Archive for February, 2012

Since Christmas, I have been dabbling on a couple of dating sites. I’m doing so diffidently, not really looking for another relationship, but urged by friends to move past being widowed, and finding my distaste for the traditional gender roles even stronger now – if that’s possible – than when I was young. Undoubtedly, in this (as in so many things) I have the wrong attitude, but I’m not expecting much from the efforts.

One of the arguments that is supposed to justify dating sites is that you meet more people that way, and therefore you are likelier to find someone compatible. That sounds reasonable, and, for many people, probably is. But I say with neither pride nor shame – just an admission of the obvious – that in many ways I fall outside the statistical norm.

I mean, let’s stop and summarize: intellectual interests, geeky inclination. Strong interest in art and music, as well as heavy physical exercise. I can practically hear the odds of success dropping as I itemize my traits. People like me are rare, and the chances that any remotely similar woman of the right age will be hanging out on dating sites rarer still. So having a larger potential audience doesn’t help me much, because it’s the wrong audience for me.

Yet, even putting that problem aside, I’m skeptical that the techniques of the dating sites will make finding a match easier. Just because someone has similar interests doesn’t mean their temperament is compatible with mine. For example, one person might be interested in art because they have artistic ambitions – perhaps thwarted ones. Another might enjoy being a patron of the art. Still someone else might enjoy an in-depth study of artistic technique. None of these people will necessarily find each other compatible. Each might actually be abhorrent to the others.

Now multiply that by the dozens of interests and attitudes that dating sites drag out of those who sign up. Very quickly, you’re back in randomness again.

Just as importantly, the personal traits are as apt to drive people apart as together. If I were to say that any woman I find must have a deep sense of social justice, I am only telling the truth. Yet the language I’ve used is the language of the political left. From experience, I know there are conservatives and middle of the roaders with a strong sense of social justice who demonstrate their beliefs by working long hours for particular causes, many of which I could also support. Yet by my statement, I’ve probably just excluded any such people from considering me.

The same works the other way, of course. To be truthful (and there’s not much point to the whole exercise if I’m not), I have to say that I’m an agnostic. Or, as one site puts it, “neither religious nor spiritual.” This dismayed one woman, who thought it meant I had no interest in such matters, instead of simply saying that I didn’t belong to any particular organization. As a kind of pantheist, she wanted a soul mate who felt the way she did, and I sounded crippled to her, like someone tone-deaf but also somehow reprehensible.

In fact, I am widely read on the subject of religion, as well as related philosophical topics such as morality and purpose, and would be happy to discuss such subjects, at least for an evening. Yet, because of the categorization, she excluded the possibility of getting to know me – a mistake that would be far less likely were we to meet in person, because my interest in such matters would have become obvious from my conversation.

The truth is, the data that online dating sites collect isn’t much useful even to establish general preferences. If asked, I would say that I would prefer not to date a smoker. Yet I lived with a smoker for fourteen years until she quit. The same could be equally true of body type, ethnicity, or any other preference I might express. For all the insistence on scientific matching techniques (based, inevitably, on “proprietary algorithms”), dating sites simply borrow the prestige of science to justify their existence.

That leaves me to judge people by their pictures and be ashamed of my shallowness, or to make hasty decisions based on the traits I think I would prefer and what I think other people’s answers might mean. Yet for all the elaborate preparation, I’m still missing some of the essentials of attraction – how a woman moves, her body language, her conversation, her attitudes – until very late in the game. Before I can even experience such things, I have to go through a maze of arbitrary choices that, despite all rationalizations, have no better than a random chance of ensuring that I end with anyone who’s compatible. In fact, I sometimes wonder if random chance would give me a better chance of finding company for an evening, let alone someone I wanted to invite into my life. In the end, I’m only really guessing about the people with whom I’m supposed to be a match, taking part in a digital meat market which feels faintly crass.

Online dating sites often suggest that they are much more efficient than meeting someone by attending a meetup group, taking a night school course, or other traditional means of meeting people. But if you don’t meet someone by traditional means, at least you’ve had a night out and maybe learned something. By contrast, all an online site does is invite you to buy – literally — into an elusive dream of the future while giving you little hope of anything in the present. In fact, like a casino, dating sites depend on most people being unsuccessful while promoting their few chance successes to keep them coming back.

