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According to the the Arbitron National In-Car Study published in 2003, Americans spend an average of 15 hours per week in a car as either a passenger or a driver. That means that for a little more than two hours a day our view of the world around us is confined to the size of a windshield and a side-view mirror. There’s no ambiance of the environment to take in. Instead there’s the monotone of upholstery, there’s the sight of black tar and the back of another car, and the air conditioning minding a comfortable temperature. Within the car we’re separated from the symphony of life that surrounds us and subject to the tedium of a static environment.

At least, that’s what I got to thinking when watching Rob Forbes’ talk from the 2006 TED Conference:

Forbes is the founder of Design Within Reach, and currently is focused on Studio Forbes, which, according to the ‘about’ blurb on studioforbes.com, brings attention to good design. He’s also an advocate of biking in the urban landscape, and of shifting away from individualist automotive transportation toward more efficient mass transportation systems akin to the urban landscapes of Amsterdam, Venice, and many other cities in Europe.

He’s a self-described avid walker and on his leg journeys throughout the world in cities like Amsterdam, Berlin, Chicago, San Francisco, &c., he’s photographed instances of serendipitous design out of utilitarian cityscapes. One of my favourite photos highlighted in his talk was of the scaffolding at a construction site in Buenos Aires, which was reminiscent of the neoplasticist works of Piet Mondrian. A large gallery of curious instances of beauty are on the Studio Forbes website.

Things like the Mondrian-esque scaffolding and the unfortunate red fire hydrant in Havana are precisely the types of things that can elude the average driver. Of course, most people won’t look twice at scaffolding on the side of a building, even on foot. Most people don’t take notice of the beauty of form and colour in bouquets of French breakfast radishes at the market, or the composition of petals on a masoned floor. To see this type of incidental design takes a particular attention that many of us don’t have the time to pay for. It’s that sort of rushed mentality that urges us to be generally inconsiderate of the world around us, and urges us to get in our fast cars to get to our next destination in as little time as possible, be it work, be it home, the grocery store, wherever.

America was founded on utilitarian principals and it has served a lot of good. Utility and productivity has driven America to prosperity in the few decades since the West Indies were colonized. And utilitarianism has pervaded the modern American psyche, and surely will for years to come. But, despite the US being the richest and most productive country in the world, according to a study by the World Values Survey, it ranks as the 16th happiest country–behind Denmark (1), Columbia (3) and New Zealand (15). It isn’t a particularly bad thing being the 16th happiest country in the world, but considering the US is ranked first when it comes to productivity and wealth, it’s a little disappointing.

According to a 2006 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, the romantic allure of cars is on the decline. They say more people consider driving a chore, fewer people go joy riding, less people consider their cars to be anything more than a means of getting from place to place. Over the past decade there have been countless stories in the news about drivers’ frustrations over gas prices, traffic, commute times, instances of road rage, &c. Times have changed since the Model T, the Industrial Revolution, and the eventual fulfillment of Henry Ford’s dream for an automobile for every person. Maybe people desire the opportunity to slow down a little.

I don’t suggest the absolute abolishment of the individual’s automobile (though nice it would be), as there are a lot of things that can’t practically be seen without an automobile (the expanse of Highway 1 along the Pacific coast, for example). Rather, I suggest people stop every now and again, forgetting about any particular destination, to walk around and appreciate the things they zip by day in and day out. To create memories around the things that they pass void of wit or wisdom. Doing so might heighten one’s perspective, it may personalize one with the city or the land they live in, it may give people a reason to invest in the betterment of their own urban and natural landscapes, and may give a people more utils for which to measure happiness. Life is too beautiful to ignore, and there’s far too much of it too.

Adieu.

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There’s so much in this world to explore! I’m watching The Discovery Channel/BBC’s Planet Earth and in the episodes I’ve tuned in for they’ve explored the caves of the earth and the stark tundras of the Arctic and Antarctic. I’m astonished by the odd environments that are otherwise unseen by the vast majority of eyes in this world. It’s a beautiful testament to the extraordinary and seemingly infinite scapes our home contains. But, what’s perhaps most fascinating is the extent to which we human beings exert ourselves, in the name of science and in the name of curiosity, to gaze upon these wonders.

