Deliver your words not by number but by weight

Even though my periodic conceit is that of a feuilleteur, I find I am still drawn to occasional texting. Sometimes there is simply no need for verbosity -the information that I am late but enroute, does not require an essay to explain. And yet, even the word ‘sorry’ prefixing the text, may fail to express the feelings of regret or embarrassment. Without waxing prolix, how then to express the emotion succinctly?

The usual answer, and the one to which I have usually resorted, is an Emoji (from the Japanese, meaning something like ‘picture word’). Although I confess that I am never totally sure of their meanings, I have tried to err on the side of simplicity. A smiling face, for example, means just that, and the one of clapping hands means congratulations -obvious and unambiguous messages… Or so I thought.

I suppose that most of us get caught up in our own values, though -it’s hard not to view the world through a cultural lens. We sometimes forget that each society sees the world a little differently. Like it or not, we live in a time of different Weltanschauungen -or at least have become more aware of it in this epoch of population displacement.

I did not fully appreciate the effects of the disparity until I came across an article in a BBC Future article on Emoji: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20181211-why-emoji-mean-different-things-in-different-cultures

It seems that what I had assumed would be universal in its meaning -or at least the emotion would be interpretable in much the same way by everybody- was mistaken. Perhaps I would even have agreed with ‘linguistics professors such as Vyvyan Evans, author of The Emoji Code: The Linguistics behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats, would soon declare to be “incontrovertibly the world’s first truly universal form of communication”, and even “the new universal language”.’ But, as Keith Broni, a business psychology expert explains, ‘emojis do not and cannot by themselves constitute a meaningful code of communication between two parties. Rather, they are used as a way of enhancing texts and social media messages like a kind of additional punctuation.’ Their intent seems to be to substitute for body language, and facial expressions, that might otherwise be difficult to convey in a short text message. So, ‘without the accompaniment of a smile or sympathetic tone of voice, a one-liner message runs the risk of being misinterpreted as negative, bossy or even rude.’

The problem, however, is in the interpretation, and although there is a range of Emoji on a smartphone, mine has no authoritative Oxford Dictionary, or whatever, underneath to mold each one into a universally agreed-upon meaning. So unintended interpretations are possible, depending upon the audience.

For example, ‘While the thumbs-up symbol may be a sign of approval in Western culture, traditionally in Greece and the Middle East it has been interpreted as vulgar and even offensive. Equally, in China, the angel emoji, which in the West can denote innocence or having performed a good deed, is used a sign for death, and may be perceived as threatening. Similarly, the applause emojis are used in the West to show praise or offer congratulations. In China, however, this is a symbol for making love.’

And then there is the smiling face, something I would never have dreamed might not be universally welcomed. Well, in China again, ‘the slightly smiling emoji is not really used as a sign of happiness at all. As it is by far the least enthusiastic of the range of positive emojis available, the use of this emoji instead implies distrust, disbelief, or even that someone is humouring you.’

We all see our worlds through the lens of our traditions -an amazing kaleidoscope of colours and textures paint each facet of our lives. And yet, woven into the fabric is a confusing chiaroscuro of meaning that may obscure the intended pattern.

I have a friend who is equally aged, but perhaps less enthused than me with the digital world. She has a smart phone though -but just for emergencies, she continues to assure me whenever I catch glimpses of it snuggled obtrusively in a pocket.

We meet occasionally for coffee, and since I normally take public transit, there are often unavoidable, and usually unpredictable delays. “Wouldn’t it make sense if I could send a quick signal to alert you that I am going to be late?” I usually tell her when I arrive.

Her eyebrows inevitably head skyward at my not so subtle wish to text. “You can phone me,” she says, shaking her head. “That’s why I carry it -for emergencies,” she adds, making sure I notice the italics.

“That’s difficult on a bus,” I reply. Then, I usually point out how annoying it is to hear others speaking loudly into their phones so they can be heard above the ambient noise.

And that’s where the disagreement sat until one day, the bus was inordinately late and I found her fuming at the restaurant. We sat in silence for a few moments after my abject apology, and then she aimed her wrinkles at me and smiled -but not in forgiveness, more in capitulation. “Okay,” she said through taut lips, “You can text me if you’re going to be late next time.” I could tell she saw it as a major concession, so I merely smiled, and sighed quietly to myself.

And sure enough, the very next week, I found myself standing on a crowded bus caught in traffic -a perfect opportunity for my virgin text. Unfortunately I was being jostled about in the aisle as we stopped and started unexpectedly, so I had to improvise a short, but clever message to let her know I was on my way. ‘Bus caught in traffic. I’ll be there in 15-20’ sounded pithy, yet polite. My time estimates were completely made up, though -I really had no idea when I’d arrive. I pushed ‘send’, and waited for a reply that she’d got the message.