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YVR, Vancouver’s airport, is noted for its collection of local First Nations art. I’ve wanted a tour for over a year, but they aren’t always easy to come by, since they involve weaving in and out of security areas. However, today my chance came at last. Together with Ann Cameron, the editor of Coastal Art Beat and my colleague on the YVR Art Foundation board, we followed Rita Beiks, the airport’s art consultant, back and forth through the terminal until I was throughly lost, but marveling at the airport’s collection.

We met at the foot of Don Yeoman’s “Celebrating Flight,” a four-story pole that mixes Haida mythology with Celtic knotwork and a greeting in Chinese. The knotwork and Chineese characters, Rita said, replaced the originally planned figures because of some knots in the wood that made the figures impossible. By itself, the pole is impossible to photograph without a crane and bucket, but when you realize (as I had not) that everything from the panels representing the northern lights at the top to the mosaic on the floor and the moon some distance away are all part of the installation, then taking a complete picture becomes even more impossible.

From the pole, we walked to the terminal’s best-known installation: Bill Reid’s “Jade Canoe,” version of “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii.” The “Jade Canoe” is a copy of the “Black Canoe” at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C. However, while the “Black Canoe” is barely visible for security reasons, the “Jade Canoe” is so accessible that people have rubbed the bronze patina off the paddles and some of the other reachable parts of the sculpture. A sign telling people not to climb the sculpture is necessary, and the tradition has grown up that rubbing Mouse Woman’s nose is good luck.

Rita gave a brief history of the negotiations for the piece, which cost three million – an unheard of figure for an airport to spend on art in the early 1990s, and mentioned that the piece was orginally intended to have a copper patina, and changed to bronze only after a phone call from airport official Frank O’Neil to Reid, who at the time was in intensive care. She also pointed out that Lutz Haufschild’s “The Great Wave Wall,” which replaces the nearby windows on the terminal, was chosen as a suitable backdrop to Reid’s iconic piece.

Leaning over the railing, we looked down at the arrival level to Nu-chu-nualth artist Joe David’s “Clayoquot Welcome Figures.” Originally carved for Expo 67, the figures are on permanent loan from the Vancouver museum. Their popularity is so great that they needed a railing to protect them; even so, money is still regularly found in their hands.

We then moved into the secure area for departure and arrivals. Strangely enough, Rita and Brenda Longland, the airport official with us, both had to submit to the usual inspection of their belongings, while Ann and I sailed through without any problems with our visitors’ badges.
We passed display cases with the works of YVRAF scholarship winners from 2010, including Latham Mack’s Nuxalk mask and robe, and Todd Stephen’s drum. Like the other scholarship pieces scattered throughout the terminal, these pieces will be on display until June 2012, when they will be replaced by the work of the 2011 scholarship winners.

The next permanent display was the Pacific Passage in the arrivals area, a combination of diorama and original art.

I had seen the Pacific Passage several times, but always after a long flight that left me rushing to the fresh air, and uninclined to give the art treasures on display more than a passing glance.
That was a mistake on my part, because the display is well worth lingering over. It is dominated by Connie Watt’s thunderbird.

Also in the area is an aluminium panel by Lyle Wilson and a canoe by Tim Paul, as well a number of smaller pieces. Bird sounds start as soon as you enter the area, and I was amused to see the swallows who live in the terminal sheltering in the empty eagle’s nest that was added to the dioramas for realism.

Walking down the overhead walkways, we stopped next at the Musqueam Welcome area, the contribution of the First Nations people on whose territory the airport stands. According to Rita, Frank O’Neill, the airport official responsible for the idea of the First Nations collection, was convinced of the need for the area when the Musqueam chief told him that not having the local nation included there would be like having a sign in Ireland saying, “Welcome to the United Kingdom.”

