this year, resolve to at least recognize the absence of things in your life, and visualize how they can actually make your existence richer. Then, if you’re adventurous enough, vanquish your fear of nothingness and enjoy the silent moments, unstructured free time, and even the advantages of living a simpler existence.


The Scream – An Environmental Interpretation

In May 2012, American billionaire Leon Black paid $120 million for Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at an auction. It’s an iconic image and along with the Mona Lisa, is one of the world’s most recognizable works of art. There also seems to be no consensus on its meaning, other than Munch being the main figure in the painting. There are many interpretations:

  • A slaughterhouse is believed to have been situated within earshot of the painting’s location, near a fjord in Ekeberg, just east of Oslo, Norway. Therefore, the scream might represent his reaction to the cries of the animals.
  • Edvard Munch’s sister, Laura, was committed to Gaustad, the city’s insane asylum, which was also within earshot of the painting’s location. The expression on the protagonist’s face could be his reaction as he heard the screams of the asylum patients, or even those of his sister.
  • Then, of course, there is Edvard Munch’s own commentary on the painting, which one would assume would be the final word on the subject “I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature”. This makes sense, since the actual title of the painting (in German) is Der Schrei der Natur.

Edvard Munch - The Scream

And now The Bob Angle. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I would like to add my own interpretation of this painting. I think that The Scream is actually an environmental statement, and that Edvard Munch used this painting as a way to sound the climate change alarm – 80 years before David Suzuki. Now let’s start connecting the dots.

Some Background

Krakatoa is the name of an island in Indonesia. On August 26, 1883, a volcano erupted on that island and it turned out to be one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. The explosive force was equal to a 200-megaton atomic bomb, which is 13,000 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. The explosion was heard as far away as southern India, and Perth, Australia (about 1,900 kilometres away), and the sound was so loud that anyone within 10 miles of the island would have gone deaf. 165 villages were destroyed and over 36,000 people died. Twenty-one cubic kilometres of ash was hurled into the atmosphere, and some of it reached a height of 80 km.

 Krakatoa Map

The vast quantity of ash in the atmosphere altered the appearance of sunsets around the world for the next several years. In Chelsea, England, an artist named William Ascroft was so struck by the unusual and vivid hues in the sunsets, that he painted a series of watercolours of them, beginning in November 1883. You can view these paintings on the Science and Society Picture Library’s web site.

Perhaps Krakatoa’s most important legacy is that these sunsets made scientists examine the way dust particles travel through the atmosphere, which led to the discovery of the jet stream. The global visibility of the Krakatoa sunsets led to an awakening among scientists; they realized that the planet was an interconnected and tightly-networked entity where environmental changes in one location can have surprisingly far-reaching effects.

An Environmental Interpretation

Astronomers have noted that the sunset in the background of The Scream contains the characteristic orange and purple hues of the Krakatoa sunsets. Edvard Munch painted The Scream in 1893, but he was in Oslo immediately after the 1883 Krakatoa eruption, when the colourful sunsets began, and it is thought that they did influence The Scream. In 2003, David Olson, a physics and astronomy professor, suggested that the unusually-coloured sky in The Scream was what the sky looked like over Oslo shortly after the Krakatoa eruption.

Although The Scream was painted in 1893, I think that it actually represents an evening in late 1883, shortly after the Krakatoa eruption, when the volcanic ash and dust first started to affect the appearance of the Norwegian sunsets.

I have a two-fold interpretation of the the principal figure in the painting. He doesn’t necessarily represent Munch, but Man – not as he is now, but Man as he one day might be. Notice the grey, bulbous, slightly elongated, alien-like head, completely devoid of hair. This is a classic representation of what we used to think technologically-advanced extra-terrestrials might look like. I believe that this figure might be either an alien visiting Earth in the present day, or it might be a more evolved Man in the distant future.

If this figure represents Man, then he is the Enlightened Man – one who has evolved to live in harmony with his environment and who leaves a negligible environmental footprint. He is completely integrated with nature and his surroundings, and understands intuitively that humans are simply one small part of a large and complex ecosystem. When he gazed upon the sunset in the background, he knew immediately and intuitively that something was terribly wrong. There was a disturbance in the equilibrium; a calamity of tremendous and possibly global proportions had taken place. The blood red sky (as described by Munch himself) represents the metaphorical blood of a wounded planet. The painting’s protagonist is an empath – connected not only to his fellow humans but also to the Earth itself, and his scream is the pain he feels for the wounded Earth.