It never arrived, of course, and as time passed and my estimates seemed bound to fail, I thought I’d better send her a follow-up apology. It’s hard to concentrate while standing in a crowded aisle with people bouncing off you, so I improvised and just sent her an Emoji – I used the upside-down face to suggest that things were not as I had hoped and that I was still uncertain when I’d arrive. I have no idea whether that’s what the little face meant, but it made sense at the time.

Suddenly my phone rang, and as soon as I answered it, I could hear her usually soft voice speaking loudly and indignantly in my ear. “What do you mean you’re not coming?” she shouted. “I’ve been waiting here for over half an hour!”

I tried to speak softly, but the noise around me made that difficult, although I found myself trying not to match her volume. “What are you talking about, Judy?” I said, my mouth as close to the phone as I could.

“The face,” she yelled into her phone, and I could see the smiles on the passengers standing next to me.

“What…?”

“That upside-down thing that obviously means you’ve changed your mind!”

I hurriedly apologized, then glanced out of the window and assured her that I wouldn’t be much longer. I’m not sure she caught the last words, though, because her phone went silent before I finished.

I was just putting my phone in my pocket when a young woman standing next to me turned her head and blinked. “I use the upside-down face sometimes -it has a lot of meanings- but you have to be careful who you use it on. The Emojipedia says it can mean you’re being sarcastic, or maybe don’t really mean what you said…” She smiled a helpful smile then turned back to her partner.

I didn’t even know there was an Emojipedia…

 

In fair round belly with good capon lined

Once an obstetrician, always an obstetrician. I am recently retired, admittedly, but I nonetheless carry with me the joys and expectations of those days -everything from a mother’s sudden, relieved smile, to the first cry of her baby as it emerges wet and glistening from her birth canal. No less, the gradual changes in the woman herself as she evolves from Girl to Mother as the being she carries develops in the inexorable way of life. A time when her self-image expands to an us-image, and the mirror -once no friend, perhaps- becomes a welcome calendar of change: a map on the journey.

None were more surprised, I think, than Julia. I had first seen her, in my dual role as gynaecologist, for various adolescent challenges as she worked her way through her formative years. She was always an attractive, although excessively thin woman, and yet she continued to worry about her figure. In fact, I worried she was teetering on the edge of an eating disorder, and each successive time I saw her, she seemed to be staring even more intently into an abyss. Eventually, despite multiple attempts at specialist referrals, she disappeared from my practice for several years.

She resurfaced one summer, a changed woman. Now in the mid-trimester of her first pregnancy, she glowed with the prospect of motherhood, and seemed delighted in her new and ever-changing shape. No longer the angular stick-figure of her early years, gently flowing curves now softened her hips and rounded her growing abdomen. Each time I saw her, the smile on her face had grown as well.

“It’s all very interesting, don’t you think?” she asked me, one time as she neared her delivery date.

“What’s interesting, Julia?” I said, as I measured her abdomen and checked the position of the baby inside.

“The roundness…”

I smiled. “The baby, you mean?”

She shrugged. “Everything…” Her voice trailed off as she thought about it some more. “I used to like all of the angles in my body. I used to think it was beautiful to see my hip bones when I was in a bathing suit…” Her smile enlarged and suddenly she giggled. “Interesting, eh?”

I suppose we’re all biased against one thing or another, aren’t we? At my age, though, it’s hard to keep track anymore. I seem to blunder into something whichever way I turn, no matter my intent. I have no quarrel with political correctness, or anything -I am quite happy to be correct- it’s just that, well, some of this stuff is invisible at first or even second glance. Effectively camouflaged in the background of my everyday life, it’s a Where’s Waldo that’s getting harder and harder to solve.

Maybe I should watch more YouTube, or follow the news on Facebook more closely, because (blush) I do neither. Of course, that’s how you learn about what’s trending in the biasphere -if you really care, that is. I suspect I don’t. I just try to be polite and considerate to all and sundry; only occasionally does my naïveté surface to any noticeable, and hopefully harmless, extent.

So I have to confess, to being caught amidships with an essay in the BBC Future series that somehow makes its way unaided to my inbox from time to time: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20181115-anti-fat-bias-round-shapes-are-sold-to-overweight-customers It would seem that we all have cleverly disguised anti-fat biases -and were I a salesman, I would apparently be less likely to meet the eyes or smile at someone of that persuasion.

And, believe it or not, ‘An undercover shopping experiment has now shown that this  bias even extends to the shapes of products that customers are recommended: customers of a greater weight are encouraged to buy rounder items… the researchers found that when wearing [a] prosthesis [to make the actor seem obese], the actor was recommended rounder watches and rounder bottles of perfume… Online experiments with study participants who weren’t shop assistants confirmed the bias Vallen [the study author Beth Vallen, a researcher at Villanova University in the US] and her colleagues measured in the real-life setting. Participants were shown a picture of a potential customer and asked to recommend products, selecting from pairs of images that were either round or angular. “We wanted to show that this was a bias that reflects the thoughts and decisions processes of all people, not just sales people,” says Vallen. This turned out to be the case: they found the same effect of matching rounder products to people with a higher BMI. It also held across different types of products – from watches to mirrors, lamps and candles. And it happened whether the imaginary customer was male or female.’