Accordingly, arrivals are greeted first by the Musqueam, and then by Canada. One of the first sites arrivals see is Susan Point’s giant spindle whorl set against a waterfall – an impressive site even if you have been flying all night (although the palms to each side are incongruous; can’t native plants be used instead?).

Turning to the stairs and escalators that lead down to the custom booths, the first thing arrivals see are free-hanging samples of Musqueam weaving.

Moving to the steps and escalators, below them arrivals see the Musqueam welcome figures. These were originally carved by Shane Point, but when Musqueam women complained about the sagging breasts on the female figure, it was replaced by the less controversial figure by Susan Point that stands there today.

Only as you descend do you appreciate the sheer size of the figures; by the time you are on the same level, you realize that they are enormous.

Our next stop was the artificial river that begins with an installation by Tahltan master carver Dempsey Bob, and winds down to an oceanic aquarium dominated by another piece by Haisla master Lyle Wilson.

Bob’s piece is “Fog Woman and Raven.” It is based on the tale of how Fog Woman, mistreated by her husband Raven, gathers up all the salmon from the streams and smoke houses, and prepares to depart the world with them. A little stiffer than many of Bob’s works, it is still a piece worth lingering over because of the details like the salmon caught in Fog Woman’s hair.

The figures are carved from laminated blocks of cedar – an expensive process that is rarely done because it involves shutting down a mill for the better part of a day. In fact, the first laminted block for Fog Woman was found to be punky inside, and had to be abandoned.

Bob’s tableau is surrounded by chairs, and would be a pleasant piece to linger beside, but, unfortunately no food vendors are nearby, so nobody does. Annoyingly, too, small merchandise displays are crowding the piece (we asked a cashier to move an obscuring sign, but it was back when we passed by again half an hour later)

At the far end of the river, Lyle Wilson’s “Orca Chief and the Kelp Forest” rest on top of an aquarium of fish, so that the chief lies half hidden in the kelp made from glass and looks down at the subjects whom he protects. Rita says that few people look up, and reactions to Wilson’s piece proves her point, since most people looked at the fish moving back and forth, but few ever glanced up to see the art above them.

Our last major stops on the tour were two pieces by Steve Smith. The first, “Freedom to Move,” is a series of painted panels that are intended to slow people down in their hurry through the airport.

Unfortunately, the piece is squeezed into a space too small for it, and the pool that is supposed to surround it is dry, but Smith still managed to slow me down for an appreciative moment or two.

The second of Smith’s installations, “Sea to Sky,” named for the highway to Squamish and Whistler, is a series of drums hung beneath a sky light. What we saw was the second version of the piece, parts of the first having been damage by temperature problems, crumbling with a sound like artillery one winter day (fortunately without anyone being hurt. Smith took advantage of the incident to paint bolder designs, and sold what remained of the first version.

These are only some of the collection we saw today. There were also a number of pieces by Roy Henry Vickers that were originally part of a longhouse that has since been destroyed. The longhouse’s pillars and several other designs are now temporarily scattered throughout the airport, most of them unlabeled.

Display cases throughout the terminal also carried such treasures as Hazel Wilson’s famous “Golden Spruce” blanket, which commemorates the recent felling of a particular tree famous in Haida mythology, Tim Paul’s “ClearCut and Dressed,” and some outstanding non-native work by local artists such as Graham Smith. However, enumerating the entire collection would require a blog five times as long as this one.

For lack of time, we also didn’t get to the “Supernatural World” installation by Dempsey Bob, Robert Davidson, and Richard Hunt on the domestic arrivals level. And the only reason Susan Point’s “Cedar Connection” was included in the tour was that we passed it on the way to the Skytrain and the parking lot as we left.

Still, I didn’t feel cheated by any omissions. After four and a half hours, my brain was as numb as my kneecaps. I had taken in as much art as I could appreciate for the day, and rode the Skytrain home, full of the dazed content that comes from prolonged exposure to fine art.

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If you’ve spent any time in feminist circles, you may have heard of the Bechdel Test. It’s a simple set of criteria whose application reveals the lack of attention given to women in movies and TV shows. However, there are problems with it – especially when it’s used as a reason to like or dislike drama.