That’s how I see The Scream – as a relevant, and even poignant, allegorical tale told by a prescient artist. I’d like to hear your interpretations of this painting as well. Please write your thoughts in the Comments section, below.



We Are All Custodians

I feel ashamed to admit this, but when I was in junior high, my friends and I would sometimes make fun of the school’s janitor (as custodians were called back then). Never in front of him of course – just among ourselves. While our parents were already encouraging us to become doctors and lawyers, we were surprised to see an adult who seemed quite content to earn his living living by mopping floors and emptying garbage cans. We were a bunch of arrogant and ignorant grade-seven boys, with an outmoded and stratified view of labour and vocation. However, we did mature and become more respectful during our adolescence – in high school, the janitors were called custodians, and each year, a couple of pages of the yearbook featured the custodial staff, and thanked them for their continued efforts.

Life After People

I haven’t thought much about the role of custodians in society since high school – until I saw a documentary called Life After People. The series is based on the question “What would happen if the Earth’s entire human population suddenly disappeared?” Using a team of subject matter experts and some impressive CGI, the producers illustrated the ultimate fate of our cities, neighbourhoods, monuments, houses and everything else that was left behind. I just assumed that (aside from rotting food) everything would remain fairly well-preserved over the ensuing years and decades, but as it turns out, the deterioration of just about everything Humankind has created is surprisingly rapid, and in some cases, completely devastating.

After watching a few episodes of Life After People, I was both shocked and humbled. Nature has established a global equilibrium that has endured for millions of years. Then, in a geological instant, homo sapiens came along, and as our numbers grew exponentially, we began cutting and reshaping the planet. We humans are supremely confident as we dominate the Earth, exploit its resources, and carve out a pleasant environment for ourselves. However, that self-assuredness is premature, because we are underestimating the power of the juggernaut known as Mother Nature. We may think of ourselves as masters of our domain, but after watching this program I now realize that we are doing little more than causing temporary ripples in Nature’s equilibrium. I’d never thought about it before, but maintaining our cities, roads, buildings, infrastructure and everything else requires a continual and never-ending collective effort.

The Life After People scenarios were fictional, but a few months after watching the program, I encountered a real-life example, much closer to home. As I was riding along a local bicycle trail, I saw this peculiar sight:

Road Closed

I remember cycling past it a number of years ago, and there was a road there, which I believe was paved. I wish I had taken a photo of it at the time, but who takes pictures of such things? Fortunately, Google Earth has a “time machine” feature that allows you to examine historical satellite images of a particular location. Here are some photos of this spot taken (from top to bottom) in 2005, 2007 and 2009 (Google Earth’s most recent image). The spot where I was standing when I took the above photo is marked with an “X”.

Google Earth - 2005

Google Earth - 2007

Google Earth - 2009

Look at what Nature has reclaimed during the relatively short time span of 2005-2013. I always thought that a paved road (even if not maintained) would last decades – or even a century – but after only eight years, the gate and signs are the only indicators that something else was ever there.

The more I thought about this tug-of-war between Man and Nature, the more examples I began to see. The forces of Nature are immensely powerful, but to be fair, we’re already at a disadvantage because the laws of physics are also working against us, in the form of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In simple terms, this law states that there the amount of entropy (lack of order) in the universe always increases. In fact, Life After People was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Deterioration surrounds us, and affects almost every aspect of our daily lives. Counteracting or even neutralizing this continuous increase of disorder means that we all have to spend a lot of our time on various forms of maintenance and repair, tending to our ourselves, our possessions and our surroundings. Much of what we do every day can be classified as simple custodial duties. Therefore, in a sense, we are all custodians.


Our Daily Custodial Duties

To illustrate my hypothesis, let’s examine a typical day, by looking at the things we do and the products that we use. A surprising number of the items we use every day exist solely for repairs and maintenance.

Personal Care: You wake up and shuffle into the bathroom to begin your morning routine. Here, you will perform daily maintenance on your body with the help of many of the following products: soap, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, toothpaste, dental floss, mouthwash, toilet paper, facial tissues, hand cream, shaving cream, Clearasil or Oil of Olay (depending on your age), razors, nail clippers, nose hair clippers (again, depending on your age), hair-removal cream and deodorant.