I must live in a protected bubble, I guess. My watch, for example is round -I didn’t think they came any other way, to tell the truth. Anyway, ‘The bias goes beyond an urge to match people of a particular body type with a particular shape of product… it is the stereotypes associated with the product and the people that are at play. In particular, one stereotype is that overweight people are friendlier. Rounded shapes are also seen as friendlier.’ Come on, eh? ‘actors were recommended more rounded products when they were smiling than when they were stern-faced – an effect that held whether they were wearing a body prosthesis or not.’

This rather idiosyncratic finding seemed to take the researchers by surprise: ‘“We don’t find any evidence that overweight people themselves prefer round products, or that normal weight people prefer angular products,” says Vallen.’

So is this telling us anything important -other than that grant money must be getting easier to come by? It made me remember the Julia of so many years ago, and I wondered whether or not Vallen might be on to something -something so ancient that it was locked, like Bluebeard’s secret, in a room we had not dared to enter in all these years. When I think of Julia, I can appreciate what Vallen may have inadvertently uncovered. But, far from the horrors of Bluebeard’s skeletons, it may be an atavism that can speak to us in modern times: maybe rounded shapes are somehow friendlier…

Words without thoughts never to heaven go

I don’t very often get involved with ‘causes’. It’s not that I don’t believe that some things are sufficiently important that they deserve special attention, I think it’s more that my enthusiasm tends to get in the way if I’m not careful and obscures the ultimate goals I’m seeking to achieve.

It first became obvious in my undergraduate years in University when I took it upon myself to raise the membership of the chess club to which I belonged. There were only about ten of us in the club, but it became so stratified that the really expert players stopped attending our Wednesday night games because the rest of us were so easily beaten. And as the numbers dwindled, so did our Wednesday night meetings. Eventually, only three of us could be counted on to attend.

It was in those awkward days before the Internet, and so I decided that the three of us should make some posters advertising the club and tape them up across campus. I was taking some courses in psychology at the time, and I thought we could take advantage subtle behavioural manipulators like colour and shape to attract interest. I decided we should use a deep-purple paper because it is usually associated with royalty, and a really large, flesh coloured pawn to show that even the least of us were important -I thought that featuring a bishop or a knight would just confuse people who weren’t acquainted with the game. And over the pawn, written diagonally in huge dripping blood-red letters, the word ‘CHESS’. To me at least, the symbolism was obvious and jarring: chess was a way to become powerful and exact revenge, even if in real life, you were actually a milquetoast. And, at the very bottom of the poster in tiny but bright yellow lettering, I added neatly printed instructions as to when and where we held our meetings. We put the posters up all over the campus -especially in the cafeterias where the freshies seemed to congregate.

I was really proud of my effort: it was both succinct and visually commanding. All three of us met the following Wednesday, each bringing our own chess sets from home to meet the expected demand.

I suppose it was a bit of a success –three new people showed up, although one of them said she’d just been walking by and wondered why all the lights were on in the usually dimly-lit lounge. A six-person club was an improvement, I guess, but I still couldn’t understand why the posters hadn’t commanded more interest. A few weeks later, one of my non-chess playing friends happened to mention seeing the posters, and I asked her what she thought of them.

I remember she hesitated before answering. “Well…” she started, obviously choosing her words carefully. “It attracted my attention, but…” A worried look crept over her face.

“But…?” I tried not to look hurt, but I’ve never been very good at disguising my emotions.

She attempted a little embarrassed smile, but I could see that she was sorry she’d brought up the subject. “Well… I thought that the way the word ‘chess’ was written suggested…” Another hesitation. “Uhmm… violence.”

I softened my expression, and then tried to smile as if I wasn’t offended.

“And that flesh-coloured thing -Judy told me it was a pawn, or whatever- but it looked more like a…” She suddenly glanced at something on the wall behind me, hoping I wouldn’t notice she was blushing.

“You’re saying I didn’t make my point?” I chuckled at how she’d read it.

She finally rested her eyes gently on my cheek, and reached across the table for my hand. “Well, it didn’t make me want to join, or anything…”

It made me realize that merely attracting attention was not sufficient. Nor was the assumption that creating an emotional response would necessarily entice people who were otherwise busy with their own lives.