Nature provides many hostile environments. Some caves are fuming with noxious gasses, flowing with dangerously basic or acidic liquids–undrinkable, even untouchable to us–, and rife with strange and wonderful creatures like snotites and glow worms. And the antarctic icescapes are barren and void of anything that would make a stay particularly hospitable for a regular human being. Mankind is not physically evolutionarily equipped to survive the biting snowfields of the antarctic as they stand today. But, despite the barriers that deter most people, there are some that choose to ignore nature, and to experience for themselves environments not meant for the human experience. People traverse the caves with gas masks and protective clothing, taking every precaution to allow them to survive in the unsurvivable. Fur-less people layer their clothing in a land that, without the modern conveniences of opposable thumbs, would otherwise kill them.

I’m reminded of the latest Werner Herzog documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, which explores just the type of people that seek to traverse the paths less taken. The film is set in Antarctica among the disparate souls that work and dwell amidst the freezing polar days and nights. In it we get to meet, among the travelers, the workmen and the scientists working with the National Science Foundation, folks like a former banker from Colorado, Peace Corp member and truck driver; a Russian philosopher and forklift driver; even a linguist in a land without language tending to a greenhouse in a white in-arable land of ice and snow.

Herzog’s film features one particular contemplative, lingering scene that encapsulates the spirit of the kinds of people who seek to explore the humanly inhabitable ends of our world. To the right of the ice field, off camera, is the penguin colony, and to the left, also off camera. is the edge of the ice, the feeding grounds for the penguins. One group of penguins moves toward the colony, another moves toward the feeding grounds. But, one lone penguin, akin to few others before it, opts against either destination. The penguin begins moving toward the mountains, away from its peers and from sustenance, toward nothingness and certain death. Yet, as one of the scientists explains, even if one were to bring the penguin back to the colony, it would immediately start its journey once more.

Who could say why penguins like the ones in Herzog’s film choose to travel in a direction void of the comforts that is normally sought. Do these penguins seek to fulfill a sense of adventure and curiosity like the explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackelton, who, too, stubbornly embarked on a final expedition of the Antarctic? Is it a derangement of the mind, blocking all sense of foolhardy danger?

While the explorer penguins do not survive to tell their tale to the colony they leave behind, and though their expedition can be likened to an act of suicide, despite all that, I get the sense that they are all the better off for it. They deny the hesitation, the sense to turn back to safety, and push on, sating the yearning of their soul.

Or maybe I’m thinking too romantically about the subject. Anyway. Adieu.


Just read a brief piece in SciAm by Professor Randolph W. Evans and psychologist Christopher French about sleep paralysis, and I couldn’t help but think fondly upon my own experiences with sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is a sleep disorder that mindfucks you, to put it bluntly.

I’ve had at least two experiences that I can remember. The first was was relatively tame. It happened at my summer school World History class in high school. I was pleasantly napping. Our teacher was about to start lecturing again, so I woke up to feign interest, but, to my alarm, I was totally unable to lift my head off the desk. I tried to move my arms, but to no avail, and I realized all I could do was roll my eyes. It even took some mental strain to blink. I was terrified, and began to panic. The panic implored me to deepen my breathing, but the state of my lungs and autonomic nervous system was static and so I couldn’t change the pace of my breathing. A few seconds passed and I finally regained my normal physical function. I had no idea what had just happened, but since there didn’t seem to be any residual physical or mental side effects, I didn’t feel the need to dwell on it any further. I was just relieved that I wasn’t doomed to a life of comatose consciousness.

My second significant experience with sleep paralysis was far more disturbing. It occurred one night a couple of years ago. It wasn’t especially late at night. I remember I was doing some heavy work on an essay (if I remember correctly, it was a narrative on an unfortunate night involving a Nissan Sentra and a mysterious hill in the boonies. anyway), and started to feel lethargic. A headache accompanied my lethargy, and so I resolved to stop my work for the night to try and get some rest. I hadn’t turned the lights off yet. I moved to just lie on my bed for a while to try and compose myself and ease the headache so I could prepare some things for the next day. I closed my eyes and rested on my mattress.