The Bechdel Test originated in a 1985 episode of Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip called “The Rule.” In the strip, one character tells another that she only watches a movies if:
a.) It has two women in it;
b.) Who talk to each other
c.) About something besides a man

The character adds that the last movie she was able to see was Alien, where “the two women in it talk to each other about the monster.”

As a comment about how much women and their concerns are ignored in popular culture, The Bechdel Test is apt. The three criteria set a very low standard, which makes the fact that so many movies and TV shows can’t meet them a pithy comment on modern drama.

However, as the comment about Alien might be meant to suggest, a movie can pass the Bechdel Test and still not be much concerned with women’s daily lives – let alone qualify as feminist.

The reverse might also be true. A romantic comedy like When Harry Met Sally or The Princess Bride would probably fail the Bechdel Test (I haven’t checked). Yet considering that such movies are all about relationships between the sexes, it seems overly strict to insist that any conversations between two women in them shouldn’t be about a man. What else do people in love talk about except those who attract them? Similarly, unless the setting is modern, can you reasonably expect a war movie to have two women in it?

In practice, too, the Bechdel Test’s third criterion – the subject of the women’s conversation – is not always so easy to apply.

For example, in the half dozen episodes of The Good Wife that I have watched so far, the lead character and the investigator at the law firm she works at regularly talk about their cases, which would seem at first to means that the series passes the test.

Yet in several of those talks, the investigator refers to the sex scandal that sent the lead character’s husband to jail in the first three minutes of the pilot episode. Are those references enough to make the series or a particular episode fail? Moreover, if you argue that overall tendency is what matters, then everything in the series is framed by the title, which implies that every second of every show is about the lead character’s relationship with her husband.

Still another limitation of the Bechdel Test is that it mostly ignores context. A frequent modification of the Test is that the women characters should be named, but that is only one small part of the problem. What is the bias in the actual words? Is the conversation filmed for the male gaze? Even more importantly, is the conversation central to the main plot? The ways that the women’s conversation can be trivialized are almost endless. Yet the Bechdel Test takes nothing into account except checking off three highly generalized points.

I understand and sympathize with the point the Bechdel Test tries to make. But even by its own concerns, it is lacking. Besides, in the end, the idea of checking off criteria to make a judgment on a piece of art leaves me cold – and, the more I think of what is happening, the more appalled I become. The Bechdel Test simply doesn’t deserve the attention it’s been given by feminists. But, to be fair, perhaps it was never meant to.

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Last year, I started the Northwest Coast Art Meetup Group. But the assistant organizer proved unreliable, and, I couldn’t afford renting meeting space in downtown Vancouver every month – a necessity, since I’m in the suburbs. Lacking support, I stepped down as organizer. But I regretted the failure, and was as pleased as I could possibly be when Stacey Jessiman. took over and announced a new meeting.

Last night, a half dozen of us met at Stacey’s house on the west side of Vancouver to hear Bill McClennan, a curator at the Museum of Anthropology, deliver a slide show on the recently-concluded Charles and Isabella Edenshaw exhibit. Meeting in her house helped to keep the atmosphere informal, and the expenses down.

Charles Edenshaw is generally considered the premier Nineteenthh Century Haida artist, and recently his wife Isabella has received the credit she deserves for spruce root weaving of baskets and hats, many of which were painted by her husband. The show at the Museum was an unprecedented bringing together of his silver work (although not, unfortunately, his argillite carving) and her surprisingly well-preserved weaving, and I had visited it twice in the last year.

Not that I objected to seeing slides of some of the pieces, many of which came from private collections or distant museums, and aren’t easy to see. Charles Edenshaw’s work, with its use of negative space, remains surprisingly modern, especially in its use of blank space – perhaps because he heavily influenced artists like Bill Reid and Robert Davidson. Similarly, I am intrigued by the thought that Isabella’s work has distinct knots and patterns that, to an expert, identifies it as hers.

In addition, Bill did a good job of putting the Edenshaws in context, showing surviving pictures of the houses where they lived, and even the general store on the banks of the Skeena where Charles Edenshaw sold his art while Isabella Edenshaw labored in the salmon canneries down the beach.

