Tag Archives: optimism

Merry Winter Solstice! Here Comes the Sun…

Don’t wait for Sunday; today/tomorrow is the day to celebrate!

While strip malls are swarming with stressed shoppers scrambling to get to the bottom of their lists in time for the big gift switch, the truly monumental moment is happening tonight (or tomorrow, depending where you are). It’s winter solstice – go hug an evergreen!

Algonquin evergreen trees in sun and snow on a winter day

Sun Tree Winter Green

This midwinter festival goes back way more than 2012 years. It goes back into the cold dark pagan past. It goes back to the beginning of human consciousness, when the first naked apes looked up at the winter night sky waiting for a speedier return of the increasingly overdue sun.

With days getting colder and nights getting longer, these people – with no Weather Network, no electricity, no streetlamps (nor streets) – huddled together under precious animal skins and waited for the return of light and warmth.

Must have been a hell of a thing.

But they weren’t stupid; they’d lasted long enough to figure out that things would turn around, that snows would melt and new buds would blossom.

In time, ancient peoples such as Druids and Mayans constructed stone temples that took precise celestial measurements by which they pinpointed the date on which the longest night of the year past. And you know what they did then? They celebrated!

Merry Solstice to all of you, far and near, famous or forgotten, preachy or pagan, squished together or totally solitary – Merry Solstice to every one of you!

And for those of you in the southern hemisphere, enjoy your harvest. And don’t worry, your days won’t get shorter forever.

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Filed under beginnings, cross cultural understanding, Optimism & Inspiration, tradition

Yes, Shatner is Canadian!

You might know who “Beverley” Leslie Jordan is, even if you don’t know you know him. The 55-year-old comedic actor steals scenes on stage, film, and television (best known as “Beverley Leslie”, nemesis of Karen Walker on Will & Grace). He flies into Toronto tomorrow for one night to perform a one-man show tailored to the audience, a fundraiser for the CLGA. In honour of Jordan’s Boston Legal co-star William Shatner and last night’s “Genies“, here is part of the interview:

You’ve worked with William Shatner. Can you name the awards show he’s hosting?
No!

The Genies.
What is it?

Like the Canadian version of the Oscars.
Wow! Is William Shatner Canadian? I enjoyed working with him. I like him. He’s funny.

Would you ever want to host the Oscars, or would it be easier just to win one?
Oh Gosh! I don’t want to host one, I don’t want to win one, I don’t want to be nominated for one. I went to the Emmys once. It was the most nerve wracking thing. It was torture. I mean, you’re not going to get any sympathy: “I had to go to the Emmys and I won. Poor me!” But I’m telling you, at one point I thought I was having a heart attack.

Will there come a time when being gay is as widely accepted as being left-handed, and what would it take to get there?
I can’t believe you just said that! I’ve always said that I would love for a parent to say, “I think my child is going to turn out gay” the way you say, “I think my child is going to be left-handed.” Not so much with pride or shame, just that it is.

Read the rest at Post City online http://www.postcity.com/
http://www.postcity.com/Eat-Shop-Do/Do/March-2011/Loud-and-proud-Leslie-Jordan-at-Hart-House/

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Moving Experience

We were roommates in this west Montreal neighbourhood when the 90s had just begun. Now at an age when we measure our friendship in decades, she is moving home (does that phrase make anyone but us hear a Beatles tune…in reverse?). Home to our little east coast hometown.

Is this good? Is it bad? It’s home. Home is where you go.

What is she leaving behind? Fantastic restaurants and cafés, a plethora of festivals, magnificent architecture, and a mountain of joie de vivre! And a life partner who, like her, is beginning a new life.

Why? Because that’s what happens. When people say “you only live once”, they are speaking metaphorically. Right now she is taking a break from packing and watching TV, from which I hear strings playing Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. She is not the same person who walked down the aisle a decade ago, nor am I the same person who walked down a different aisle in Mexico a few months after that. When you get married, it’s not just to the person with the matching ring, it’s to the person they will become, and the person they will be after that. Sometimes you are lucky enough to love all of the people you marry. “Forever” is not always for everyone.

What is she taking with her? Cats, books, dishes, music, and a friend whose love for her has been deepening for 25 years. If we could pin down the exact date we became friends, this would be the Silver Anniversary of our friendship.

I won’t stay with her in our hometown. I’ll move her and her cats into their new place, visit my family and other old friends for a couple of days, and then I’ll hurry back to the person I’ll marry next (I love the people she’s been so far).

My oldest friend is back to fussing about what to pack and what to leave behind, but one thing that won’t get left behind, and won’t get lost or broken in the move, is me.

Happy Anniversary M.

