Monday, December 22, 2014

The Time Of Our Lives

An old friend passed away recently. He was 59. I didn't know that he'd been ill, but that's not surprising since we had been out of touch for 20 years.

Rob and I (along with our brothers) spent six or seven years hanging out together in our teens. We rode motorbikes, water-skied and attended rock concerts. I remember racing our skidoos over frozen ponds and rivers and thinking the good times would never end. Given the reckless and crazy things we did, it's a wonder we survived.

If you had told me in my teens that I would go almost my entire adult life without having any contact with Rob, I would never had believed it. When you have friends in your youth, you just assume that you will remain friends forever.

When I was 25, I moved to England and when I returned home to Toronto a year later, Rob had moved to Alberta.  Over the next decade, Rob and I exchanged a few letters and phone calls. I last saw Rob at an Eagles concert in Toronto in 1994. As the months and years passed, careers and families exerted their pull and we drifted apart.

This got me thinking about what keeps friendships together.  It's caring and effort, of course. It's making time when deadlines and responsibilities loom. I wanted to visit Rob on several occasions but I never did. We only lived an hour apart and yet neither of us made the effort. What a shame. 

Rob was a smart guy with a razor-sharp wit. Many of his one-liners still echo inside my head, more than 30 years after he uttered them. He was someone whose opinions and worldview I found fascinating, intriguing, sometimes infuriating, but he remained true to himself. I always respected that about him.

Rob had a loving wife and five beautiful children. He was much admired at work and respected in his community. I'd like to think that his adult years as a husband and a father were happy and fulfilled, and I have no reason to think otherwise.

Over the years, I've often become nostalgic about our coming-of-age years, and I'm thankful for the time that Rob and I spent together. Those carefree years were precious and they're worth holding onto. Memories sustain us as we get older and provide a place of comfort and solace; but memories are fickle, too. I am often reminded of incidents in my past that I'd totally forgotten about, and I tell stories that others have forgotten. It's interesting how we embellish our personal narratives like a painter, dabbing details here and there, and erasing parts that don't belong.

Back in the 1970s, long before mobile phones and the Internet, long before careers and families, Rob and I (and our brothers) spent some unforgettable years roaming the trails and waterways at our cottages, discovering who we were. We didn't know then how those experiences would shape us and how they would ripen with age. Strange how (with the benefit of hindsight) those so-called misspent years wound up becoming among the best years of our lives.

In the film Stand By Me, there's a line typed by the narrator (played by Richard Dreyfuss) looking back at his younger self. He types, "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?"

I'd like to think that Rob occasionally looked back on those glorious afternoons that we spent cruising along the lake with the wind in our faces; the autumn evenings spent reciting passages from Monty Python and the Holy Grail; and the endless hours spent riding dirt bikes through the forests. Ah, what times we had, what joy: I'd like to think that some of those memories left a mark and provided reasons for Rob to smile.

They continue to give me reasons to smile and I'll never forget them. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Are we ready for a fully automated future?

The Glass Cage, Automation and Us
By Nicholas Carr
Published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2014

Many writers and thinkers today (i.e., Clive Thompson) extol the wonders of our increasingly computerized and automated world. Others recognize the benefits of automation but sound a more cautious note about what all this technology is doing to us.

Nicholas Carr falls into the latter camp. In his latest book, The Glass Cage, Automation and Us, Carr presents a convincing argument about the effects of too much reliance on technology - in particular computers - in our lives. He concludes that notwithstanding the efficient, time-saving and dazzling features of these new technologies, most of us remain ambivalent about them.