However, I was equally intrigued by Bill ‘s behind-the-scenes account of the exhibit. The Edenshaws’ descendants number in the hundreds, and perhaps a quarter attended a private viewing and celebration the night before the official opening.

For example, Bill relates that as the descendants entered the exhibit’s gallery, he was surprised to see that many left quickly. Apparently, some were concerned that the spirits connected to the pieces were upset by the chaos of the crowd, and only re-entered after elders performed a ceremony to calm the atmosphere.

Bill also explained that, at any exhibit, some pieces always receive more attention than others, and that he was curious to see what those pieces would be at this one. To his surprise, the main attraction was a blown-up photograph of Isabella Edenshaw. Although the Haida were forced to become patrilineal by English and Canadian society, matrilineal remnants are still strong among the Haida (so much so that some thought the patrilineal descendants shouldn’t be invited), so Isabella was of of more interest than Charles. Many, too, were interested in the Edenshaw’s four daughters for the same reason, and some had never seen pictures of their female ancestors.

In fact, interest was so strong that the pictures were carried out of the gallery into the main hall for the celebration. In the slides Bill showed, the pictures stand in the background, almost, as he said, as though Isabella and her daughters were waiting to speak or to enter the dance floor. For me, hearing about these personal touches helped me to recognize that the exhibit was not just an artistic event, but a cultural and familial one as well.

This information was delivered informally, with Bill propped against a cushion on the floor next to the projector, and the rest of us arranged on the furniture around the fire. It was an atmosphere that rented space could never have matched, even without the buffet of salad, bread, cheese, and drinks that Stacey prepared.

All in all, I’d call it a successful re-launch. I look forward to the next meetings (although I suggest they be potluck, so that everyone can enjoy them). Obviously, the meetup is now in much more capable hands than before.

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Long ago, I lost count of the classes I taught and the talks I’ve given. The number, though, must be in the hundreds. I can remember only a handful in which I wasn’t nervous beforehand – and they were uniformly disastrous. At least for me, anxiety about speaking in public is normal, so over the years I’ve learned to cope with it.

Notice that I said “cope,” not “eliminate” or “reduce.” In my experience, you can’t eliminate or reduce what actors call flop-sweat, and you shouldn’t even try. I strongly believe that nervousness is unchannelled energy, and the trick is contain and direct that energy so that you release it while speaking, and give your talk an extra edge.

How do I turn that anxiety to my advantage? If the class or talk is especially important, and I feel even more nervous than usual, I make sure that I exercise lightly or moderately in the morning. The exercise bleeds off the excess energy, and leaves enough adrenalin and endorphins in my body that I’m awake and alert.

If possible, I like to eat lightly about two hours before I talk. I don’t want to eat too much, because doing so would make me drowsy. Nor do I want to eat so little that I’m thinking about food when I should be watching how my audience is reacting to my words.

I also want to eat healthily. If I eat junk food, then the sugar rush will be leaving me just about the time I speak. Fruit or fruit juices are usually a good choice, I find.

About half an hour before I speak, I prefer to find a room – or at least a corner – where I can review my written or mental notes about what I wish to discuss. Even if the material is as familiar to me as the ring on my finger, reviewing the notes gives me something to do and reduces any fear that I don’t know the material. Besides, I may discover something new to say that enhances my presentation.

If I am more nervous than usual, a short, slow walk helps. During the walk, I concentrate on breathing regularly, and mentally go over my topic. If possible, I try not to speak to anyone. If talking is unavoidable, I’ll be friendly, but keep my responses to a minimum.

Just before I enter the room where I’ll be talking, I may also do some breathing and visualization exercises. One exercise that has helped for years is to count ten deep, slow breaths, imagining each one descending to my navel and sitting there. Then I take another ten breaths, imagining as I exhale that each breath expands from my navel through my torso and down my arms and legs.

In another exercise, I repeatedly imagine myself drawing a line from my forehead to my navel, my breath following the line. If I am alone, my hand may actually trace the line in the air, almost as though I am closing a zipper.