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New Moon Resolutions

Here we are, 2nd day into the 2nd week into the 2nd month into the year. How’s that New Year’s Resolution working out for you?

Mine was to start and maintain a blog. How am I doing so far? I’ve made other resolutions this year, and I’m sticking to them too.

New Year’s Resolutions are too few and too far between. It doesn’t take a year to make a resolution stick, and it doesn’t take a month to let it slip.

Try this. A New Moon Resolution. Make a new one every month. A habit can be formed or broken within less time than that. Some may say it takes three weeks, but cut yourself some slack and give it a month.

Within that amount of time, you can establish an exercise routine, or improve your diet, or change your sleeping pattern, or learn the basics of a language, or straighten up your home or your finances or almost anything! OK, maybe you can’t do it all within a month, but you can firmly establish a habit of taking care of whatever item of business you choose as your focus for the month.

Want to loose 100 kg? You won’t do that in a month (without cutting something off), but you could start walking. Set a reasonable goal (e.g. walk 15 minutes 3 times a week). If you can keep that up for three weeks you can keep it up forever. And if you can stick to that routine, maybe you can do more the next month.

Jumping Boy, by Arnold Burrell 1968

“I can’t” is usually a lie. If you can walk, you can walk three times a week. If you can do it for a week, you can do it for three.

“But” is not a lie, but it’s cheating yourself. “But I sprained my ankle.” Then save the walking for another month and make a different resolution in the meantime. Make the goal something you can do now, and do it now.

You will probably get off track, probably more than once. Now what? Get back on track. Stick with it until you can do what you promised yourself you would do for three weeks. If you can’t go three weeks without slipping up, then renew the resolution for the next month. If the first goal was too hard, make it easier — more realistic.

If it works, and you find you continue the new habit effortlessly into the next month and the month after that, then it’s time for a new New Moon Resolution!

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Social Media Week is Here! Toronto, Rome, Paris, São Paulo, Istanbul, London, Hong Kong, New York, San Francisco

Social Media Week has begun! 2011 February 7 – 11

I was late coming to the world of social media, but I have high hopes for the good things we can do with it. By the time I found out about Social Media Week, the following Toronto event was filled up, but that’s OK. I can still do… I don’t know, something!

  • Social for Social Good – the power, politics and potential of ideas and causes to change the world

Organizations and individuals from all sectors are working together in ways they’ve never before.  Ideas are being created, adapted and recreated again.  And, it’s all happening in the accelerated and deregulated environment of social media. We invite you to a conversation on the opportunities, challenges and best practices at the intersection of big ideas and social media.

This afternoon I did go to

  • Educ@te Me: Social Media and Higher Learning

A joint program by the Ted Rogers School of Retail Management and the School of Fashion at Ryerson University, this event will be produced by Ryerson students as part of their coursework and will explore:

•    the use of social media in the classroom;
•    how social media is being used at Ryerson to bridge the gap between industry and higher education;
•    how social media is being used for student recruitment.

What would you expect from that? I wasn’t the only one who thought it would be about education, but it was pretty much about marketing to students. Too bad, business heads, I learned a few useful things anyway!

 

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Locavore Doesn’t Mean “Eat Locals”

Locavore is a new book (if you read as slowly as I do) by Toronto food writer Sarah Elton ( CBC Radio’s Here & Now). It’s a good book — published locally without pesticides or antibiotics, low-fat and high in fibre — but the title could be misleading.

An herbivore (“a” herbivore? now there’s something to fight about) eats herbs, a carnivore mangia il roastbeef, an omnivore eats a family car “specially designed for India”. So I opened this book expecting to learn something about how to take nutritional advantage of people in my neighbourhood. Sure the Emersons are lovely people, but could they be an important part of my diet?

Turns out “cannibalism” isn’t even in the index. Locavore is about choosing, when the choice is there, to buy food that is produced closer to home. Why is that such an important thing to do? Read it yourself, you lazy bugger!

Locavore by Sarah Elton

Locavore, by Sarah Elton

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Interview with Optimistic SF Writer Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer: A Sunnier Tomorrow by Evan Andrew Mackay,

published 2011 January 10 edition of AE — The Canadian Science Fiction Review:

From Orwell to Atwood, speculative fiction offers plenty of grim futures to ponder. But reading Robert J. Sawyer is a positive experience: You learn a lot of fascinating facts, contemplate new ideas, enjoy a good story, and end with the impression that the future might not be all that bad. While we need cautionary tales, a good dose of intelligent optimism also makes for a satisfying read. As a fan wrote to Sawyer about his latest novel, WWW: Watch, “It is rare to find a fresh idea that offers hope and delight, and rarer still for that beautiful idea to come with evidence that really convinces the heart and mind, and moves someone to say ‘Yes, it’s true, we really can become better people.’”

windowless room

 

Robert J. Sawyer

And why wouldn’t Sawyer be optimistic? Since the age of 23, he has made his living in the arts, in Canada — and with 20 novels sold and the trifecta of Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell awards to his name, his career has been a spectacular success. Sawyer arrives full of energy, at ease, and ready to talk, over a light pub lunch at “The Unicorn” in Toronto before meetings with his new publisher, Penguin. A seasoned speaker, he emphasizes he is not intimidated by the voice recorder and slides it right in front of himself. A perusal of Sawyer’s website sfwriter.com will corroborate that this man is not a technophobe.

