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Class Reunion

My college, now a university, was holding a class of 1964 reunion as part of their annual homecoming weekend.  Should I go to the reunion?  I felt some trepidation over that decision.  I’d never attended a class reunion of any sort before.  In fact, I had actively avoided people who were in my school and college classes.  It was an occasion, though.  It was 50 years since I graduated from college.  I might never get another opportunity like this one.  I didn’t keep in touch with the members of my class.  I didn’t know any of them.  They wouldn’t know me, either.  Perhaps that was better.  Perhaps meeting each other as strangers was better too.  They would be more likely to treat me with respect that way.  I decided to do something I’d never done before:  I decided to go.  I even found the beanie I had worn during the initiation ceremony, when I was a freshman all those years ago.

They wanted each member of the class to write up a story about themselves, specifically about what they had been doing for the past 50 years.  I had just read Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, where he writes in great detail about the first half of his life.  I could have written 900 pages too, but I knew that the organizers didn’t want that.  Even though I never pasted labels on bottles, I felt like David Copperfield.  Somehow I was able to compress my whole life into a few hundred lines.  Is anybody going to read it?

At the class of ’64 dinner on the Friday night, I got the opportunity to meet most of the members of my class.  With the exception of two people, they were all strangers to me.  Only the names seemed vaguely familiar.  They had spread out all across Canada.  Most of them came from rural areas in this province.  They lived together in residence and got to know each other from that experience.  I lived within walking distance of the college.  I never knew the other people in my class very well.  I felt like an outsider at the reunion, even though they were very welcoming and pleasant people.  I was impressed that some of them had even read my story.  We also had an open mic session where people told us stories about our class.  Most of these were about people from the residence, people I didn’t know.

There was a basketball game, a barbecue, and a building tour on Saturday.  I skipped them because I wanted to visit with my parents while I was there.  The organizing committee certainly kept things going all day.  I did go to the reunion dinner on Saturday night.  All the classes at the reunion were in one place for that one.  It was quite an impressive event.  Before the meal was served, I wandered around and chatted with people I didn’t know.  Some of them I had met the night before.  I was amazed at how many of them had gone on to distinguished careers and to satisfying lives.  One fellow who had been in the pre-med class had become a specialist in infectious diseases.  All, including me, were retired now.  After dinner we had awards presentations and addresses from leaders of each class.  One of my class, a man who had been in the diplomatic service, gave a longer talk.  It was A Peek at the World.  Even though it was late in the evening, even though it was a long talk, I found every detail to be extremely interesting.  I was amazed at how many secrets he revealed to us.

I’m glad I went, although I expect that I’ll never see all those people again.  The class leaders put a great deal of effort into this reunion, certainly something I appreciated.  No doubt everybody appreciated their effort.  The university also put quite an effort into this reunion.  They even gave me a scarf, in the same colours as that beanie from long ago.   Of course, they want a donation from me.  I will be doing that too.


Oil Causes Cancer

It certainly seemed that way, that oil sands extraction caused cancer in the people who lived nearby.  The settlement of Fort Chipewyan is on Lake Athabasca, only about 200 km downstream from the oil sands operation at Fort McMurray.  About a thousand people live in Fort Chipewyan.  Fort McMurray, on the Athabasca river, is the site of oil sands open pit mines and oil production facilities.  About 60,000 people live there.  A doctor who looked after residents of Fort Chipewyan first noticed the problem.  There was an unusual number of cancer cases in the town.  Had he identified a cancer hotspot?

The government of Alberta decided to find out, in an epidemiological study.  They determimed that the incidence of cancer in Fort Chipewyan was only slightly higher than in the rest of the province, and that the difference was not statistically significant.  It was certainly not a cancer hotspot.  They did identify three types of cancer that were somewhat above normal.  Two of these had known causes, causes that were clearly not related to the proximity of the oil sands development.  The third type had no known cause, meaning that it might also be unrelated.  There was certainly no clear link to the nearby oil sands operation.

The second study was done by the University of Manitoba.  It utilized a variety of methods, including heavy metal analysis.  They did find an association between eating country food and ill health, as well as one between elevated heavy metal levels and ill health.  Of course, associations don’t indicate that one thing cause another, but only that the two vary together.

I actually have some experience with heavy metals in the environment, specifically with lead, cadmium, and mercury.  With sufficiently sensitive methods of analysis, these are always present in samples.  That, by itself, means nothing.  Levels higher than ones deemed to be safe are a cause for concern, of course.  Even then, it’s difficult to determine the cause of elevated levels, and difficult to identify them as the cause of disease.  In the case of Fort Chipewyan, both studies have some validity, although they generally do not contradict each other.  My impression is that the Alberta government study has better scientific evidence.


What Can You Trust

There’s been a great deal of controversy about restaurant reviews and review sites in general, recently.  Traditional reviews are not a part of this controversy.  These are usually fairly long, written by well-known authors, and appear in news web sites or newspapers.  They are usually trustworthy, although they surely are spread across a spectrum of validity.  I’ve even seen traditional reviews included with restaurant menus.