Both these exercises help to calm me and leave me centered and ready to speak.

Finally, just before I speak, I take a few seconds to look over the audience. This habit convinces me that the audience is not so fearsome as my imagination made it. But I also imagine that all the nervous energy I’ve been struggling to contain expands like a sphere to include the audience and myself – and, with that, I’m ready to begin.

As I talk, now and then I’ll mentally renew the sphere, sometimes imagining smaller ones reaching out to audience members who seem disinterested. Perhaps it’s a selective memory, or the disinterested audience members simply notice that I’m looking at them, but the visualization usually seems to refocus their attention.

Perhaps this routine is part neurosis or superstition. However, for me it works, so I’m not very tempted to tinker with it. I don’t suggest that everyone follow my routine, but I do suggest that people follow their own. And if any of my routine works for anyone else, so much the better. With a little experimentation, you should be able not only to control your nervousness about speaking, but also use that nervousness to help you speak with more energy and confidence.

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First as a student then as an instructor, I spent three decades in class rooms. Even now, when I step into a class to speak, I am immediately comfortable with my surroundings. So when I attended my first Philosophers’ Cafe last night, I knew exactly what to expect: an informal discussion in informal surroundings by well-educated people. Nor were my expectations wrong.

Philosophers’ Cafes are events organized throughout the Vancouver area by Simon Fraser University, the institution where I earned two degrees and spent five years teaching. Events may take place on a campus, but are just as likely to take place in a library or a cafe. An academic is on hand to coordinate the discussion, and anybody who cares to can drop by to participate.
Topics are usually chosen for their broad appeal, but are diverse. For example, this month, participants could choose from such discussions as “Charity and Justice,” “Michael Blugakov’s Master and Margarita” (in Russian), “Does reason have limitations?”, “Intellectual vs. technological discoveries,” “Is nothing sacred? The ethics of television,” “Are traditional proofs for the existence of God still valid?” and a dozen other topics. The topics remind me very much of the sort of points that I used to argue earnestly in pubs and seminars as an undergraduate, and still occasionally enjoy with intellectual friends.

The session I attended last night was on the topic, “Should we teach religion in public schools?” Although as an agnostic, the topic is not of overwhelming importance to me, I foresaw that it could lead to a number of interesting points. Besides, the location, Nature Gardens’ Organic Deli on University High Street near the SFU Burnaby campus, was close enough to my townhouse that I wouldn’t have wasted much time if the discussion was less than I had hoped.

I arrived early so I could grab a bowl of soup to fortify me for the discussion. Jason Carreiro, the education doctoral student who was the evening’s coordinator, was already there, deep in discussion with one of the deli’s owners. However, I took out my book and kept to myself until the event started, remembering that, when I was teaching, I always preferred to have a few moments to myself before beginning.

About a dozen people participated. All had obvious academic backgrounds somewhere in their past. Besides the deli owner, they included two men who were strongly biased against religion and a third who was mildly so, two Moslem women who were Carreiro’s fellow grad students, a Christian art teacher in a wheelchair with her helper dog, and an education student from Belfast who professed herself to be a Catholic.

After everyone introduced themselves, the coordinator read part of a newspaper article on the topic, and made a few general remarks to get the discussion started. It was exactly as I had hoped – a free-ranging discussion in which maybe two-thirds of those in attendance participated without prodding, distinctions were made, interesting suggestions raised, and tempers only threatened to get out of hand once. But, if voices were occasionally raised, only beliefs and not people were attacked, and, although no consensus was reached during the two hours, people departed amiably enough.

To me, the experience was reminiscent of the round-robin bardic circles I’ve attended at various conferences and conventions over the year. Both are a non-threatening way to enjoy the company of strangers, and left me feeling stimulated and full of good natured espirit d’escalier. Even if other Philosophers’ Cafe sessions turn out to only half as interesting as last night’s, I recommend them as a civilized remedy for midweek boredom, and plan to attend others over the next few months.

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(Last night, I did something stupid. I’m no fonder of looking stupid than anyone else, but I thought I should post a warning, just in case someone else is tempted to let their enthusiasm make them overlook their free software principles and run into grief. The email is addressed to Audible.com, a division of Amazon that specializes in audio books.