A while ago, I remember listening to an audio podcast on the CBC Ideas program hosted by Paul Kennedy, that featured the well-credentialed environmentalist Graham Saul. His thesis was that despite the gloom of an impending global climatic catastrophe, there seemed to be little decisive action being taken to prevent it. He wondered whether or not the problem was one of messaging: that, unlike other successful movements, there seemed to be no single coherent message around which people or the media could rally. With the women’s movement, for example, equality is perhaps the dominant theme -a word that expresses the hopes and expectations of half of the world’s population. It’s much like freedom as the rallying cry for the abolitionist movement, or independence for the many anti-colonialists factions.

But what is a word that could unite the hydra-headed segments of the environmentalist movement -let alone draw attention to the need for urgent action on climate change? I’ve appended a link to his talk: https://metcalffoundation.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/2018-10-10-Environmentalists-what-are-we-fighting-for-web.pdf

As he said, words matter. ‘Great social movements use powerful words to sum up their ultimate goals— words like freedom, equality, liberty, and independence. People participating in those movements take many paths and approach the issue from many directions, but these words, and the ideas that they represent, are like north stars leading society out of the ethical fog and guiding people in a common and righteous direction.’

He interviewed 116  leaders in their fields who were either directly or indirectly involved in the environmental movement. When he ‘asked interviewees to sum up the ultimate goal of past social movements there was overwhelming consensus on the words as well as agreement that words played a very important role in helping the public understand what those movements were fighting for.’ But, ‘ When [he] asked interviewees to sum up what environmentalists are fighting for, the answers were far more diverse and people were generally unsatisfied with their answers. Most did not think that their own choice of words would clearly convey, for the general public, the goal of the modern environmental movement… There was no one word or expression—like equality—that clearly dominated the answers. The three most frequently mentioned concepts were survival (22% of respondents), sustainability (14%), and justice (9%)’ All the words are undoubtedly important, of course, and yet somehow -like my long-ago poster- failed to encapsulate the overall need, the universal importance -in short, they failed to resonate.

And it’s not just in the verbal realm that resonance is required. I was interested to learn that photography could also cause a very visceral stimulus to action, but only if it, too, captured more than mere curiosity -more than simply rubbernecking an accident as we surfed through the pictures: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20181115-why-climate-change-photography-needs-a-new-look

As the  author of the article wrote, ‘Climate change has an inherent image problem. While you can clearly visualise plastic pollution or deforestation, climate change has a less obvious mugshot: the gases that cause global warming, such as carbon dioxide and methane, are colourless, while impacts are slow-paced and not always visually striking.’ And traditional climate images just aren’t that compelling -even skinny, lonely-looking polar bears on shrinking icebergs.

So ‘psychologist Adam Corner, director of Climate Visuals, a project that aims to revitalise climate imagery’ commissioned an online survey, as well as convening panels in London and Berlin. The conclusion was that ‘people were more likely to empathise with images that showed real faces – such as workers installing solar panels, emergency respondents helping victims of a typhoon or farmers building more efficient irrigation systems to combat drought. It also helped when photographs depicted settings that were local or familiar to the viewer, and when they showed emotionally powerful impacts of climate change.’

Interestingly, the chess club didn’t ask me to do any additional advertising for them. As a matter of fact, the three new members convinced us that we didn’t really need more than six in the club -and would we please take down the posters?

I still think the pawn was clever, though…

Good wine needs no bush

I try not to become embroiled in oenophilic arguments -as a person who long ago switched to Rivaners or Rieslings with their reduced alcohol contents, I usually just smile and nod if the issue arises of whether the grape or the soil is the principle determinant of flavour. Both make sense, I guess, but my money would be on the grape -after all it is the thing being fermented, not the dirt that its roots scrabble around in; it is the grapes that provide the carbohydrate, the fibre, and the aromatic hydrocarbons when they are crushed.

Still, the vines take up water from the soil which contains important nutrients as well.

Fortunately, I came across an article in the BBC Future series by Alex Maltman that tackled this very controversy:  http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180628-why-wine-geology-may-be-a-myth He is perhaps not a completely unbiased source, though, having written a book Vineyards, Rocks and Soils in which, as the introductory bio explains ‘[he] points out many of the geological errors, misconceptions and misunderstandings rife in wine literature and descriptions.’

Nevertheless, ‘The idea that a vineyard’s ground is important for wine took hold in the Middle Ages when, legend has it, Burgundian monks tasted the soils to find which would give the best tasting wine.’ Unsurprisingly, the idea didn’t really catch on until relatively recently, however, and even now, the weight of evidence still favours the grape. And, ‘[…] most vineyards are routinely gouged, fertilised and irrigated. With this amount of artificial manipulation, is this new preoccupation with the natural geology justified… The fact is that the claims largely are based on anecdote: the scientific justification is slender.

‘That’s not to say the ground isn’t relevant. It governs how roots obtain water, in a pattern that is pivotal to how grapes swell and ripen. We know of 14 elements that are essential for the vine to grow, and almost all of them originate in the ground. Some may make it through to the finished wine, in minuscule amounts that can’t be tasted, though in some cases they can influence how we perceive flavours.’

