Thursday, May 17, 2018

Overheard at the hairdresser

Info is a hairdresser's stock in trade, and Sue is no exception. I've long relied on her, for lore both mundane and arcane. What to do if the dishwasher soap pills don't melt? Which farm has the best raspberries and has the season closed yet? When are Prince Harry and Meghan getting married? Sue knows all.

She also knows people. While I waited for my perm to set, she chatted with another client whose hair she was trimming.

"Going to pick blueberries again this year, Alice?"

"Sure. This will be my fifth year."

As one does, they included me in the conversation. "Tell her how old you are," suggested Sue, "and how you got the job."

"I'll be ninety-five in August." I goggled as Alice continued. "I went there for U-pick berries. When I got to the cashier, she was impressed by how much I'd picked in half an hour. She asked me if I wanted a job." She smiled. "First, I thought she was kidding. But she wasn't. I thought it over and told her I'd give it a try. That was five years ago."

She was ninety at the time. Three years older than Queen Elizabeth.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Nine Continents by Xiaolu Guo

The title Nine Continents is a Chinese expression meaning the whole country, or the whole world. The title of the memoir refers to a prediction an elderly monk made about the little girl to Xiolu's grandmother: she would see it all.

Matter-of-factly, Guo describes the brutal privations of her childhood in the isolated coastal village where she spent her first seven years. Family life meant semi-starvation, no education, and almost no conversation. Watching her illiterate granddad beat his wife was "normal." At the same time, the child knew her lame grandmother loved her, and she returned that love.

This book contains shocking moments, public and private. An encounter with a Chinese embassy official in London catapults her into a new phase with jarring suddenness.

The unexpected news that her parents are to visit her in London awakens suppressed memories that underline the dismal state of the parental relationship. "I had no memory of a motherly look," and "the culturally programmed habits of duty...had made me guilty from the very beginning, as the unworthy, wayward daughter." All this "killed any natural love I might have had for my birth family." Though her father does treat her kindly, nobody has ever told her why she didn't see her parents or brother until she was seven, when they came and took her from her widowed granny.

With brutal directness, the author develops her themes of alienation and dislocation. "Masculinity for me was a kind of foreign occupation, which I could take temporarily." The aftermath was "a fearful state of confusion." More than this, "a granite hardness had grown inside me since I was a child" resulting in "a hard knot or core that couldn't be loosened."

On scholarship at film school in Beijing, Xiaolu Guo lived through a brief flowering of free artistic expression that followed the violent suppression of the Tienanmen Square protests in 1989. But, she says, "The time of underground artists is now well and truly over in China. These days, artists are either state-sanctioned, in prison, or exiled in the West."

For awhile, Guo earned a living writing TV scripts in China. She also travelled around the country with an American student who was studying Chinese. A Beijing concert commemorating the death by suicide of Nirvana rocker Kurt Cobain inspired her first book: 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth. Originally published in China, this was reworked later and published in English.

Xiaolu Guo felt drawn to the West, and wanted to escape her birth country. She explains, "It was the culture of masculinity in China that I was revolting against, a fact that was inextricably linked to all my bad experiences with the old traditions."

After winning the International Chevening Scholarship the National Film School in London, she soon began to write again. Still far from fluent in English, she made a courageous decision, and "the desire and will to work on a first book in English propelled me through the difficulties." The result was her first novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. This book was well received and widely translated.

In her memoir, Guo comments insightfully on the socio-linguistic challenges that accompanied her choice of first person narration. "In China, no one is a separate entity: either you were born to a non-political peasant household or to a Communist Party household. But here, in this foreign country, I had to build a world as a first-person-singular -- urgently."

With dispassionate clarity, she also explains the thinking that lay behind her choice of English for her first book written in the West. "I would use my broken English, even though it would be extremely difficult. And yet, more positively, I would be free from state and even more significant issue for me as a Chinese writer."

She calls state censorship "an assault on our creativity," adding that, "few Chinese writers actually acknowledge the serious and endemic issue of self-censorship." This was another hurdle she had to overcome. "We in China had undergone a proletarian revolution under Mao, and yet there was barely a free thought in our heads. The layers of self-censorship we had to engage in before the official censorship came to get us had already strangled any creative work...Creativity under a Communist regime requires...all creative thoughts to be kept to oneself."