The central thesis in The Glass Cage is how our reliance on automation has diminished our cognitive abilities to solve problems and think creatively. He makes the case that mastering a skill (flying a plane, designing a building, diagnosing an injury), requires years of practice and that learned skills can easily erode over time if not used regularly. As Carr explains:
"While we carry out a task or a job on our own, we seem to use different mental processes than when we rely on the aid of a computer. When software reduces our engagement with our work, and in particular when it pushes us into a more passive role as observer or monitor, we circumvent the deep cognitive processing...and we hamper our ability to gain the kind of rich, real-world knowledge that leads to know-how."
This over-reliance on computers and automation had led to serious diminishment of skills at work and at play. Carr examines airline pilots, cruise ship captains, architects, Inuit hunters, Wall Street traders, healthcare workers and lawyers, whose professions have been seriously impacted by technology in recent decades, and not always for the better.

Some professionals have recognized this cognitive deficiency and have taken steps to address it. For example, architects utilize CAD design software for creating models and renderings of buildings, and experts feel that an over-dependency on that software hinders the creative process. In an effort to achieve greater creativity and explore new thought processes, some architects now use free-hand drawings to sketch out ideas before inputting their work into a computer. They feel that they are more engaged with their work when they create by freehand as opposed to using a computer.

The Glass Cage also provides a historical timeline about the rise of automation in the workplace, starting with the mechanization of textile mills and factories in the England in the early 19th century to the automated assembly lines at the Ford Motor Company in the mid-1940s, to the computer-aided airplanes, automobiles and electronic record keeping at hospitals today. The march of technology in these areas has not been without criticism, including fear of job losses and loss of control over one's life.

But the looming question Carr asks is what are we losing in the process of automating our lives. Is speed, efficiency and convenience a defensible trade-off for a reduced capacity to think creatively and critically? Are we ready for pilot-less airplanes and autonomous cars? Do quicker computer programs and more idleness lead to fuller or emptier lives?

These are huge questions that artists, educators, professionals, business leaders, politicians and citizens will grapple with in the years and decades ahead. The Glass Cage is not an anti-technology diatribe - it merely outlines a set of poignant facts and case studies of how increased computing power and automation are impacting our lives.

For those concerned about mastering a skill and the ability to think clearly, and those wondering where all this technology is taking us, this is a book for you. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Bryson uncovers a world of wonders inside the home

At Home, by Bill Bryson
Published by Anchor Canada, a division of Random House Canada Limited, 2010

Bill Bryson is an author of immense curiosity, a characteristic that serves him well as a non-fiction writer who tackles diverse topics that include travelogues (In A Sunburned Country), outdoor adventures (A Walk In The Woods) and science exploration (A Short History of Nearly Everything).

In At Home, Bryson focuses that curiosity on the house that he and his wife occupy, a former church of England rectory in Norfolk, England. As Bryson points out in his introduction, "Houses are amazingly complex repositories...whatever happens in the world - whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over - eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house."

In this exhaustively-researched book, Bryson takes readers on a sweeping and amusing tour through his house, devoting entire chapters to the history of the bedroom, the bathroom, the study, the nursery, and so on. His exacting eye for detail and talent for summarizing trends, ideas and events makes At Home a thoroughly entertaining read.

In the chapter on Gardening, for instance, Bryson describes how the pleasant pastime we know today as planting geraniums and pruning roses can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century. In 1841, a book entitled Practical Instructions in Gardening For Ladies was published, which encouraged "women of elevated class to get their hands dirty and even to take on a faint glow of perspiration."

Bryson writes:
"The value of Gardening for Ladies wasn't what it contained so much as what it represented: permission to go outside and do something. It came at exactly the right moment to catch the nation's fancy. In 1841, middle-class women everywhere were bored out of their skulls by the rigidities of life and grateful for any suggestion of diversion."
Many times I found myself awed by the obscure people of history who played pivotal roles in the advancement of western thought and civilization, such as the American educator, George Bissell who, in 1853, discovered by accident that oil could serve as an illuminant - a discovery that precipitated the rise of the oil industry; an illiterate weaver in England named James Hargreaves who invented the spinning jenny in 1764; and Reverend Edmund Cartwright, who (after a chance conversation) designed the power loom in 1785, a discovery that contributed to the start of the Industrial Revolution and impacted Britain's financial fortunes for decades.  

