Perpetual Motion

Perpetual Motion

Featured Published Stories Archive

from Vancouver magazine, Nov 2, 2008

If you’re an endangered animal, you’d better hope that human beings find you cute, like a Vancouver Island marmot, or charismatic, like a Grizzly, or majestic, like a whooping crane. Then supermodels and rock stars and Disney animators will make emotional appeals on your behalf, and the general public will feel genuinely sorry for you, and you’re in the clear.

The leatherback sea turtle, whose catastrophic decline in the last two decades has landed it in the “critically endangered” category, isn’t what you’d call cute or charismatic. (Although it is kind of staggering in its primitive grandeur. Adult leatherbacks can grow to the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. They are, pretty much, living dinosaurs.) Its virtues are subtler. The survival of the leatherback is a campaign liable to attract not movie stars but poets, or perhaps philosophers.

The leatherback is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. At least it was until ten years ago, when Todd Jones, then at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton — who would move to Vancouver and become the first scientist to successfully raise leatherbacks in captivity at a lab at UBC —took up their cause. Before then, all we knew about leatherbacks was that they hatched in the dead of night on a tropical beach, scurried down the sand and, if they made it to the ocean alive, started swimming. And then they were gone. Where they went between that instant of departure and the time they waddled ashore, as adults, perhaps twenty years later, nobody knew, (the legendary turtle researcher Archie Carr called this stretch “the lost years”). The leatherbacks were believed to command entire oceans and move into neighbouring ones, their whole lives consisting, Michael Phelps-like, of swimming and eating. (Unlike Phelps, who must occasionally stop to cash endorsement cheques, leatherbacks never stop swimming. They fuel on the go by swimming with their mouths open, their jaws moving.) Because of this cradle-to-nest existence in the open sea, beyond even continental shelves, leatherbacks live in a world without obvious dimensions: infinite space. “They have no concept of barriers,” says Jones. “That was the main obstacle to overcome.”

If you put a leatherback in a tank in a lab, it will swim into the side: bump, bump, bump. It will never make the adjustment. “They’re a deep-diving animal, so they’ll also dive down and hit the bottom of the tank, over and over,” says the 33-year-old zoologist. “They get cuts and abrasions leading to infection and death.” (Leatherbacks are immunocompromised, like AIDS patients – likely because they’ve lived in such a dilute medium, relatively free of bacteria, that they don’t develop much tolerance.) It’s not that they can’t see the walls. “They are visual animals,” says Jones. “They can spy their food and they can go for it. It’s just that they seem to have no grasp of the idea of a barrier. So whether they see the wall or not, they don’t know what it is. They might understand that there’s an obstruction there. But in their life they aren’t really bothered by obstructions. To a leatherback an obstruction is just something you swim around and keep going.”

The very same factors that have made leatherbacks so vulnerable in any container we might hold them for study, are what make them so important. They are at home everywhere we are not. Like very few other species, they have no defined range. The whole unpeopled world is their range. So anything that happens in any marine environment, anywhere – from climate change to overfishing to pollution – affects leatherbacks. It registers in them, in their physiology, in ways scientists like Jones can read. “Leatherbacks,” he says, “are the poster species for the health of the world’s oceans.”

And that, despite the poor odds of success, was why Jones and two colleagues four years ago made a midnight grab of twenty leatherback hatchlings from a beach in the British Virgin Islands. The trio brought them back to UBC in styrofoam coolers they carried on the plane, spritzing them periodically with water to keep them moist.

The question was how to turn a five-by-one-and-a-half metre tank into a boundless universe. Jones had had a brainwave about this. He’d contrived a backpack-like harness, made of soft rubber tubing that would fit over the shells of young turtles so that they’d hang suspended, as if in the open ocean, driving forward against the resistance of 100-pound-test fishing line, their flippers churning slow figure-eights, perpetually. Did Jones’s hatchlings now believe they were back home? It’s impossible to say. But the simple fact that they survived suggests that wherever they thought they were was a place they could live with.

