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…

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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.

Such Sweet Sorrow

I kind of figured sugar would sneak back. It always does! Just when you think it should be terminally ashamed of the stuff it’s done, it shows up as somebody else and fools everybody. I mean, forget trying to pretend that you don’t recognize it in a crowd, that you can’t see under its mask. Sugar is, well, sugar, eh? No matter how it tries to sweet-talk its way around you, it is what it does. Period.

But what is that? Apart from fuelling our atavistic requirements for easily assimilable energy, and therefore surviving early Darwinian whittling, I’ve often wondered if there’s more to sugar than meets the tongue. It has too large a presence in our world to be confined to pleasure alone. Almost every organism seems drawn to it. Should this be telling us something?

Every once in a while my overweening, but naïve hunches are rewarded with information that addresses much the same issues but in ways I hadn’t considered: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180328-how-sugar-could-help-heal-wounds?

Moses Murandu is a man who grew up in the rural Easter Highlands of Zimbabwe, and later moved to England to work in its National Health System. ‘A senior lecturer in adult nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, Murandu completed an initial pilot study focussed on sugar’s applications in wound healing and won an award from the Journal of Wound Care in March 2018 for his work. […] To treat a wound with sugar, all you do, Murandu says, is pour the sugar on the wound and apply a bandage on top. The granules soak up any moisture that allows bacteria to thrive. Without the bacteria, the wound heals more quickly.

‘In some parts of the world, this procedure could be key because people cannot afford antibiotics. But there is interest in the UK, too, since once a wound is infected, it sometimes won’t respond to antibiotics. […] And a growing collection of case studies from around the world has supported Murandu’s findings, including examples of successful sugar treatments on wounds containing bacteria resistant to antibiotics.’

Well, it’s safe to say that I don’t know how much sugars will contribute to our health and well-being, but they do serve as a reminder that western science is not the sole guardian of knowledge. Or wisdom. Answers are not rare -they are lying around everywhere just waiting for the right questions to discover them. The right curiosity. And we run a risk dismissing traditional enlightenment -folk wisdom- out of hand.

The problem, as I see it, is one of attribution. The credibility we assign each source should be determined by the results of testing its hypothesis, finding the appropriate question to interrogate whatever is proposed as an answer. Finding the key that fits the lock… And the thesis investigated does not have to be of mind-bending importance; science is not the exclusive purview of people in white coats. Nor those of a certain age…

I recently happened upon a Tim Horton’s café in close approximation to a message from my stomach that it needed both a coffee and a bagel. Not being in the mood to argue, I decided to accede, although my loyalties normally lie with Starbucks. I had been wrestling with the question of habit on my walk –my strange unwillingness to explore new ground, consider new sources. Tim’s could be the answer waiting for the question.

Science, if it be considered from the inductive perspective, I reasoned, required the inference of laws from particular instances -answers from the right questions. In other words, Propose, Test, and then validate or refute. It isn’t enough to simply assume…

I had chosen a busy time unfortunately, and I was lucky to find a single table in a corner by the window. It was squeezed between a group of elderly women crowded around a larger table busy consuming their donuts and politely slurping their coffees, and a small table like mine occupied by a harried looking mother trying to bottle-feed a squirming, unhappy baby in her arms and a young boy busily kicking the legs of his chair.

The elders were surprisingly quiet, but not the little boy, so my ears naturally focussed on him.

“Why can’t we go, Mommy?” he kept asking.

I could tell his mother had almost reached the end of her tether, and she stared at him crossly, determined not to interrupt the feeding. “Because I’m still feeding Janny, Tim,” she replied, tensely. “She’s really hungry.”

The boy tilted his head curiously. “She’s squiggling around; she’s not even sucking…”

At that point the baby began to cry even louder-scream, actually- so the mother put the bottle on the table and positioned the baby on her shoulder to burp it.

But Tim still looked puzzled. “But she doesn’t like the bottle, Mommy,” he said, as if his mother should have noticed by now.

His mother shrugged, almost in tears. “I know, Timmy, but you were hungry too, remember? That’s why we came in here instead of going back to the car.”

Tim sat back in his chair for a moment to process the problem. “Well, why don’t you let Janny suck your breasts?” he said, in the rather loud voice of a four year old.

I could see his mother blush as soon as he said it, but Timmy had merely proposed a tentative hypothesis that could easily by tested to see if he had asked the right question, and his face was as innocent as a new nappy.

His mother leaned over the table with Janny so she could show Tim that they could talk quietly about it. “I would if we were sitting in the car…” she said, but he continued to stare at her, still puzzled. “And the car is still a long way away, Timmy.”

Tim leaned over the table like his mother. “Why can’t you breast her here?” he asked innocently.

She smiled and glanced around the room, embarrassed. “Some people don’t like to see mothers breast feed their babies in public.” She tried to whisper but Janny was really screaming now. She glanced at the washroom, no doubt wondering if she could feed her baby in there, but it must have been a small room, because there was already a line of needy hopefuls that had formed at the door

Tim smiled as if he knew how to solve the problem with his initial hypothesis, and he leaned towards me on his chair. “Hey mister,” he said in his best, grown-up voice, “Do you mind if Mommy breasts Janny in here?”

His mother was now beet red, and she glared at her little son and then attempted to smile at me. “I… I’m sorry…I…” But she was too embarrassed to continue.

“I don’t mind at all,” I said, trying to reassure her with a reciprocal smile. “You can use my jacket to cover yourself, if that would help…” I said, beginning to take off my jacket.

One of the elderly women at the next table leaned over and gave a thumbs-up to the frazzled mother. “We’ve all been there, dear,” she said and winked before she turned back to inspect her plate for donut remnants.