At Home is as much as history lesson as it is a meticulous exploration of ideas, customs, superstitions and bric-à-brac that might be found inside anybody's home. Whether it's tracing the history of bizarre fashions (male wigs) or food trends (salt and pepper) through the centuries, Bryson's takes an otherwise mundane subject and makes it relevant and endlessly fascinating.

For Bryson fans, At Home is everything you've come to expect from this talented author, a far-ranging curiosity, a passion for exploring the randomness and quirkiness of life, and an informal writing style that blends charm, empathy and humour. At the end of the day, this is a book I'm more than happy to recommend.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Chris Hadfield's memoir recounts a proud Canadian's journey to the stars

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield
Published By Random House Canada, 2013

Chris Hadfield's long journey into space began on a warm July evening in 1969. That's when he (along with millions of others) watched the first Apollo moon landing on TV, which inspired his lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut. At first, Hadfield didn't know what route to take because there were no Canadian astronauts or space programs in existence. Without a game plan, Hadfield decided to train, study and work to prepare himself anyway, for the possibility of one day being chosen as an astronaut.

Hadfield realized that to become an astronaut it would require relentless training and conditioning, mental preparation and nerves of steel. He applied himself to that task with unstoppable zeal and he rarely ever faltered. In his informative memoir, An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth, he takes readers on an intimate journey inside the fighter jets, the command centres and the space stations with an almost childlike glee, but his enthusiasms are tempered by a sense of realism about the stark realities and potential dangers of the job. In one harrowing incident, Hadfield describes how he experienced partial blindness during a spacewalk to install the Canadarm2. His ability to cope with that frightening  - and fortunately short-lived - visual impairment is a lesson in rational thinking and grace under pressure.

Throughout his career, Hadfield earned high praise for the many roles that he performed with distinction, including as a test pilot in the U.S Air Force, involvement in the Canadian Space Agency, Chief of Robotics at the Johnson Space Centre, Director of NASA operations in Russia, and Commander of the International Space Station. This memoir recounts these and other career highlights with humility, frankness, and humour.

As informative as this book is, however, it's not a How To Succeed in Life book, nor does it pretend to be. But astute readers will glean the acquired wisdom and life lessons that Hadfield learned along the way. One of the clear messages for me was his willingness to prepare and practice - continuously - without prompting or complaint. Being prepared for any potential problems and outcomes was the price Hadfield paid for membership into that elite club of astronauts.

In An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth, Hadfield punctuates his narrative with personal anecdotes about the people closest to him - family members, relatives, friends and colleagues. He talks openly about the challenges that he faced working for the various space agencies, and his strategies for overcoming them. It's hard not to be impressed with the life lessons and sage advice that he offers up, such as this:
"Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying; it's productive. Likewise, coming up with a plan of action isn't a waste of time if it gives you peace of mind. While it's true that you may wind up being ready for something that never happens, if the stakes are at all high, it's worth it."
As Hadfield's memoir clearly reminds us, mastering any pursuit requires fierce dedication and discipline, intense focus, constant learning, a supportive network of friends and family, and there are no shortcuts. Here's hoping that Hadfield's professional accomplishments on earth and in space - not to mention his desire to serve as ambassador for space exploration - will inspire a new generation of Canadians to reach for the stars.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book argues that online technologies are an enabling force for good

Smarter Than You Think, How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For the Better, by Clive Thompson
Published in Canada by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group USA (2013)

(Disclosure: I'm a big Clive Thompson fan. His monthly column in Wired magazine is a must-read, as are his articles in Fast Company and the New York Times Magazine.)

The emergence of the Internet has given rise to a claque of naysayers who believe that digital technologies (especially social media) are making us dumber and less human. Fortunately, Clive Thompson is not among them. When it comes to digital technologies, he is an optimist at heart, and that optimism is amply borne out in his first book, Smarter Than You Think.