Wake, Watch, Wonder

In his latest trilogy WWWWake (2009), Watch (2010), Wonder (due out in April 2011) ― Sawyer lays out a hopeful view of things to come with what he says is the inevitable advent, this century, of artificial intelligence that will spontaneously emerge and then develop to surpass human intelligence. “I don’t think it is inevitable that [the existence of beings more intelligent than humans] means the end of life as we know it,” he says.

“I wrote my trilogy in response, in part, to the large number of negative portrayals of the future of humanity at the hands of our robot masters, of emergent AI, because the only visions we had were The Matrix, The Forbin Project, Terminator, every computer Captain Kirk had ever gone up against, Neuromancer, cyberpunk — we did not have a model, a template for the future in which we might survive with our essential humanity, liberty, individuality and dignity intact. I don’t know that we’re going to be able to do that, but I think if the only models that are on the table are ones where, if at midnight tonight the World Wide Web wakes up, tomorrow morning the human era ends ― if that’s the only template that’s on the table, we’ve given up the battle before we’ve even arrived at the battleground. I think an argument can be made, and I make it at length over the course of three books here, it’s a subtle argument but I think it can be made, and it does at least bear initial scrutiny that there is a path out of this.”

Keeping an Eye on Big Brother

Even without considering the notion of the World Wide Web becoming self-aware, there are and always have been concerns about the hazards of the Web: from the annoyance of spam to the perils of identity theft, from Web censorship in places like China to the heinous crimes of child pornography where the Web is unregulated. Orwell’s vision of Big Brother is now so quaint as to bring a tear of nostalgia; Big Brother is watching you, but you are watching Big Brother. With the World Wide Web enabling the average citizen, in much of the world, to instantly retrieve or transmit information of any sort or quantity, person to person or in interest-based, regional or global forums, can a person get away with anything these days? Can a corporation or — in light of organizations like Wikileaks — can a government?

The first two books of WWW look at various facets of these concerns. In Wake, a freedom blogger in China tries to evade the authorities while communicating his suspicions online about a mysterious government cover-up. In that first novel, the heroine Caitlin’s private world is necessarily exposed to the scientist whose implant has corrected her blindness, but in the second novel, Watch, her every move is shadowed by the fictitious US government agency called W.A.T.C.H. and by the now-highly-developed consciousness Webmind which sees through Caitlin’s own vision. In Watch, Webmind is able to read the email of everyone on the Web. But although that’s fiction, these issues are still of concern to every user of Facebook or Google, really of every person who goes online or whose personal information exists online, which surely includes you (you are reading this online, aren’t you?). So before getting into the what-ifs of AI, let’s look at what the Web means to the world as it now stands.

WWW — The Key to Our Future?

Is the World Wide Web the key to our future? Sawyer answers, “Yes. Several reasons. The first is, the World Wide Web is the first infrastructural necessity that’s ever existed that isn’t controlled by any one government or region.” Within a region, of course, there can be far-reaching control. Such control is exerted in China, and Sawyer begins examining the implications of this control in Chapter 2 of Wake. Two and a half millennia ago Lao Tzu said, “People are difficult to govern because they have too much knowledge.” Sawyer’s balanced portrayal of the government and the people of China ― a country he has visited and where the Galaxy Award winner has a loyal following — is both sympathetic and pragmatic, no more and no less than a crucial element in his story. “There’s no way that China will be able to succeed indefinitely in keeping people in the dark. It just can’t be done,” he says. And the means by which they will find the light? “The Web will be that tool!”

Back to why it is the key to our future. “We have with the World Wide Web, by design, something that ― and increasingly so year by year ― is decentralized in its authority, ungovernable by its nature, and therefore liberating in its use.” What’s more, it is unstoppable, and “that is wonderful, in the sense that we have become dependent on something that nobody can take away from us, unlike, say, oil, where we are at the whim of the oil producers be they domestic or foreign.” And there’s more. “I think the World Wide Web is also key in a lot of ways to world peace. I’m an optimist at heart, and I do believe this ― the fact that in my own life, just on my Facebook page, I am routinely communicating with people, in Africa and Korea and China and Japan and so on and so forth ― you cannot be locally partisan when you are on the World Wide Web … When we look at pictures of Earth from space, you can’t see the borders. All you see is the unity. And of all the things we have ever built, this is the only one that actually is a worldwide entity.”