I handed the mother my jacket and the baby settled into the welcoming breast somewhere underneath. Propose, test, validate…

I added some extra sugar to my coffee, and settled back in my chair to celebrate the triumph of citizen science that even a child could perform. It’s just a matter of finding the right question, after all…

In choice, we are so oft beguiled

It’s interesting just how important categories are in our lives, isn’t it? I mean, let’s face it, often they’re just adjectives –subordinate to their nouns. Add-ons. And yet, they can frame context, colour perception, and even determine value. Some, like, say, texture or odour may be interesting but trivial; some –size, or cost, for example- may be more important although optional in a description. There are, however, categories that seem to thrust themselves upon an object and are deemed essential to its description, essential to placing it in some sort of usable context. To understanding its Gestalt. These often spring to mind as questions so quickly they are almost automatic. Gender is one such category, age, perhaps another. And depending, I suppose on the situation, the society, or even the category to which the listener belongs, there may be several others that are deemed necessary to frame the issue appropriately.

The automaticity of a category is critical, however. If the category is felt to be of such consuming importance that it needs to be established before any further consideration can be given to the object, then that object’s worth –or at least its ranking- is contingent. It is no longer being evaluated neutrally, objectively. It comes replete with those characteristics attendant upon its category –intended or not. Age, for example, wears certain qualities, incites certain expectations that might prejudice acceptance of its behaviour. Gender, too, is another category that seems to colour assumptions about behaviour. So, with the assignation of category, comes opinion and its accompanying attitude.

One might well argue about the importance of these categories, and perhaps even strategize ways of neutralizing their influence on reactions, or subsequent treatment. The problem is much more difficult if knowledge of the category is so necessary it is intuitively provided as part of what is necessary to know about, for example, a person.

I suspect that in my naïveté, I had assumed that foreknowledge of many of these categories was merely curiosity-driven. Politeness oriented. Important, perhaps, so that I wouldn’t be surprised -wouldn’t embarrass the person at our initial encounter. But I am a doctor, and maybe see the world from a different perspective. A piece in the BBC, however, made me realize just how problematic this automaticity had become. How instinctive. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130423-is-race-perception-automatic?ocid

The article dealt mainly with its effects on racism, and the difficulties of countering it if we accept, as some evolutionary psychologists seem to believe, that it is basically intuitive. Evolved for a reason. Wired-in. ‘[…] if perceiving race is automatic then it lays a foundation for racism, and appears to put a limit on efforts to educate people to be “colourblind”, or put aside prejudices in other ways.’ But, as Tom Stafford, the author of the BBC article puts it, ‘Often, scientific racists claim to base their views on some jumbled version of evolutionary psychology (scientific racism is racism dressed up as science, not racisms based on science […]). So it was a delightful surprise when researchers from one of the world centres for evolutionary psychology intervened in the debate on social categorisation, by conducting an experiment they claimed showed that labelling people by race was far less automatic and inevitable than all previous research seemed to show.

‘The research used something called a “memory confusion protocol” […] When participants’ memories are tested, the errors they make reveal something about how they judged the pictures of individuals. […] If a participant more often confuses a black-haired man with a blond-haired man, it suggests that the category of hair colour is less important than the category of gender (and similarly, if people rarely confuse a man for a woman, that also shows that gender is the stronger category). Using this protocol, the researchers tested the strength of categorisation by race, something all previous efforts had shown was automatic. The twist they added was to throw in another powerful psychological force – group membership. People had to remember individuals who wore either yellow or grey basketball shirts. […] Without the shirts, the pattern of errors were clear: participants automatically categorised the individuals by their race (in this case: African American or Euro American). But with the coloured shirts, this automatic categorisation didn’t happen: people’s errors revealed that team membership had become the dominant category, not the race of the players. […] The explanation, according to the researchers, is that race is only important when it might indicate coalitional information – that is, whose team you are on. In situations where race isn’t correlated with coalition, it ceases to be important.’

I don’t know… To me, this type of experiment seems so desperate to appear to be wearing a scientific mantle, that it comes across as contrived –kludged, if you’ll permit an equally non-scientific term. But I take their point. If there is some way of diffusing the automaticity of our categorizations –or at least deflecting them into more malleable descriptors –teams, in this case- perhaps they could be used as exemplars –wedges to mitigate otherwise uncomfortable feelings. Placeboes –to put the concept into more familiar language for me.

Stopgaps, to be sure, and not permanent solutions. But sometimes, we have to ease into things less obtrusively. Less confrontationally. A still-evolving example -at least here in Canada- might be gender bias in hockey. Most Canadians have grown up exposed to hockey, and might be reasonably assumed to have an opinion on the conduct of games, players, and even rules. And yet, until relatively recently, the assumption was that hockey players –good ones, at least- were male. For us older folks, it was automatic. No thought required; no need to ask about gender. But no longer is that the case. For a variety of reasons, there is still no parity, and yet it is changing –slowly, perhaps, but not conflictually. And so, despite any initial challenges, is likely to succeed.

Am I really conflating success in the changing mores of hockey with gender equality? Or basketball teams and how we view their members, with racial equality? Am I assuming that diminishing discrimination in some fields leads to wider societal effects? Yes, I suppose I am. A blotter doesn’t care about the kind, or the colour, of the ink it absorbs; it’s just what it does. What it is. And, in the end, isn’t that what we all are, however vehemently we may protest? However much we may resist the similarities that bind us in relationship for fear of losing our own identities?

But if we step back a little, we may come to appreciate that the correlation need not be like that of a blotter -need not involve a team, or a marriage… I am reminded of the advice from one of my favourite writers, the poet, Kahlil Gibran: Love one another, but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

It’s the way I prefer to see the world, anyway…