Also, ‘there recently has been excitement in scientific circles about the possible importance of microbiology in the vineyard because new technologies have revealed distinct fungal and bacterial communities at different sites. [Even though] It’s not clear what effect this has on wine taste.’

I suspect that the final word has not yet been written on the subject of what determines the characteristics of a wine.

Written, or spoken. Jacob doesn’t know one wine from another, I’m sure of it, and yet he has a variety of opinions, depending on his mood or -more likely- the amount of wine he has consumed. A wine’s qualities have always been known to be contextual, of course -the character of some wines seems to be contingent on the food, and in others on the company they keep, the milieu they inhabit.

Jacob has never committed to any particular favourites. Like the books he leaves open and scattered about his house as if he’d just put them down when the doorbell rang, he prefers to keep his options open in the event he’s losing an argument. But he is usually more relaxed with me -like Socrates, I know that I don’t know, so I can only ask questions.

I saw Jacob on a ferry to Vancouver Island the other day. I almost didn’t recognize him in his Tilley hat, light canvas jacket and khaki Bermuda shorts -or whatever you call those pants that end just past the knees and are garnished with long white socks. He was sitting by himself at the window, immersed, not in the scenery, but in sleep or, to be charitable, inward reflection -I couldn’t tell which. At any rate, there was a page open to a picture of a bottle of red wine on his lap, so he obviously meant well. The hour and a half trip wears heavily on the ferry, even with an exciting book.

I decided to sit beside him.

“Saw you coming,” he said and opened one eye as soon as he felt the cushion deform beside him.

He sighed and blinked a couple of times in the sunlight. “I was thinking,” he said, and glanced out the window at the whitecaps that seemed to be racing for the boat under the clear blue skies. “I’ve never been to any of the wineries over there,” he added, nodding in the direction of the hazy specs of land in the distance. “So I decided to have a look at their terroir.

He thought the word would impress me, I suppose. It did -especially his unsuccessful attempt at giving it a French accent. “What’s a terroir, Jacob?” I asked, but mainly to be polite.

He rolled his eyes, as if he thought everybody knew what it was. Then he mounted a condescending little shrug and sighed again. “A terroir is the environment in which a wine is grown -so it includes, soil, topography, climate, farming practices…” He glanced at me to see if I recognized it now, but when the look on my face betrayed not the slightest hint of recollection -or interest, for that matter- he shrugged again, but this time more disdainfully. “Think of a terroir” -I could almost see the italics- “as contributing to a wine’s characteristics as much as the grape.” He allowed a faint smile to besmirch his face, and lowered his head as if he wanted to peer over the top of his glasses like a professor giving a lecture. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t wear glasses, so it looked rather silly, I thought. “The district and the soil, matter almost as much as the grape, you see…”

“I see,” I said, although I didn’t really.

He sat back in the seat, still smiling. “I want to tour the area to check a few things…” He paused for a moment to allow me to ask about it, but when I didn’t, he repeated his sigh and rolled his eyes condescendingly. “I want to ask the various owners if their soils have been tested…” He narrowed his eyes suspiciously and glanced at me. “In other words, do they actually contain any slaty para-gneiss and amphibolite, or maybe mica in them?” he added smugly, sure that I would wonder, too, and allowed his smile to linger.

But I remembered the fustian description of an Austrian Riesling wine I’d read in that BBC article. The words he used were just too familiar -too similar to be coincidental- and I allowed my own smile to linger as well…

Memory Vaults

After a certain age, many of us have concerns about our memories. Nothing much at first, of course -just things like forgetting why you went into the kitchen, or where you put your keys. Later, it can progress to having to write down a phone number immediately after you hear it, say, rather than trusting that you will be able to recall it correctly a minute or two later. Often, it’s easier to remember things if you use little tricks, mnemonic aids, although sometimes you forget to use them, too. But why? Are things just wearing out? Are some neurons in the brain short circuiting, or actively being culled? And why such a variation in people -and, apparently, in different populations?