The controversy mainly concerns the brief reviews that have begun to appear on web sites that specialize in reviews.  The most recent news has been about fake positive reviews.  Business owners can benefit greatly from positive reviews, providing the incentive to purchase fake ones.  It’s cheap advertizing for the companies.  Web sites do try to remove fake reviews, but people still need to be able to identify them as well.  The new style of reviews are just the personal opinions from customers.  Often they are quite brief, just a few lines or even a row of stars.

Showing just a count of likes or followers is even simpler.  It’s also even more misleading.  You can’t dislike a restaurant, only like it.  Businesses sometimes run contests or offer rewards to entice people to visit their web page.  There’s no way to tell if people really liked the product, or just went there to enter the contest or obtain the reward.

The other side of the controversy is that companies may threaten to sue people who have written negative reviews.  Just a threat is enough for most people to remove the review.  In general, businesses don’t sue their customers.  It’s for the same reason that shopping centres don’t tow their customer’s cars, even though they are parked in a no-parking zone.  Neither of them want the negative publicity that might arise from such and action.

I had a curious example the other day.  I received a flyer from a local company offering snow removal services.  Everything in the flyer seemed very good.  When I did a web search on the company name, I only found a few reviews.  There was perhaps one per site.  All were negative.  This company must have more than three customers.  What do I do now?

I know that people tend to believe online reviews from other customers, more so than something that is obviously advertizing.  I’ve searched for such things myself, always discounting ones where the poster had something to gain.  I see now that I have to be even more skeptical.  Positive reviews can be faked.  Negative reviews can be suppressed.  They all can be advertizing of a more subtle sort.  If it’s a review site, the site’s policy may help you judge the reliability of their reviews.  In any case, look at many of them to come up with a consensus, keeping in mind that some reviews may be fake and that some negative reviews may be missing.


All Soap Operas

I’ve been enjoying Netflix for some time.  I don’t watch ordinary TV because I don’t like commercials, but Netflix doesn’t have commercials.  I started out watching movies, but after a while I’d seen all the movies that appeal to me.  Now I’ve started watching certain TV series, also without commercials.  I generally watch one or two episodes of a series each day, depending on their length.  Compared to a movie, which only runs for a few hours, a TV series can extend for hundreds of hours.  No doubt they have great difficulty finding enough material to extend for that length of time.

One of the series I watch in its entirety was Breaking Bad.  Initially, I was interested in how Walter dealt with events that arose in his life.  I ignored the science because I recognized pretty quickly that it was bogus.  Some of the decisions he made were the same as I might have done, but some of them seemed peculiar to me.  Eventually, he was drawn ever deeper into anti-social behavior, and couldn’t see a way out.  At that point, he entered a world that was quite foreign to me.  Rather than stop watching, I became interested in each of the characters, and how they carried out their predetermined roles.

After that series, I moved to House, MD.  Each episode featured a medical story, and a series of attempts at a diagosis.  At first I found them quite interesting.  After a while, though, they became quite predictable.  I’d seen seizures so often that I made fun of them.  The stories also became more and more improbable.  I checked on one later, and found that it had only happened once, and that was in a different part of the world.  After a while, they began to repeat some of the medical stories.  Again, I switched my attention to the characters, House and Wilson.  I wanted to see how they worked out their problems in life.

I also watched a British TV series, Midsomer Murders.  Like all murder mysteries, the crimes were quite improbable.  Most murders are crimes of status, where one young man pulls out a gun or knife and kills another one.  The circumstances and the culprits are usually well known.  In the stories, though, the crime is carried out in mysterious circumstances.  Everybody in the story behaves in a suspicious manner.  Part of the fun is guessing who is the killer.  Towards the end, the detectives reveal the culprit and explain their reasons.  It’s usually somebody you didn’t even suspect.  Eventually I gave up trying to guess, and turned my attention to the detectives, Barnaby and Jones.  Their behavior seemed normal for the lives that they led, although I’m sure their lives were quite fanciful.  Nobody has to deal with that many mysterious murders, week after week.

My experience was that all of these TV series evenually became soap operas.  I began with an interest in what the characters were doing, but eventually gave that up, and focused on the characters themselves.  I don’t know if that was the intention of all the people that created these stories, but that was how I found them.  I wouldn’t choose to watch a soap opera, but I was led into watching them.  I wonder if other people have had the same experience?


Military Bases

It’s curious that the same thing is happening quietly, in different parts of the world.  In Iraq, the US wanted al-Maliki to step down in favour of an inclusive government.  He refused to do so.  He also refused to sign an agreement that would authorize US military bases in Iraq.  Pretty soon, though, al-Maliki did step down, to be replaced by two politicians leading a coalition government.  The two of them signed the agreement, although you will have trouble confirming that they did so.