In this carefully researched work of non-fiction, Thompson explores many facets of the online technologies and their impact on our lives, from education, gaming and politics to collaboration, memory and literacy. He delves into these topics with an unflagging appetite for discovery and he arrives at some surprising conclusions.

Rather than making us dumber and less human, Thompson believes the Internet is actually improving our lives in remarkable ways. He points to examples like Wikipedia (the collaborative encyclopedia), online gaming (collective thinking) and educational resources (Khan Academy) to show how easy access to information has become an enabling, not a disabling, force in the world. He shows numerous examples of how educators, scientists, businesses, governments and activists are using the Internet to build communities and affect positive change.

Smarter Than You Think is broken into nine chapters, each of which delves into an aspect of online computing and its broader impact. In the chapter entitled Public Thinking, Thompson tells of a Kenyan-born law student living in the U.S. who decides to start a blog about the corruption taking place in her native Kenya. Without any training as a journalist, the woman's writing soon attracts a worldwide following of loyal readers.

Stories like this are commonplace and illustrate how easy it is for anyone with an Internet connection to communicate messages to (and share information with) a potentially unlimited audience. Thompson believes that blogs, comment threats, discussion boards, text messages and tweets have contributed to a new kind of literacy over the past two decades. As Thompson observes: 
"Before the Internet came along, most people rarely wrote anything at all for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college. This is something that's particularly hard to grasp for professionals whose jobs require incessant writing, like academics, journalists, lawyers, or marketers...personal expression outside the workplace - in the curious genres and epic volume we now see routinely online - was exceedingly rare. For the average person, there were few vehicles for publication."
As much as Thompson stresses the personal and societal benefits of online technologies, he also recognizes that overdosing on the Internet isn't a good thing either. In the chapter called The Art of Finding, he spoke with memory experts to find out what affect digital tools are having on our memory and cognitive skills. Experts are divided. There seems no clear evidence as to what impact mobile phones, social networking and digital tools are having on long- and short-term memory. Still, Thompson concludes that distraction ("pellets of novelty" as he calls them) can be an impediment to learning. He writes:
"If you want to internalize a piece of knowledge, you've got to linger over it. You can't flit back and forth; you have to focus for a reasonable amount of time, with mental peace. But today's digital environment rarely leaves you any such peace." 

Smarter Than You Think is enlightening book that will evoke thought and discussion about where all this connectivity is taking us. Thompson doesn't profess to know all the answers, but his reasoned arguments and thorough research provides a richer understanding of the technologies that are impacting and shaping our lives.

Monday, January 13, 2014

My Top 25 Books Of All Time

The end of each calendar year always brings with it a number of "best of" lists that are published and circulated in the media and on the Internet. From "top news stories" and "most famous celebrities" to "top travel destinations" and "healthiest foods," there is no end to the desire to categorize all of the important social, political, cultural and scientific and sporting events from the past year.

Best Of lists are not without merit: they can serve as welcome brain candy, a respite from the pressures of the daily grind. While perusing several Best Of lists over the holidays, I got to thinking about creating a list of my own: my favourite books of all time. As a lifelong reader, how hard could it be to come up with at least 10 from nearly half a century of reading?

It was more difficult than I imagined. At first, I had planned to confine the list to 10, but selecting so few out of a backlog of hundreds seemed like an impossible task. So, I bumped the list to 25, although it could have been twice that number. The selection process itself was a sweetly nostalgic exercise that often recalled where, when and how I encountered a specific book. In preparing and parsing my list, I was reminded of a quote by the British author, Graham Greene: "The influence of early books is profound. So much of the future lies on the shelves: early reading has more influence on conduct than any religious teaching." (A Sort of Life, 1971).

Some of the books were chosen because they offered fictional worlds and characters that elicited a particularly strong emotion; some for the authors' skill and mastery with language; and a few were chosen for the incredible story or message that they contained, which resonated with me for long afterward.