As one might expect, there is intense research in this field, given the demographics of an aging population base. But have you ever wondered why you don’t have many -or any– early memories of when you were a young child -especially when you were very young: a baby, for example? Surely, the brain is a sponge at that stage, and the neurons and neural connections are propagating like mad to help you learn about the new world you are encountering for the first time? This is a puzzle that has always interested me, but perhaps even more so in my dotage when I finally have the time to reflect more thoroughly on the mystery and its possible ramifications. An article in the BBC Future series written by Zaria Gorvett, helped to shed some light on the mysterious gap:   http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160726-the-mystery-of-why-you-cant-remember-being-a-baby

I am reminded of a blurred black-and-white memory of my brother holding me in what seemed like a flower garden when I was a baby. I often refer to it as my first memory, but the faded and black-and-white characteristics suggest that it was more likely hewn from a photograph than any still inchoate proto-memory. But as the above-linked article suggests, ‘On average, patchy footage appears from about three-and-a-half.’ And that, of course, reveals another fascinating thing about what we think we remember: ‘Even if your memories are based on real events, they have probably been moulded and refashioned in hindsight – memories planted by conversations rather than first-person memories of the actual events.’ But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Why can’t we remember being a baby? As with many aspects of brain function, nobody seems to know for sure, but the article discusses several theories that might explain it. One such attempt suggests that ‘Our culture may … determine the way we talk about our memories, with some psychologists arguing that they only come once we have mastered the power of speech. “Language helps provide a structure, or organisation, for our memories, that is a narrative.  By creating a story, the experience becomes more organised, and therefore easier to remember over time,” …  Some psychologists are sceptical that this plays much of a role, however. There’s no difference between the age at which children who are born deaf and grow up without sign language report their earliest memories, for instance.’

Then there is the possibility that ‘we can’t remember our first years simply because our brains hadn’t developed the necessary equipment.’ The hippocampus, an area of the brain that is important for dealing with memories, is still developing new neurons for the first few years of life, and it is only when these additions begin to slow down that our first memories emerge. This adds another layer of mystery to the hippocampus, though: ‘is the under-formed hippocampus losing our long-term memories, or are they never formed in the first place? Since childhood events can continue to affect our behaviour long after we’ve forgotten them, some psychologists think they must be lingering somewhere.’

There is another hazy memory that also haunts me; I would be pretty sure that it’s real, except for my brother again. It was in the days before seat belts or infant car seats; my father was driving and I was sitting on my mother’s lap in the car so I would be high enough to see out of the window. We were somewhere in Manitoba on the way to the Winnipeg Beach for the first and only time -it’s on Lake Winnipeg, I think. Apparently we normally went to Grand Beach on the railway my father used to work for, so my brother remembered the year. I would have been about two and a half or three years old.

My brother, who must have been around twelve or thirteen at the time, had the back seat to himself, but I think he was mad that he couldn’t sit in the front so he kept reaching over the seat and pulling my hair. My mother, never the patient one, finally had enough and suddenly threw out her arm to smack him. Unfortunately she hit my father and the car swerved off the highway before he could stop it. None of us were hurt, but it really scared me and I began to sob unconsolably. My parents tried everything to stop me, and finally, my brother -now chastened- told me to look out of the window because there was something out there that I’d never, ever, see again. I remember his emphasis on the ‘ever’, but I also remember not wanting to obey him.

At any rate, many years later, I asked him if he remembered that time we drove up to Winnipeg Beach with our parents.

We were sitting in a little coffee shop and he put down his cup and nodded, a faraway look in his eyes. “You were a little brat then, remember?”

Actually, I thought he’d been the brat, but I supposed he meant my crying. “But you were pulling my hair, remember?”

“And you kicked dad so hard, he lost control and the car swerved off the road…” he said before I interrupted.

“That was mom who knocked his arm accidentally because she was trying to get to you.” I was absolutely clear on that. “Maybe you couldn’t see her well enough from the back seat, though” I added, trying to be diplomatic.

I remember my brother staring at me at that  point. “I was sitting in the front seat, too,” he chided. “The old cars had those big wide front seats, remember?” A wry smile appeared on his lips -he still knew how to stir me up. “And, you were having one of your usual temper tantrums and kicked out with your feet. One of them hit the hand dad was driving with and the car skidded off the road… I think it might have been gravel, or something.”

I shook my head vehemently at his pentimento, and he began to laugh like he used to do when he was taunting me. Apparently he, too, was invested in the memory. And yet, how can you verify your recollection of something that happened that long ago? I suppose I sulked for a moment or two, and then it came to me. “Ron, do you remember that I was crying even worse after the accident?” He nodded graciously, content to grant me a little face. “And do you remember that you tried to get me to stop, by telling me to look out of the window? You said if I didn’t look, I’d miss something I’d never, ever, see again?” I tried to emphasize the ‘ever’ like I remembered he had.

He thought about it for a minute. Clearly it hadn’t been a big thing for him at the time -more a trick to silence me. Then, his face brightened up. “Yes… Yes I think I remember…”

“And what was it?” I asked, leading him into my trap.

He smiled in the same smug way he always had when he was in possession of something I wanted but didn’t have. “There was a huge eagle sitting on a tree near the road. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before in the wild.”