There was a similar situation in Afghanistan.  Karzai also would not agree to US military bases in his country, even as he came to the end of his term as president.  In the subsequent election, two candidates got almost the same majority vote.  The US urged that they form a government of national unity.  The situation was resolved when the two of them formed a coalition government.  They also signed the agreement for military bases.

It was somewhat different in the Philippines.  Their constitution does not permit permanent foreign military bases on their territory.  The US already had two.  They solved that dilemma by declaring them temporary.  In April, president Obama visited the Philippines to announce an expansion of the bases.  The additional personnel were there for training purposes.  Once again, the agreement was signed.

I understand that the US has over 1000 military bases outside of their own country.  They certainly got what they wanted in Iraq and Afghanistan.  No other country has anything approaching their military power.  That’s the world we live in.  Even the agreements are loosely worded and subject to interpretation.  The bases could be used for purposes that nobody expected when they were signed.  Do you feel more secure now?




Up Against a Wall

I just read an article on the BBC web site about a newly-discovered cave painting in Indonesia.  The cave art at this site is at least as old as the oldest paintings at the famous sites in southern France.  Creative activity of all kinds seems to be normal behavior of our human species.

Stephen Jay Gould wrote about cave art in France and Spain in his essay Up Against a Wall.  This essay documents early attempts to establish a time sequence for the paintings, based on style and quality of the artwork.  They assumed that the sequence followed a progression from primitive to modern that fit well into later development of art in Europe.  Stephen Jay Gould argues that all of the paintings were done by our human species, and that we and our artistic abilities remained the same all the time we were in Europe.  Subsequent radiocarbon dating showed that the highest quality art was also the oldest.  This cave art only shows regional and personal variation, not a general trend at all.

I have a geology book from 1912.  The last chapter of this book has a table of all of the human fossils that were known at that time.  There were only four.  A few years earlier, in Charles Darwin’s time, there were none.  One of the four was the famous Piltdown man, know known to be a fake.  People believed it was real, at least in part, because they were certain that ancient humans existed in England before they migrated to the European continent.  Their hopes were dashed when Piltdown man was shown to be a fake.

Stephen Jay Gould also wrote a book called The Mismeasure of Man, where he described how people attempted to use scientific methods to show that Europeans were superior to all other races of man.  I suppose it seemed natural to them that European civilization, language, and religion were the pinnacle of human development, and that all others were inferior.  All of these attempts failed, but that did not stop people from making finer and finer distinctions to prove what they already knew.  No doubt their descendants in other parts of the world inherited this curious attitude.

If we go back far enough, we are all Africans.  All of the evidence makes it clear now that most, if not all, of human evolution took place in Africa.  There were many radiations of successful human species from Africa to Europe and Asia.  The last one was our species, beginning about 100,000 years ago.  Humans are the same all over the world.  That’s our heritage.


Punishing Suspects

There’s an ancient principle of law, arising from the Roman era:  A person must be presumed innocent until proven guilty.  This is a widespread civil right, even for people who are accused of or charged with a crime.  It means that you can’t punish suspects until they have been convicted.  Unfortunately, this principle is being eroded in a variety of situations.

In many places, police can confiscate funds or property if they believe that a crime has been committed.  In Manitoba, it’s mostly small amounts of money from suspected drug dealers.  They call it possible proceeds of illegal activity.  Generally, there’s no further proof and no attempt by the person to retrieve their money.  This article from the Free Press complains about the activity.  In some US states, the practice is even more blatant and widespread.

Some countries revoke the citizenship or the passport of a person who leaves the country with the intention to fight for an enemy group.  Some countries only do this for people with dual citizenship.  The problem, of course, is that they are only suspected of aiding the enemy.  They also can’t oppose this action in court because they can’t re-enter the country without a passport.  This is certainly a case of suspects being punished by limiting their right to travel and return home.  They should at least get their day in court in their own country.

Drone strikes are even worse.  None of the people being killed have been convicted of a crime.  This is a case of suspects being executed without valid legal process.  Sometimes they are not even identified before being killed.  Sometimes innocent civilians die along with the suspect who was the target of the rocket.  The flimsy legal justification can’t be allowed to overrule the ancient legal principle.

Labelling people as members of a reviled group has powerful effects.  It encourages public prejudice.  It makes it easier to deprive people of their civil rights.  The public sees them only as unpatriotic foreigners, different from themselves.  Society must accomodate a diversity of opinion and belief in order to protect itself.

The current epithet is terrorist.  The public seems willing to believe the accusation, even without proof that will stand up in a court of law.  Even well-respected authors invited to address a conference have been barred by such accusations.  Before that it was communist.  Nobel prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez was kept out of the US because of that one.  Even before that, it was bolshevik.  That was the term used for the strikers in the 1919 general strike in Winnipeg.

You can’t punish suspects.  We must defend anyone who is being punished without being convicted, even if we don’t like the person or the group to which they belong.  It’s the only way.



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