I don’t know what, if any response I will get. If I do get a response, I’ll add it at the bottom of the post)

Yesterday, I purchased my first Audible product, The Adventures of Dr.Eszterhazy by Avram Davidson in the Neil Gaiman Presents series. I intend it to be my last.

My complaint is not with the quality of my purchase, which is excellent. In fact, I was so pleased to see the title that I forgot to check thoroughly how Audible distributes its titles.

In that respect, I was perhaps naive. However, the lack of specificness on Audible’s web page also deserves a large portion of the blame. Specifically, the “What is Audible” page does not specify that files remain in a proprietary format. Nor does it indicate that their format is unsupported on Linux, or requires iTunes to play. If anything, the statement that “you can listen to Audible titles anytime, anywhere!” leaves the impression that the files are not locked down in any way — and that is obviously incorrect. Had any of this information been prominently displayed on your site, I would not have purchased.

As things were, I not only bought something that is against my principles, but also had extreme difficulty listening to it. If I hadn’t happened to have an old netbook from which I hadn’t yet removed Windows, I couldn’t have played it at all.

Moreover, even if I were a Windows or Mac user, Audible’s practices add a needless level of complexity to the user experience that would — by itself — discourage my repeat business. I mean, is it really necessary to use a format that requires the installation of its own separate management software?

Audible appears deeply committed to proprietary formats, but if I could possibly get a copy of my purchase in a free audio format (Ogg Vorbis would be ideal), that would do much to alleviate my disappointment.

But failing that, could the company at least attempt not to mislead potential customers about its actual practices? At the very least, a revision of the website seems in order, and would make me feel better about having given Audible my money.

Until these things I happen, I will continue to regret my purchase, and advise my friends not to make the same mistake as I did.

With disappointment,

Bruce Byfield

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Considering how anti-intellectual North Americans are, we show a curious eagerness to justify ourselves by mentioning science. Sometimes we mention science to make our ideas respectable, sometimes to make our prejudices seem true, and other times to dramatize our illnesses and fears, but we almost always do so in a way that shows that we know little about what we talking about.

Evoking science is, of course, a form of appeal to authority, one of the most basic forms of invalid argument. In former times, we might have appealed to God in the same way, but the debating tactic remains the same – by mentioning an unassailable authority, we hope to reinforce our positions while deflating any counter arguments.

Take, for example, many New Age beliefs and medical treatments. New Age practitioners frequently dismiss science as being narrow minded. Yet, when called upon to justify their own beliefs, almost all of them depend on a veneer of science.

Sometimes, they refer at second or third hand to scientists who seem closest to their beliefs, such as Carl Jung, or to discredited studies such as those that claimed to prove the power of prayer.

More often, though, New Agers fall back on pseudo-scientific jargon. By far the most common is to describe what they are doing as a transfer of energy, either from themselves to their clients, or from an inanimate object to a person. Since no trace of such energies has ever been found, at best the reference is a metaphor, but at worst it is simply wrong.

Personally, I’ve always thought that New Agers would do better to come into the Computer Age and talk about a transfer of information, which often can’t be expected to leave any detectable trace. But instead they remain bemired in vague recollections of Newtonian physics, and make dismissing their ideas all too easy.

In other cases, science is mentioned to reinforce prejudice. For example, sexism is often justified by an appeal to biology. If men’s and women’s brains are structured differently, for example, sexists will claim that the two sexes must have different capacities, as well – never mind that no one has ever shown that brain structure and capacity have any relation to one another.

If anything, the fact that the radically different brain structure of parrots does not keep them from having an intelligence at the lower end of the human scale suggests that the differences between male and female brain capacity are trivial or non-existent.

Similarly, many parents claim that behavioral differences between the sexes must be biological because, despite their best efforts, their children act in stereotyped ways. This idea is not only ridiculous in that any connection between our fixed ideas of masculinity or femininity and our DNA seems so remote as to be non-existent, but conveniently ignores the fact that stereotyped expectations are placed upon children from their birth.