I nodded my head pleasantly, as if he’d finally solved a mystery that had been nagging at me all those years. But I knew he was lying… No, that’s unfair! I knew he thought he was remembering what really happened back then, but he was wrong -I’d peeked. There was no eagle, and in fact we were almost at the beach and there weren’t even trees anywhere near the road. I’m sure I would have seen something that big. And yet… And yet, the eagle has been my favourite bird ever since I was a child…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nobody in Particular

Why do we believe something? How do we know that we are right? When I was a child, I was certain that the Fleetwood television set my parents had just purchased, was the best. So was the make of our car -and our vacuum cleaner too, come to think of it. But why? Was it simply because authority figures in my young life had told me, or was there an objective reality to their assertions? For that matter, how did they know, anyway? Other parents had different opinions, so who was right?

I was too young to question these things then, but gradually, I came to seek other sources of knowledge. And yet, even these sometimes differed. It’s difficult to know in what direction to face when confronted with disparate opinions. Different ‘truths’. Everybody can’t be right. Usually, in fact, the correct answer lies somewhere in the middle of it all, and it becomes a matter of knowing which truths to discard -choosing the ‘correct’ truth.

Despite the fact that most of us rely on some method like this, it sounds completely counterintuitive. How many truths can there be? Is each a truth, or merely an opinion? And what’s wrong with having a particular opinion? Again, how would we know? How could we know?

Nowadays, with social media algorithms selecting which particular news they report on the basis of our past choices, it’s difficult to know if we are in an echo chamber unless we purposely and critically examine whatever truths we hold dear -step back to burst the bubble. Canvas different people, and sample different opinions. But, even then, without resorting to mythology, or a presumed ‘revealed’ truth that substantiates a particular religious dogma, is there an objective truth that somehow transcends all the others? Conversely is all truth relative -situationally contextualized, temporally dependent, and ultimately socially endorsed?

Should we, in fact, rely on a random sample of opinions to arrive at an answer to some questions that are only a matter of values, but not about realistically verifiable facts -such as the height of a building, say, or maybe the type of bacterium that causes a particular disease? Would that bring us closer to the truth, or simply yet another truth?

Well, it turns out that the average of a large group of diverse and even contrary opinions has some statistical merit: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140708-when-crowd-wisdom-goes-wrong  ‘[T]here is some truth underpinning the idea that the masses can make more accurate collective judgements than expert individuals.’ The Wisdom of Crowds ‘is generally traced back to an observation by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1907. Galton pointed out that the average of all the entries in a ‘guess the weight of the ox’ competition at a country fair was amazingly accurate – beating not only most of the individual guesses but also those of alleged cattle experts. This is the essence of the wisdom of crowds: their average judgement converges on the right solution.’

But the problem is in the sampling -the diversity of the members of that crowd. ‘If everyone let themselves be influenced by each other’s guesses, there’s more chance that the guesses will drift towards a misplaced bias.’ Of course ‘This finding challenges a common view in management and politics that it is best to seek consensus in group decision making. What you can end up with instead is herding towards a relatively arbitrary position. Just how arbitrary depends on what kind of pool of opinions you start off with. […] copycat behaviour has been widely regarded as one of the major contributing factors to the financial crisis, and indeed to all financial crises of the past. [And] this detrimental herding effect is likely to be even greater for deciding problems for which no objectively correct answer exists. […] All of these findings suggest that knowing who is in the crowd, and how diverse they are, is vital before you attribute to them any real wisdom.’

This might imply that ‘you should add random individuals whose decisions are unrelated to those of existing group members. That would be good, but it’s better still to add individuals who aren’t simply independent thinkers but whose views are ‘negatively correlated’ – as different as possible – from the existing members. In other words, diversity trumps independence. If you want accuracy, then, add those who might disagree strongly with your group.’

Do you see where I’m going with all this? We should try to be open enough to consider all sides of an argument before making a considered decision. Let’s face it, you have to know what it is that you’re up against before you can arrive at a compromise. And perhaps, the thing you thought you were opposing is not so different from your own view after all.

Even our values fluctuate. Unless we are willing to be historical revisionists, it’s obvious that people in the past often assigned values differently to how we do today -sexual orientation, for example, or racial characteristic and stereotyping. And who nowadays would dare argue that women are not the equal of men, and deserve the same rights?

There are some things about which we will continue to disagree, no doubt. And yet, even a willingness to listen to an opposing opinion instead of shutting it down without a fair acknowledgment of whatever merits it might have hidden within it, or commonalities it might share with ours, is a step in the right direction.

I’m not at all sure that it’s healthy to agree about everything, anyway, nor to assume we possess the truth. It’s our truth. I think that without some dissenting input, we’d be bored, condemned to float in the increasingly stagnant backwater we chose, while just beyond our banks, a creek runs merrily past, excited to discover another view that lies beyond and behind the next hill.

After all, remember what happened to Caesar after Shakespeare had him boast: “I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix’d and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.”