Personal Fitness: Our bodies establish a certain equilibrium, based on our lifestyle. If we want to alter it, then we need to exercise, change our diet or both. All of the time you spend at the gym, stretching, lifting weights, and well as running, walking, hiking, cycling or working out at home with your own equipment is just body maintenance.

Indoor Chores: Even though you never deliberately make your house messy, it seems to require constant upkeep. During a typical week, you or your spouse will probably spend several hours using the following items: feather duster, dust cloth, vacuum cleaner, Pledge furniture polish, Swiffer (or a generic mop), Ty-D Bol, Mr. Clean, Lysol, Drano or Liquid Plumr, CLR, Easy Off oven cleaner, Windex, Comet, Febreze, laundry detergent, dryer sheets and dishwashing liquid.

Outdoor Chores: Just about everything we do outside the house is maintenance-related: mowing and watering the lawn, weeding, pruning, landscaping, cleaning the eavestroughs, raking leaves, shoveling snow, resurfacing the driveway, The next time you visit Canadian Tire or Home Depot, take a look at their inventory and make a note of how many items could be classified as custodial supplies – probably more than half.

Automotive: Most of our possessions require regular maintenance, especially ones with many moving parts. You may buy a new car every five years, but you’re probably visiting your dealer every 3-4 months for oil changes, tire rotations, winter/summer tire swaps, tune-ups, and the dreaded (and expensive) “regularly-scheduled maintenance”. Your weekly trip to the gas station might also include (in addition to a fill-up), a car wash, a tire pressure check, cleaning your car’s windows and vacuuming its interior.

Professions: Think about our trades and professions for a moment, and consider how many of them are primarily (or even entirely) various types of repairs and maintenance: in addition to the usual building, construction and handyman trades, there are also acupuncturists, barbers, chiropractors, computer programmers, counselors, dentists, doctors, firefighters, maids, mechanics, paramedics, psychologists, physiotherapists, sanitation workers, surgeons and technical support workers.

TV News: When you are finally ready to retire for the evening and turn on the evening news, you’ll invariably see stories of natural disasters: featuring hurricanes, tornadoes, landladies, floods or wildfires. It’s almost as if Nature is deliberately trying to erase the marks we’ve been leaving on the planet. After each of these events, a massive and often extended cleanup operation is necessary to repair the damage.


Final Thoughts

We are in a constant tug-of-war with Nature, but we seem to be completely unaware of this battle as we try to shape the world around us. When most of our waking hours are spent performing repairs and maintenance, then perhaps we should should rethink how we’re living, and how we can become better stewards of the planet. This is our wake-up call.

Earth Hour: Much Ado About Nothing

Fellow Toastmasters and welcome guests, there is a recent trend in advertising and marketing that is starting to worry me: Advertising though guilt. It’s no longer enough to say that your product or service is superior – now companies are implying that we are all headed straight to hell if we don’t buy their product or participate in their schemes.

Terror-Free OilHere’s a recent example – Terror-Free Oil [show photo of gas pump]. Years ago, we were enticed to buy a particular brand because it had a higher octane, or it contained detergents that cleaned our car’s engine. Now things are much more insidious – the implication being that if you don’t buy their brand of gasoline, you are funding terrorist activities, and by extension you are almost certainly a bad person.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing a lot about Earth Hour – a little too much for my liking. As I’m sure you know by now Earth Hour is a global experiment where people around the world are encouraged to turn off their lights between 8:30 – 9:30 pm on the last Saturday in March. The Toronto Star published a daily Countdown To Earth Hour, with accompanying articles detailing how people are going to prepare for and spend their Saturday evening.

The Mississauga News published a picture that is in my opinion, the absolute height of stupidity. [show newspaper article and photo] This shopkeeper said that she is going to observe Earth Hour by turning off the lights in her store. As I’m sure you know already, all of the stores in Port Credit close at 6:00pm on Saturday. Of course their lights are going to be turned off. What exactly is this shopkeeper hoping to accomplish by declaring this? Are we supposed to think highly of her now, for being such a caring, environmentally-sensitive soul? As the comedian Chris Rock said in one of his stand-up routines “You’re supposed to do that! What do you want, a cookie?”.