Helen Keller, The Matrix and the Origins of Consciousness

Sawyer describes the WWW series as the meeting of the mostly Canadian William Gibson whose seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer set the stage for the Wachowski Brothers’ movie The Matrix, and the late American playwright William Gibson who authored the play The Miracle Worker, about Annie Sullivan teaching Helen Keller to communicate and become aware of herself and the world around her. The inspiring story of Helen Keller and her teacher provides the template for the relationship between Caitlin and Webmind in Sawyer’s trilogy.

portrait 1960s

Sawyer believes consciousness will arise in some manifestation of AI much as it did in the evolving human mind not so long ago (in evolutionary terms), as Caitlin reads in Julian Jaynes’ influential 1977 treatise The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. “I suspect that the scenario that’s in my book, the World Wide Web gaining consciousness without it being planned to do so, is far more likely than somebody at MIT or Google or Microsoft announcing to the world, ‘I have made it in my lab,’” Sawyer says. “I suspect that when we do face AI on this planet, it won’t actually be artificial in the sense of some clever programmer figuring out how to code it.”

Colour burst abstract

Although AI is often imagined as coming from some software engineer writing “X number of lines of code that wake up and say cogito ergo sum …” Sawyer says, “I don’t think anybody has made any progress at all towards that.” An AI researcher tried to convince Sawyer he had a laptop that “learns.” Sawyer doesn’t think so, adding, “I don’t think it’s got one iota closer to being self-aware than an abacus is.” Sawyer thinks self-awareness will come to AI as it did to us: “Our consciousness was an emergent property of the complexity of our brains. Evolution is not teleological … nothing thrusting us towards being self-aware. It just happened.” It happened as an accident of evolution and it stuck around because it “turned out, apparently, to be useful, at least for the last 40,000 years.” In Jaynes’s theory, human consciousness developed a mere 3,000 years ago, before which time people essentially just did what their un-unified cerebral hemispheres told them to do.

But what is consciousness? In WWW, Sawyer examines the boundaries of consciousness and self-awareness from several angles. Caitlin, blind from birth, gains sight and must learn new ways of processing information and perceiving the world. One character, a high-functioning autistic genius, exhibits minimalist social interaction and a hyper-focused way of understanding the world that is scarcely comprehensible even to immediate family members. Hobo, the fictitious hybrid bonobo-chimpanzee, creates the first non-human representational art ― “that ability to have a mental picture,” Sawyer points out, “is part of the gaining of consciousness” — and converses in sign language with humans and an orangutan in order to make informed decisions about his fate. Although no such hybrid is known to exist, there is evidence that such breeding could lead to developments in the direction imagined in this story. Sawyer depicts, with frequent references to Helen Keller’s remarkable accounts, Webmind’s struggle to attain and integrate self-awareness, learning, communication, and to grasp and make choices based on moral distinctions. For many readers, it is likely this moral sense which most clearly distinguishes a fully conscious being from a beast or robot. What convinces Caitlin that a consciousness is somehow forming within the Web is her observation of rising Shannon’s Entropy scores as measured against Zipf plots applied to patterns made by rogue cellular automata in the background of the Web. (The science behind Sawyer’s hypothesis on how consciousness might emerge on the Web is explored in detail in Wake and Watch.)

The World as We Know It.

So if the World Wide Web, or maybe the device you are reading on right now, wakes up at midnight tonight, don’t think the only option is to rage against the machines. “Between what I have to say and what the dystopians about AI have to say, there will hopefully be a middle-ground reality that we will actually live in: alongside of, not underneath, our intellectual betters.” And, when WWW: Wonder comes out in April, even those dead-set on fighting our new robot overlords would do well to consider what Sawyer has to say about the very idea of shutting down the World Wide Web.

Leaving aside for now the issue of technology becoming self-aware and surpassing human intellect, what would Sawyer see if he were to flash forward twenty years into the future? “I think we will be continuing the current trend which is — despite what makes news: A smaller percentage of human beings are at war right now than at any other time in human history, there’s a higher degree of literacy right now than at any other time in human history, there are more people enjoying more freedom, civil rights and civil liberties than at any other time in human history … We’ll see much greater ecological sensitivity, and much more globalism and much less jingoistic nationalism in twenty years. We will be a World Wide Web of people … It will be a better world in twenty years.”

More coming soon at AE — The Canadian Science Fiction Review.

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