Just saying…

 

Make not your thoughts your prison

 

What can we do with those who flout the laws of the land or openly disrespect the prevailing mores? The usual answer is to punish -to retribute, either by restricting the offender’s rights, or their freedom. And sometimes, depending on the crime, even ending their lives.

Prisons have traditionally been the means to rid ourselves of the problem -out of sight, out of mind. Until they’re not, that is -because unless we intend to keep convicted offenders incarcerated and off the streets forever, there will come a time when we will have to deal with them again.

Of course, this uncomfortable inevitability was not lost on everybody, and through the ages there have been sporadic attempts at rehabilitating people once justice had been seen to be done and they were scheduled for release -more recently, things like parole in which the prisoner could be conditionally released into the community before the sentence had been fully served; or even indeterminate sentencing where the duration of incarceration lies somewhere between a minimum and a maximum time, depending upon the behaviour and signs of presumed rehabilitation exhibited by the prisoner.

Unfortunately, recidivism rates have been high and this has frustrated continuing reformation in various countries. So many things are not as they seem, not as we would hope. Even in this age of algorithms and Wikipedia, the reasons are not always forthcoming -at least, not the ones we expect. Maybe that should not be a surprise, though: we are not omniscient, nor, more importantly, are we prescient.

An article in BBC Future series on criminal myths addressed an aspect of the problem that had not occurred to me. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180430-the-unexpected-ways-prison-time-changes-people  As the author, Christian Jarrett, put it, ‘Day after day, year after year, imagine having no space to call your own, no choice over who to be with, what to eat, or where to go. There is threat and suspicion everywhere. Love or even a gentle human touch can be difficult to find. You are separated from family and friends. If they are to cope, then prisoners confined to this kind of environment have no option but to change and adapt. This is especially true for those facing long-term sentences.’

‘In the field of personality psychology, it used to be believed that our personalities remain largely fixed in adulthood. But recent research has found that, in fact, despite relative stability our habits of thought, behaviour and emotion do change in significant and consequential ways – especially in response to the different roles that we adopt as we go through life. […] Particularly for anyone concerned about prisoner welfare and how to rehabilitate former convicts, the worry is that these personality changes, while they may help the prisoner survive their jail time, are counter-productive for their lives upon release.

‘Key features of the prison environment that are likely to lead to personality change include the chronic loss of free choice, lack of privacy, daily stigma, frequent fear, need to wear a constant mask of invulnerability and emotional flatness (to avoid exploitation by others), and the requirement, day after day, to follow externally imposed stringent rules and routines. […] [T]here is widespread recognition among psychologists and criminologists that prisoners adapt to their environment, which they call “prisonisation”. This contributes towards a kind of “post-incarceration syndrome” when they are released. […] The personality change that most dominated their accounts was an inability to trust others.’

The article reports on a large number of interviews on prisoners done in the UK by Susie Hulley and her colleagues at the Institute of Criminology. The prisoners described a ‘process of “emotional numbing”. […]  “As the long-term prisoner becomes ‘adapted’ – in the true sense of the term – to the imperatives of a sustained period of confinement, he or she becomes more emotionally detached, more self-isolating, more socially withdrawn, and perhaps less well suited to life after release,” they warned.’

In another paper, led by Jesse Meijers at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, it was felt that ‘the changes they observed are likely due to the impoverished environment of the prison, including the lack of cognitive challenges and lost autonomy.’

So, what are we to do with those individuals who have broken the law and for whom society demands retribution? Does the loss of freedom and privacy necessarily engender adaptive personality changes? ‘The current evidence suggests that the longer and harsher the prison sentence – in terms of less freedom, choice and opportunity for safe, meaningful relationships – the more likely that prisoners’ personalities will be changed in ways that make their reintegration difficult and that increase their risk for re-offending.’

Well, from a distance at least, it seems to me that prisons should be the solution of last resort -merely getting offenders off the street has consequences. Some, no doubt, would be a continuing threat to public safety if they were to remain at large, but some -maybe most- would not, and they are the ones on whom changes in our idea of retributive justice should perhaps be focussed.

The very idea of ‘punishment’ needs to be revisited for many crimes, I believe. But the strange need for vengeance is so thoroughly stamped in our minds, that even the idea of anything other than the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ code of Hammurabi, seems unthinkable. Unjust. Of course there should be consequences for actions -but commensurate ones. Prisons and jails have too long been places where troublemakers could be warehoused and essentially forgotten. But, as we are realizing to our dismay, the problems do not go away -they often merely fester, albeit out of sight. For a while…

I don’t have any truly heuristic solutions to crime, or the wages of evil that seem to follow us through the ages. I was not granted an epiphany in my long journey amongst the ever thinning years, but I do suspect that the answer does not lie in punishment alone. We are missing something that perhaps our genetic atavism will simply not allow us to see.

And yet, perhaps Shakespeare glimpsed something of it, however opaquely, those many years ago: The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our own virtues.