The author's unstinting self-revelation makes her story irresistible. All day I sat on the porch reading, and when the fading light drove me indoors, I couldn't go to bed until I finished the tale of this astonishing life. The book ends on a note of hope, with Guo and her partner preparing for a trip to China with their new baby. On this visit, she feels calmer, and knows who she is. "Being an artist defines who I am. Not my passport, my gender, my language, or my skin colour."

For me, the settings were especially evocative. A month ago, I saw Beijing and parts of Zhejiang province as they are now. Thanks to Guo's evocative descriptions of her homeland, I could then imagine these places as they were a quarter of a century earlier.

The book also revealed information that was new to me. I had not realized that the novel is a new literary form in Chinese. Guo's words also filled in some of the recent history and the strange contradictions of this fascinating and influential country. Today China is both communist and capitalist, progressive and conservative, and equally proud of its ancient history and post-modern lifestyles.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Douglas Todd: rational talk about controversial topics

What is real? How then shall we live? These are the great questions that guide Douglas Todd as he attempts, through his columns, to generate rational discussion about controversial issues.

Todd's column in the Vancouver Sun mainly covers issues related to spirituality, migration, and diversity. His May 9 talk to Canadian Authors covered five themes: Foreign capital, Sikhism related news, Men's issues, Ethnic Diversity and Flirting versus Harassment. He also read snippets from recent columns and invited participation from a keen audience.

To write what he does means Todd must find courage to stand up to a lot of flak. Some of his columns have generated fear and hesitation before going to press, and Todd had to learn that his skin "is only so thick."

Today, many well-meaning people think certain topics are off-limits. Just as Victorians felt it was not nice to talk about sex, contemporary journalists fear conversations about race, lest they be called racist or xenophobic. When diversity journalism is expected to cover "just the positives," writing with rationality and balance is "risky." A major factor is identity politics. Putting group identity first "divides us, and hides the common good." Indeed, opines Todd, the liberal elite has "led to strongman figures like Trump and Doug Ford."

But there's more at stake than "political correctness" or "virtue signalling." In the nineties, when the first big influx of Hong Kong real estate investment dollars arrived in Vancouver, white real estate developers pulled the racist card to silence critics of their policies. This went on "for three decades." Former mayor Sam Sullivan, now housing critic for the BC Liberals, came after Todd for revealing facts the real estate industry wanted kept under wraps. Tycoon Bob Rennie threatened a SLAPP suit.

This, in spite of Todd's meticulous journalistic accuracy, and his inclusion of opinions from varied sources. One way to protect himself is to quote local Chinese on real estate prices, and Sikhs when he discusses issues in their community. With only 1% of Canada's population, they are "hugely important politically," and currently hold 12% of the seats in Parliament. Columns have involved in-depth interviews to unearth inside views of Sikh psychotherapists about their own culture.

Long a fan of his columns, I've found them meticulously researched and eminently rational, fair and balanced. I learned a lot from his talk, and enjoyed meeting Doug Todd in person, the more so when I learned he doesn't often give public talks. From a recent column, I knew that at UBC, we had shared a favourite professor -- the late Dr. Hanna Kassis, remembered by Todd a "Canadian pioneer in Islamic Studies" who "crossed tense boundaries." I've since discovered other parallels, including the fact that like me, Todd studied Arts I at UBC.

I also learned some hard facts. Here's a fascinating example. Excluding foreign-worker-fuelled Brussels and Dubai, Toronto and Vancouver are the two most hyper-diverse cities in the world, with about half their people foreign-born. (New York has 25% and LA 30%). In sharp contrast, in China, Mumbai and Manila, only 1% are foreign born. This is interesting. What might be the implications of the fact that many of those settling here have so little experience in living with diversity?

"I want to write about things people avoid, but it gets me in trouble." Seems that's the cost of honest dissent. To find the common good for society, we need to have difficult conversations about hot issues that affect us all. Keep up the good work, Douglas Todd.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Himalayan Blue Poppy

A friend spotted this poppy as we walked through the Van Dusen gardens. Seeing the Himalayan Blue reminded me of my attempt to grow one. I sent away for a root of this rare flower and planted it according to the fussy directions on the package, being careful to give it neither direct sun nor full shade. This flower prefers "mottled light."

In due course, the plant grew and came into bud. The blue was already visible and the petals ready to burst from the bud when I made a tragic mistake: I moved the pot.