A few seconds later, the headache began to strengthen into a migraine, and I noticed that I was unable to move my body, even unable to open my eyes again. The pain of the migraine got worse and worse with every throb. Along with the increasing intensity, I started to hear a sharp ringing sound. The sound would come like waves, getting louder and louder, stronger and stronger, in symmetry with the throbbing pain. It was completely disorienting, as if the paralysis weren’t disorienting enough; a maelstrom of pain, sound and confusion. I began to sweat and my heart started beating faster, imploring that my breathing get deeper. But, the paralysis was the same as before, restricting my autonomic nervous system from allowing my breathing to match the beating of my racing heart. I felt as if I were breathing through a thin straw or with a punctured lung. It gave no ease that my eyes were closed and all I could see was the dim, reddish light glowing from my eyelids. I couldn’t comprehend what I needed to worry about first–the migraine that felt as if it would lead to a brain hemorrhage, or the paralysis that was only compounding the panic. Amidst the chaos, I started to feel an unwanted presence. All the pain and confusion was matched with a sense of terror as I began to hear a whispering voice, incongruous with the rest of the symptoms, speedily repeating, like a mantra, the phrase “I’m sinking in.” The volume of the whisper was sustained with each repetition, but it seemed as though it grew in intensity, until all symptoms experienced so far–the throbbing pain, the loud, sustained ringing, the sinister whisper, and, above all, the panic and terror–grew to a crescendo; feeling as if it all would be leading to a destruction of the mind and the expiration of the functioning body. But, as it all felt to become too unbearable, the whispering stopped and the symptoms began to to subside, and it seemed in an instant that all were normal again, save for the same lethargy felt before the main episode started.

I sat up, having regained my ability to move, and felt startled, shaken. I thought about the episode, but could not come to any rational conclusion for what happened. So, rather than worry about what I was unable to control and likely wasn’t soon going to experience again, I decided to go about my business and get to sleep. Some days or weeks later, I sat on a bench outside on a break from work, talking to a person who worked at the grocery store deli next to us. I talked to her about the episode, which, at that time, I hadn’t equated to sleep paralysis. When I told her the details of my experience, she told me about a similar type occurrence in Hmong culture about a demon that manifests itself in people. She said it was a demon that plays tricks on people, but does not mean to do any other harm and, therefore, is a benign trickster. I think she also mentioned something about the ghost of an ancestor or dead relative attempting to communicate, though I can’t clearly recall the mention.

I wasn’t inclined to accept a supernatural explanation, however well it seemed to fit, and still wished for a rational explanation for the episode, but it was nevertheless a comfort to discuss it with her, and to hear the fascinating story she equated it to. Some time later, I came across the subject of sleep paralysis on one of my Google tangents, and found that rational explanation I knew existed. Sleep paralysis supposedly occurs when a person goes to sleep, or sometimes when a person is waking during the transition from lucidity to REM sleep. Christopher French in the SciAm piece posits that the paralysis occurs as a function of REM sleep “presumably to prevent the dreamer from physically acting out the dream.” The hallucinations are a product of REM sleep and can be equated to the dreams that normally occur. Because the person experiencing the episode is still fully conscious, the images can seem very real, and, I imagine, because of our folk past, our minds automatically grasp concepts of ghosts or demonic possession or divine intervention or other supernatural events.

Rational explanation aside, it’s fascinating looking at the Wikipedia page and seeing all the folk explanations for sleep paralysis. In it, the story told by the woman who worked at the deli was partially affirmed, as well as stories in African, Turkish, Greek, and other cultures; all very disparate lands but equating it to evil spirits of different names or other supernatural phenomena. It’s fascinating the stories concocted in the absence of scientific explanation. And so in-lies the problem of science that I most lament. As a person who values rational thinking, I fully accept science and the scientific process for providing explanations for the things that happen and for everything in the world and in the universe around us. But with the explanations brought forth by science comes the death of the folklore, and of mythology, of the supernatural. No longer does Diana in her chariot fly through the heavens, illuminating the darkness with her moonlight. Dulled is the magic and wonder of the rainbow, when equated as the mere prismatic effect of the sun and the sky. John Keats expresses his lament for scientific explanation in his narrative poem, “Lamia,” as does Edgar Allen Poe in his sonnet “To Science.”

I wonder, as I know now definitively that the “demon” in my sleep paralysis episode was a mere auditory hallucination, and as the world’s gods have died–the gods of Mesopotamia and Egypt, of Greece, of Rome, of the Norse and Germanic and Irish, Indian, and, surely, eventually, the god of the Abrahamic religions–I wonder if science has definitively killed folklore and religion. Does the modern scientific state of humanity have the need to create such beautiful, aesthetic works as created in the books of The Odyssey and the Iliad or the works of the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita?