The turtles grew. They hoovered down a diet Jones created to simulate what leatherbacks eat in the wild. (Jones calls it “squid jell-o.”) Jones created an antibiotic regimen to tackle the inevitable infections, and worked out the day/night cycles of artificial light. “It took me easily a decade to get all of this right.” (The feat did not go unnoticed. His research has been widely published, and this year Popular Science magazine included Jones on their list of groundbreaking scientists they call “The Brilliant 10.”)

Jones has the kind of wholesome enthusiasm you see in the hosts of TV science shows for kids. He seems to have ended up exactly where he needed to be — the greatest ally of a creature he could identify with more than most. Jones grew up fishing and surfing and diving and basically wanting to be Jacques Cousteau. In college he allowed himself to be steered into the more lucrative field of ocean engineering, until it dawned on him, two years into the program that “this isn’t even close to marine biology.” He marched into the faculty office and announced he was switching to zoology, coming home. Other people’s plans for you are just an obstruction you swim around and keep going – in Jones’s case, a subspecialty that has required the marathon cadence and all-consuming focus of, well, a leatherback.

Jones’ niche is in a new field of “conservation physiology” – which bridges the interests of his past and current advisors. Conservation and animal physiology don’t seem natural bedmates, but Jones has found a productive cascade of forensics where they join: call it CSI North Pacific.

The idea is that if you look at the micro picture – the metabolism and growth rate of an individual turtle — you can figure out where that turtle, given its energy budget, can go. And once you know where it can go, you look at the macro picture, the environment, for clues about where it will go.

“How much food does a leatherback need?” asks Jones. “To reach adulthood a leatherback will consume 165 tonnes of jellyfish. That’s one turtle. Multiply that by let’s say, 5,000 juvenile leatherbacks in the Pacific. Where are they going to find that much food? So now you bring out the maps.”

He pops open up a Powerpoint demo on his laptop. “Where are the jellyfish? Well, where is their food? Where are the chlorophyll hotspots? Where are the plankton? That’s where the leatherbacks have to go. Can they go there? This is cold water. Can they move into it without blowing their energy budget?” Zero in on the natural leatherback flight paths, Jones says, and you can make marine-protected areas en route.

“We believe you’ll find turtles right there.” He points to a spot in the South Pacific. “But look who’s coming in — Hawaiian long-line fisheries, and Samoan drift gillnet fisheries here. When are the animals moving through? During those periods we should have fishing restrictions.”

Of those original 20 hatchlings scooped off the Caribbean beach, Jones managed to keep 10 of them alive for a year, and four of them alive for almost three years. The four achieved modest fame. They had grown from hatchlings the size of poker chips to small juveniles the size of garbage-can lids, specimens virtually never-before seen. Then came last November’s freak snowstorm that knocked out power to the campus. “Our tanks dropped down to ten degrees Celsius, and once we got the generator going we had to heat one tank at a time,” Jones says. “The turtles survived –but it was hard on them. They went off feeding. A bacterium took hold and moved into the bloodstream. We lost them in December.”

The final leatherback – named somewhat dispassionately “DC-10” — died a few months ago after Jones leant it out for a collaborative study, with several other universities, on how leatherbacks see and hear under water. (The better to learn how to put alarms on fishing nets that will deter turtles from the bait.) “I knew there was a risk, but it was important research,” Jones says. DC-10 was put under a general anesthetic. It never woke up.

But three years of close observation yielded a bagful of invaluable data points. Jones will schlep it all to Madison, Wisconsin, where he will begin a postdoc fellowship in the spring building models to nail down leatherback distributions. It has taken ten years to figure out what questions to ask. The hard part won’t be the answers, which are fairly obvious: changes to commercial fishing practices here and here and here, fixed in legislation with real teeth. The hard part is “whether or not the international community will listen,” will indeed have any interest at all in protecting a strange, autistic fugitive, moving around somewhere out there, with precious microfilm under its hat.