I had mistakenly thought the new position was an improvement. Evidently the poppy disagreed. The single bud dropped off without opening, and the plant never developed another. Though I haven't tried to grow this type of poppy again, I still think they're beautiful.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Whimsically named plants seen in Van Dusen Garden

The name Caucasian Leopard's Bane raises questions. Does it banish all leopards or only Caucasian ones?

And I wonder how the plants below merited their names -- Pig Squeak (left) and Stinking Benjamin (right).

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Code Book by Simon Singh

Author Simon Singh admits to forsaking "accuracy for snappiness" in his title, but the subtitle reveals the scope of his book:  The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography. On this fascinating journey through the long history of code-making and breaking, he pauses to relate astonishing stories that demonstrate how "the subject is more relevant today than ever before."

In a fascinating digression, he throws in tales of how curious researchers deciphered ancient languages and scripts by using basic code-breaking principles. Many of these stories suggest that cryptanalysts are born before they're made. Jean-Francois Champollion decoded Egyptian hieroglyphics and Michael Ventris tackled Linear B with a fresh approach that ultimately succeeded. Both decided early that cracking these codes was their life work.

The development of RSA code is another astonishing story. This vital system, which allows internet transactions to be conducted securely, was developed in the 1970s by a team of three Americans who worked long and hard on the problem of coming up with a way of encoding and decoding material that avoided the cumbersome and insecure exchange of keys. This was eventually achieved by devising a system of double encryption involving public and private keys.

Amazingly, unbeknownst to the American team, British government cipher specialists working in secret had developed the same ideas a few years earlier. However, their superiors in GCHQ, the secret facility, forbid them to "go public" with their knowledge. Astonishingly, their achievement was not revealed for about thirty years. But the higher ups had made an error of judgment. This was a war secrecy did not win for the British cryptanalysts. Secure methods of encryption were not destined to remain the exclusive purview of governments and military organizations. With the spread of personal computers, they became absolutely vital to internet trade.

Of course, where there is a code, people will attempt to decipher it. If decryption is difficult or impossible, a roundabout way of spying on private material is the "tempest attack." This allows a snoop to remotely detect keystrokes made by a sender at the outset of transmission. One defense developed against this was a kind of shielding material that can be used to line a room and prevent the escape of electromagnetic signals. An interesting sidelight is the fact that in America, one must obtain a government license to purchase such a shield. This may suggest that "organizations such as the FBI regularly rely on tempest surveillance."

What of the enormous potential for governments and other entities to sift through data and spy anonymously on everyone, just because the technology makes it possible? In the nearly two decades since the publication of Singh's book, these problems have not gone away. On the contrary, they remain very much front of mind as we hear ever more stories about fake news, routine harvesting of data and massive data security breaches that involve multiple countries.

Meanwhile, what if the RSA code should eventually be broken? Singh points to the historic pattern of decoding "unbreakable" ciphers. In fact, "the tale of James Ellis and GCHQ warns us that there may already be remarkable breakthroughs hidden behind the veil of government secrecy." The fact that the US National Security Agency is the world's largest employer of mathematicians is suggestive, to say the least.

Quantum computing is a wholly new technological development, with vastly increased capacity and speed. Computers of this type would make short work of the lengthy calculations that currently make it impractical to break RSA by trial and error. As such, says Singh, it "would jeopardize the security of the world," and present "a potential threat to the individual, to international business, and to global security." If the arrival of quantum computing should result in a gap of security, the results would be unimaginably devastating.

The quantum computer was the latest fortress against which cryptographers and cryptanalysts hurled themselves in an effort to come out on top. The race to develop quantum computers moved forward in tandem with the effort to develop quantum cryptography. First conceived by Stephen Wiesner in the 1960s, an encryption idea that would be proof against them was initially ignored because it was ahead of its time.

Based on the polarization of light, which proceeds according to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Weisner's concept was taken up and developed by Charles Bennett and Gilles Brassard. The resulting process was not only unbreakable, but had the further advantage of revealing any attempt to spy on it. The first practical demonstration took place between two computers in a lab 1988. In 1995, a further demonstration used fiber optics to operate between two towns in Switzerland. At Los Alamos, scientists continued to experiment with the aim of creating a quantum cryptographic system that can operate through air via satellite. Meanwhile, according to an MIT Technology Review article dated February 2018, Quantum Computing is now here.