As surprising as this may seem, I participated in Earth Hour over the weekend. I turned off all my lights at 8:30 and kept them off for an hour. To me, this was a perfect opportunity to test some of my LED flashlights. I put a couple of flashlights in each room, turned them on and pointed them toward the ceiling to bask in the reflected glow – my apartment was nice and bright again, and I had to remind myself that I was making a sacrifice. This was also an excellent opportunity to test the runtimes, the light coverage, heat sinking, and how well each flashlight maintained its brightness as its battery was depleted. Overall, it was a fairly productive Earth Hour for me.

I’m of two minds about Earth Hour. I’m probably the furthest thing from a tree-hugger, and personally I think that Earth Hour is a colossal waste of time, and ironically, energy. The energy saved is merely a drop in the bucket – incandescent light bulbs use only 60 or 100 watts each (or 15 and 23 watts, respectively, for their compact fluorescent equivalents). If you really want to make a difference, dry your hair with a towel instead of a hair dryer (which uses 1500 watts). Open your dishwasher and air dry your dishes (1200 watts), dry your clothes on a clothes line instead of using a dryer (4000 watts), or make yourself a sandwich once in a while instead of turning on your oven (up to 12,000 watts).

Secondly, why wait? Do we really need an Earth Hour to do something productive? We’ve all known about this for weeks, so why didn’t we start turning off our lights every night? A couple of years ago, I watched a National Geographic documentary called Inside Mecca. It profiled a number of people and they talked about their reasons for making the pilgrimage. One lady from Texas (who was raised Catholic but who later converted to Islam) said that she was turning over a new leaf and making major changes in her life. This trip to Mecca was the first step in her journey. I, watching all of this on television thought “Madam – why are you waiting? If your faith dictates that you must visit Mecca, then by all means that’s what you must do – but don’t use it as an excuse to delay making positive changes in your life. You’ve made the decision to improve yourself, now take a page from the Nike marketing book and Just Do It! Do it today!”

These examples are merely posturing – all sizzle and no steak. Here’s an example of something that’s low-key but far more effective. Recently, I was at HMV buying some CDs. Their bags used to be black, but now they are white. [show black and white HMV bags] The white bags use a lot less dye than the black ones. This could mean they are cheaper to manufacture, thus saving the company money, or the company might actually care about the environment and deliberately manufacture bags with less dye. Upon closer inspection I saw that while the black bag had a recycling symbol on it, the white bag was biodegradable. Upon exposure to sunlight, it will break down into carbon dioxide, water and a couple of other innocuous things. This small change is actually making a big difference – far less waste in our landfills, and all without any fanfare.

To be fair ridiculous exercises such as Earth Hour do have the power to galvanize people around the globe and get them to become team players. Despite our recent tendency to gaze inward and exist in our own bubbles, events such as Earth Hour show us the importance of working collectively, helping each other, and demonstrating the importance of delayed gratification. This is an impressive example of getting us to accept individual inconveniences for the common good, and despite its lack of practicality, I see this as a healthy detour on our road to an increasingly egocentric existence.

And now, I’d like to extrapolate these examples, and make two predictions. These are things that are also “all image and no substance”. First of all, I’m going predict the demise of the red carpet. In this age of increased environmental awareness, I think that the red carpet will be supplanted by a bright green carpet. Celebrities are all about image, and green will give the impression that they are environmentally conscious, care about the planet, and are doing something tangible (or at least visible) to make the world a better place. Green will elevate their status as they embrace the cause du jour, making them even more exalted in the eyes of the adoring, impressionable masses. Clearly, this accomplishes nothing, but in Hollywood, image is everything.

Secondly, I believe that future television programs and commercials will become much darker. I don’t mean this in a metaphorical or thematic sense – I mean that they will take place at night, and have more dimly-lit scenes. It takes energy to light up a pixel, and the brighter the television picture, the more energy is required to view it. I predict that there will be a self-righteous backlash and perhaps even a boycott against advertisers who use a white background in their television commercials because they are forcing consumers to use more energy. Companies that use black backgrounds in their commercials will be heralded as environmentally-sensitive, and will enjoy increased sales of their products and services.

Laugh all you want – I agree that these are silly predictions… but no sillier than Earth Hour.