I feel as though the topic that I am touching upon will require much more contemplation. As I have some reading I must get tonight, I’ll have to save my thoughts on the state of modern mythology for a later date. However, on a humorous side note, at some point as I typed this, I turned the TV on to see if anything interesting was playing. I went back to typing with the telly on and I started to hear whispers. Considering the subject of my post, I was a little startled. I looked over to the television and saw a man massaging his head as if he had a headache. The camera switches to a shot of two people whispering into a vent. It turned out to be an H&R Block commercial with two people sending whispers through a vent into the office of a man exhausted from the act of filing his taxes, which was oddly reminiscent of the very matter for which I was typing! I almost had a flashback…

Anyway. Adieu.

Communication and Miscommunication

On doing my nightly news reading, I stumbled across a feature on BBCNews about how plants use iridescence, of my interest ultraviolet iridescence–that is flashes of colours imperceptible to the human eye–, to communicate and attract pollinating insects. It was a short, but fascinating read that sparked further thought on an article I had read the night before on SciAm about the discovery of magpies and their ability to recognize their own reflection in a mirror–a distinction inclusive to very few species.

It’s fascinating what an array of communication is available in existence that is inaccessible to the human species. We pride ourselves in the elegance and complexity of our languages, in our words and symbols, and we fancy ourselves unique, and, for most people, they believe, superior to other species. Most people often don’t value the lives and the undiscovered, and, perhaps, fully incomprehensible complexities of the myriad of different species that share the planet with us.

Growing up, I often theorized, or perhaps, as a better term, fantasized that animals, though unable to speak our own vocal form of language, have, nonetheless, just as complex a means of communication as our English or Mandarin or Afrikaans. On camping trips, when I would listen to the canopy of birds chirping and hooting and warbling, I would romanticise that the birds are all having conversations of incomprehensible complexity. I did the same at night when I would hear the chirps of frogs that would engulf the aural atmosphere previously dulled by light. I was never able to assume, and still am unable to accept the notion that because these different species have smaller brains, they are unable to comprehend nuances in audible language beyond simple mating, danger and feeding calls.

I’d consider the bark of an old friends’ dog, Chance. I remember a particular night years ago sick and spewing in the backyard from too many shots of Jager or SoCo or whatever was the bottle of the month at the time. Chance also happened to be out in the backyard with me, noticed my abnormal and somewhat alarming behaviour and he started barking frenziedly to alert everyone else in the house. While I was drunk enough to purge the alcohol from my belly, I wasn’t drunken to a stupor, and I tried my best to convey to Chance that I was fine and that there was no need for alarm. He stopped and calmed down but continued to be attentive to me, I started feeling better and shared an appreciative moment for my canine companion. It was an act of compassion that’s rarely been shown in even that of most of the people I’ve known. It was an endearing moment and turned me into a dog lover, but it was also an instance where I truly realized the power of an animal of another species to understand. It was a ‘Lassie’ moment.

Communication is such an abstract form. Even between two people communication can often be misunderstood, and easily. I don’t think it’s beyond science that animals have the ability to communicate in as complex a manner as we in the human species. They may not be able to speak English or ask for a “venti soymilk chai latte,” but it’s not incomprehensible to me if scientists discover that the distinct warbles and chirps of birds, the songs of whales, &c. contain bits of precise nuance that is indistinguishable to the human ear and mind, but is concise and specific to the avian ear and mind, the cetacean ear and mind. With so many instances of misunderstanding between people every day, is it beyond a shadow of a doubt that our sciences are too under-informed, and maybe a bit misguided that it may one day discover a language of symbols shared among groups of species? Is it possible that because we are of another species, we are unable to fully understand the spectrum of complexity within the communications of other animals?

Beyond language, it astonishes me how similar animal behaviour is to human behaviour; and not just the things like maternal and paternal instinct, social hierarchy, &c., but even more complex and nuanced functions of behaviour. I’m reminded of an episode of either Nova or Nature on PBS broadcast years ago about the bowerbird (I have it taped on VHS somewhere)–nature’s architects/interior designers (they also do exteriors). The male bowerbird, in an attempt to attract a mate and in compensation for their lack of colour in their plumage, will collect exotic doodads, bright, kitschy instruments of design–brightly coloured bottle caps, glass, rocks, plastic, flowers, &c.–to meticulously arrange in and around their bower. Their bowers themselves are meticulously formed using grass and leaves and twigs; it’s a synergy of nature and aesthetic that puts to shame most human dwelling-places. They, like obsessive homemakers, even fuss about single objects if they are moved out of place by rival males or gusts of wind.