Singh's book came out in 2000 (Anchor, New York). This was long before the news reports of systematic abuse of personal data on a vast scale for heretofore unimaginable purposes like manipulating elections in foreign countries. Debate was already raging over individual rights to encrypt communications to ensure privacy. Should governments or "trusted third parties" be allowed to hold the keys to personal communications? Recent news stories suggests not.

Simon Singh, a popular writer on science and math topics, raises some fascinating issues and questions. This book reminds us of the vital importance of cryptography in our times. As a bonus for those who enjoy the practical activity of codebreaking, he offers some challenges at the end of the book, as well as on his website.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Human by Design by Gregg Braden

With his new book, Gregg Braden had me with this line:  "Modern humans arose suddenly on earth approximately 200,000 years ago." The few traces of evidence we have suggest the ancients were no different from us. It was nice to hear this from a scientist. Equally intriguing was proof that we didn't descend from Neanderthals. This came to light in 2000 at the University of Glasgow when a 30,000 year-old Neanderthal infant yielded mitochondrial DNA.

The Human Genome Project yielded a further blow to the old Darwinian surmise that humans evolved gradually. Here's a recent finding. Shared by chimps and humans, the FOXP2 gene suddenly and rapidly mutated in humans. This gene is located on Chromosome 2 and implicated in organ development and brain growth. It's also essential for the human capacity to feel compassion.

Moreover, we are creatures of irreducible complexity, which means that a whole host of complex organs, systems and functions need to co-exist in order for our bodies to function. Increasingly, scientific evidence suggests that our species arose suddenly "with no evolutionary path leading to our appearance." Our crucial capacities for emotion, empathy and compassion connect us to one another and to other life forms in a unique way. Yet alone and separate we are not, neither from fellow-members of our species nor from other life forms. In old age, Einstein hypothesized a unified field, "an underlying order of the universe," likening this to a distant and mysterious piper's tune that causes us all to dance.

Astronomer Fred Hoyle and mathematician Chandra Wickramsinghe have calculated the likelihood of our species having evolved through accident based on the number of enzymes necessary for life and the chance of their appearing randomly. They came up with a ludicrously small number: 1 to the power of 40,000. Hoyle suggested that this is about as likely as "a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747 jetliner from scattered debris."

Our thought process is hampered, says Braden, on the one hand, by the baggage of creationist religious doctrine, and on the other, by that of scientific "zealots clinging to fundamentalist evolutionary theory," unproven and even discredited though it may be. We must open our minds to new possibilities.

The brain filters its assessments through past memories and ego considerations, but "the heart knows immediately." Many of us have experienced this in moments of critical decision-making, when we receive the sudden compelling heart guidance to make the right choice. The Heart Math Institute, HMI, has researched the mechanism for this. Deep and conscious breathing creates coherence between heartbeat and brain waves; this leads to optimum cooperation between head and heart, balancing and maximizing human powers of discernment.

Many of us seek to evolve and experience a life of purpose. According to Einstein, "our task must be to free ourselves from this prison [the illusion of separateness] by widening our circle of compassion to all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." This lofty goal, shared by mystics from ancient times, may be unattainable. Yet in striving towards it we find liberation and inner security.

Long a student, proponent and practitioner of heart math, Braden offers exercises, including the Heart Math Institute's set of five simple steps to be used by those who wish to ask questions and receive the wisdom of their own hearts. We need to become more aware, he says, that we affirm or deny our life force through the myriad choices we make daily about food, exercise, words, thoughts and beliefs.

Key to vital longevity is the health of the telomeres that protect our chromosomes. It is within our power to nurture these vital elements of life force, thus maximizing the number of times our cells can achieve the healthy division that keeps us alive.

To heal the problems we see around us today, says Braden, we must give up our basic disrespect for human life. Contemporary societies believe in scarcity and competition. Many see difference as a threat, and act on this belief. Economies too. But we must change our thinking and go another way -- the path of cooperation and collaboration. Braden considers the growth in the sharing economy, exemplified by Uber and Airbnb, to be a hopeful sign that such a change is taking place.

As individuals, we all matter deeply. We can and must make positive changes, says Braden, and to change our erroneous thinking comes first. "How," he asks, "can we make room for the new world that's emerging if we are clinging to the old world of the past?"

As Einstein knew, and as spiritual practitioners from many ancient traditions have long been aware, one important answer lies in cultivating compassion, which is "both a force of nature and an emotional experience that connects us with nature and all life."