I'm certain that some of these books might not qualify on professional critics' lists of best books ever written, but for me, each managed to say something meaningful at a time when I was ready to hear those messages, and so they got included.

So here they are, in no particular order.

 1.     War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
 2.     The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe
 3.     A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf
 4.     The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
 5.     A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
 6.     The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton
 7.     Les Mis√©rables, by Victor Hugo
 8.     A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
 9.     Invitation To A Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov
 10.  The Trial, by Franz Kafka
 11.  Night, Elie Wiesel 
 12.  An Answer from Limbo, by Brian Moore
 13.  Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig
 14.  Ladder of Years, Anne Tyler
 15.  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, By Mark Twain
 16.  The Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens
 17.  The Second World War, by Winston S. Churchill
 18.  The Naked and the Dead, by Normal Mailer
 19.  Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
 20.  The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, by Ernest Hemingway
 21.  In A Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson
 22.  Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
 23.  Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham
 24.  The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand
 25.  Into Thin Air, by John Krakauer


Monday, January 6, 2014

The HeLa story: a dazzling journey of scientific enquiry and discovery

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot, published by Broadway Books, A Division of Random House, Inc. (2010)

Normally, I avoid reading reviews about books I'm about to read. With the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it was impossible not to be aware of the outpouring of positive press and accolades that this book has received since it was published in 2010. Critics have hailed it as a literary tour de force, both for its storytelling brilliance and its investigative research. Many publications, including Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and the Globe and Mail, named it Best Book of the Year.

The praise is well earned. This is a powerful work of non-fiction that tells the story of a poor African American woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died of cancer in Baltimore in 1951. She was 31. Before Henrietta died, a doctor removed two tissue samples from her cervix without her (or her family's) knowledge. Such a procedure wasn't uncommon during that era; the idea of informed consent didn't become a legal issue in the U.S. until 1957.

Miraculously, Henrietta's cells (which became known as HeLa cells) began to grow and multiply at an extraordinary rate. Scientists had tried in vain to grow cells like this for years. The fast-growing HeLa cells soon caught the attention of doctors and scientists, who wanted to use them to further their research into infectious diseases and for other medical studies. Suddenly, a mini industry in HeLa cells was born. According to Skloot,
"The Timing was perfect. In the early fifties, scientists were just beginning to understand viruses, so as Henrietta's cells arrived in labs around the country, researchers began exposing them to viruses of all kinds - herpes, measles, mumps, fowl pox, equine encephalitis - to study how each one entered cells, reproduced, and spread."
Henrietta's cells would eventually play a vital role in developing a cure for polio, cloning and gene mapping. While the cells paved the way for medical breakthroughs, saved countless lives and enriched many companies, Henrietta's family received no financial gain or compensation and remained poor. Sadly, the family only discovered the truth about Henrietta's cells years later.

To uncover the truth about the HeLa cell line, Skloot spent years researching the subject and ingratiating herself into Henrietta's family. At first, the family was suspicious of Skloot, whom they viewed as just another outsider looking to profit from Henrietta's story. Gradually, she earned the trust of Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, who serves as a gatekeeper to the family history and a liaison with her family.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot demonstrates a remarkable talent for narrative pacing and scientific explication. She takes readers on a journey of scientific enquiry and discovery that touches on issues of race, ethics, religion, politics and medicine, a journey that swings effortlessly between the past and the present. Along the way, she introduces us to the main players in this decades-old medical drama, including doctors, researchers, scientists, journalists, hospital officials and members of Henrietta's family. Skloot presents information in a factual, non-biased fashion and recreates conversations between the central figures, so that readers can decide for themselves who the real winners and losers were in the HeLa saga.

It's almost unimaginable that a story of this magnitude hadn't been told before the publication of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (there have been occasional magazine and newspaper stories about HeLa, but no single work told the complete story). Readers can be grateful that Skloot had the patience, perseverance and skill to do justice to a story that needed to be told, and to present it in such a compelling manner.