In fact, when parents know the sex of their child before birth, they begin talking about the child in stereotyped terms. But the biological explanation sounds better than suggesting we are unaware of our own sexism, and has the added benefit of excusing us from any responsibility.

Science is also used to elevate our infirmities and insecurities. Like someone who has found a book of medical or psychological diagnosis, many of us like to exaggerate our conditions by claiming that we have a recognized condition. If we are always sleepy because we stay up until 2AM every morning, we decide – often without any expert diagnosis – that we have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. If we are anxious, we have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If we have react naturally in a stressful situation, then we have Impostor Syndrome.

By making these self-diagnoses, we make life harder for those who actually have the conditions we have claimed. After all, when people have heard enough spurious claims, they are less likely to believe in genuine ones, or give them any consideration. Through this verbal hypochondria, we create the impression that anyone who claims these conditions must be as insincere or as misguided as we are.

Just as importantly, by claiming a condition, we evade responsibility for doing anything about our behavior. For example, if we acknowledge that we have problems interacting with others socially, then society pressures us to try to improve. But if, like some computer programmers do, we insist that we have Asperger’s Syndrome, then we are freed of any obligation to act better. The fact that Asperger’s Syndrome might indicate that, while we are highly functional autistics, we might also be geniuses doesn’t hurt our self-esteem, either.

But the truth is, we are only being dishonest with ourselves. We are renaming our problems with a scientific name – not to gain understanding but so we can feel better about ourselves without having to do anything. At the very least, we are elevating our problems to a medical drama.

Even practicing scientists, or graduates with science degrees can use science in these ways. Historians of science are a minority, and few of us in any field have any clear idea of what constitutes scientific principles or practices. But the prestige of science! Of that we are all too aware, and we rush to claim it for our own petty reasons.

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“I can’t imagine what that must be like,” person after person has told me, referring to the fact that I’m a widower. I don’t have time to write a book to help them imagine, although referring them to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking might give them some idea.

Instead, let me offer some metaphors.

What’s it like, being alone after the person you lived with for over thirty years has left you in a matter of hours? Very approximately, it’s:

  • Like being a cliff eroded by a storm. You’re still standing, but there’s much less of you than before. Moreover, what’s left is unstable, and could collapse at any time.
  • Like being an amputee, learning to get by without an arm or a leg. Everyone thinks that you’re being brave and doing just fine, but of all the thousands of thing you do each day – walking, reaching for an object – there’s not one you can do without being reminded of what’s missing.
  • Like you’re an inhabitant of Pompeii or Herculaneum, and Vesuvius has finally erupted, raining down the destruction that you always knew was coming, but somehow managed to shove to the back of your mind because of everyday concerns and of the years in which it didn’t happen. Now that the moment has arrived, you’re partly relieved and partly unable to grasp fully that it’s finally happened.
  • Like you’re the first person to see a new color. You can’t begin to describe it, because no one else has the least idea of what you’re talking about. They think you’re making too big a deal of the discovery, and some wonder if you’re not hoaxing them in some way.
  • Like you are trapped far from the door at a party where people are talking about topics that matter tremendously to them – sports, perhaps – but don’t matter the least to you. But you’re expected to be polite and pretend that you share everyone’s enthusiasm, and never talk about what matters to you.
  • Like you are far from home and you learn that it has been bombed, invaded, razed and re-settled. Even though you don’t mind traveling for a while, you realize that you will be traveling for the rest of your life, because you no longer have any place to which to return.
  • Like everything you planned and hoped has become so invalid that you wonder if something is wrong with your brain or your sight and other senses that you could ever have had those expectations.
  • Like someone who worries about their memory failing – not because anything’s wrong with your recall, but because what you remember is so distant from the way you live now that the simplest explanation seems to be that you must have imagined it all.
  • Like you are a Visigoth, Vandal or Hun, camping in the ruins of what you cannot possibly understand. Occasionally, you might take a marble column or a block of stone from the ruins for something other than their original purpose, but you cannot imagine what their original use must have been, no matter how handy the relics might be.
  • Like history has stopped and been replaced by an unending present.