It’s a wonder why we don’t have more of a respect for the creatures of nature. Why they are discarded as nuisances, or as exotic wonders not deserving enough of our respect to treat them with compassion or respect. We encroach upon and eradicate their habitats, their homes, we industrialize them, force them into filthy, crowded pens and cages, inject them with antibiotics and hormones, and we massacre them for their meat, for their hide, and most of us could care less. Some even feel a sense of entitlement to treat these creatures with such derision. And such derision is partially the reason why we have a climate crisis, an energy crisis, a food crisis, and such derision is why they will continue to plague the human condition.

Call for Reform for Worldwide Agricultural Industries

I was also catching up on posts on the Bitten blog from New York Times food critic, co-host of the PBS gastronom series Spain on the Road Again (along with Gwyneth Paltrow, Mario Batali and Claudia Bassols), proponent for agricultural reform, and all around awesome foodie Mark Bittman. Bittman just released his new book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, which I’ve nudged into my already crowded reading queue. The book focuses on the fallacies and impracticalities of the “American diet,” from how food is made to how food is eaten (it also contains some recipes on par with his previous books, How to Cook Everything, and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian).

All pretty much on par with his piece on meat over-consumption, titled “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler,” and his talk at 2007’s EG Conference:

Also on par with a fascinating parable given by chef Dan Barber at the Taste3 Conference last July involving foie gras and the goose farm of Eduardo Sousa in Spain:

As with The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan and his open letter to President-elect Barack Obama, and his talk at 2007’s TED Conference:

Leading agricultural reformers Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry also posted an op ed in the New York Times a few days ago calling for sustainable husbandry practices in the American agricultural industry, which mirrors a piece in early December on BBCNews titled “Food Needs ‘fundamental rethink’.”

Most of us are far too ignorant of how our food, both plant and animal, is produced. We fail to realize the strains it takes to accommodate for the gluttonous society that we have created. Thanks to the industrialization of agriculture, forgotten are the rural farms in favor of the super-farms and super-slaughterhouses that fuel our nations’ thirst for cheap food. Nevermind the taint of pesticides on our fruits and vegetables, and in our soil and groundwater, nevermind the massive amounts of petrol it takes to haul our food to the supermarket all across the nation, nevermind the taint of hormones and antibiotics injected into the beef and pork and poultry that most of us eat, nevermind the fact that we are putting these taints in our bodies passively refusing ourselves from considering whether if the chemicals used on our food is trickled onto our dinner plates (or fast food tray) or if the chemicals magically disappear and thus not inflicting harm us or the environment. Out of sight, out of mind.

Unfortunately, things don’t magically disappear just because it’s bad. Assuming there is or are Gods, they probably won’t be saving us from the sins that we’ve inflicted upon our global ecology, and unwittingly and ignorantly on ourselves. SciAm ran a story today about the trickle-down effect of chemicals and our beef, fruits and vegetables. Basically, the antibiotics injected in our beef is found in the manure used to fertilize the soil that is used to grow our fruits and veggies. According to the article, tests conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that the veggies contained concentrations of the antibiotics used in the beef that produced the manure.

All this, and considering everything that is unwittingly introduced into our water supply, and into other food sources (i.e. mercury levels in fish and shellfish) as a result of our societies’ practices, it’s no wonder why instances like cancer, heart and respiratory problems, developmental disorders like autism, &c. are occurring on an alarming scale. The FDA is reluctant to do anything to exacerbate the ConAgras of the nation who would rather take their business and their jobs north or south of the border or elsewhere where they can operate cheaper rather than act proactively for the health and wellness of the consumer.

It’s the consequence of living in a reactive society as opposed to a proactive society. We act reactively to disaster, and often only act proactively, having already crossed the point of no return. Unless the chemicals being pumped into the foods we eat and earth we dwell begin undeniably causing terminal illness or some sort of retardation or perversion of our minds and/or bodies, nothing will be done.

Well, I’ve ranted enough, and I’ve got things like ecological disruption and mountaintop removal mining and Obama policy percolating in my mind that will surely lengthen this post exponentially, so I will say adieu.