Anti-Big Day: Do Nothing At All

Anti-Big Day: Do Nothing At All



“The circle of an empty day is brutal and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.”

— Elena Ferrante


Today, in a fit of spontaneity, the girls bugged out for a 24-hour getaway to Vancouver Island. Leaving me at home with all the ingredients for a Big Day of my own: tomb-like silence, a gentle drizzle tea-cozying the house and an Aussie shepherd named Camus quietly snoring beside me (we’re dogsitting). I briefly entertain making it a work bee. A to-do list as long as my arm beckons: Mowing it down promises a payoff of feeling productive and virtuous by nightfall.

And then it hits me. Maybe what’s in order here isn’t a Big Day. Maybe what really needed is a kind of Anti-Big Day. Where instead of doing a heroic amount, I set my sights on doing … nothing at all.

And now you’re likely thinking, What? Ya lazy turnip. Clever move there, justifying skiving off instead of getting down to business. Don’t the Finns have a word for this? Yes. It is kalsarikännit. Literally “pantsdrunk.” “That feeling when you decide to just lie about in your underwear with a couple of beers, with no intention of going out.”

The pandemic turned all of us – or at least those of us not pressed into furious service as essential front-line workers —into pantsdrunkards. But now, you have correctly noted, the pandemic is over. So get real.

To which I respond: That’s exactly what I’m trying to do.

The promise is to do nothing, but this day isn’t about doing nothing. Rather, it’s (I’m claiming) about indulging in a high-minded, very personal thought experiment: to stand against our culture’s default state of perfunctory busyness … just to see what that feels like. To give the old stiff-arm to David Allen and Tim Ferriss and their tribe of super-optimized livers. “Make yourself useful”? Today I commit to being useless. On this Big Day, the work isn’t “work” by any reasonable measure. Nor is it leisure, by standard definitions. It’s more like a state of mind. I aspire to savour what Liz Gilbert calls dolce far niente – “the sweetness of doing nothing.”

And “aspire” is exactly the right word. Because this isn’t normal, this dodge, and I don’t expect it to be easy. We humans are verbs. Gotta be goin’, gotta be getting back. We eat the frog, sweat the small stuff, move the needle, ‘git ‘er done.’ Today I will aim to be a noun. I am a sponge, taking the world in through the five (six? seven? eight?) senses.

I brew a coffee and sat in the comfiest chair in the house. Pointedly ignore the to-do list.

Five minutes in, I’m restless.

Experienced meditators know this feeling. They had it in the beginning as well, and they dance with it still. Before they were able to sit retreats for a whole day, or ten, or thirty, it was monkey-mind day at the zoo minute on minute. They trained for years for the kind of day I was coming into cold, like L’il Nas X deciding on a whim to run the NYC half-marathon.

What’s a bit terrifying is that there is no playbook for a day like this, no template for hewing to the ferocious commitment to loaf. Although such a template has been attempted. Tom Hodgkinson, founder of The Idler, spun the idea into a whole book. Here the stations of an empty day (the sleep-in, the nap, tea-time, the ramble, “first drink of the day…” etc.) are laid out in 24 chapters, one for each hour on the clock. How to be Idle didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. Idling sounds great, but it cuts against the way we’re wired. We’re built to restlessly amble across the veldt. We just can’t do nothing.

We can’t even do less. In an experiment that University of Virginia engineering professor Leidy Klotz cooked up, test subjects were offered a free one-day bus tour of Washington, DC. That’s awesome, because there’s a lot to see in that city. But the agenda was way overambitious. The tour had 24 stops. You had, like, 20 minutes at the Air and Space Museum, and then you’d be whisked back on the bus and zoomed to the next thing. Clearly, by trying to see everything, you’d end up basically “seeing” nothing. This was check-it-off tourism.

Having been shown the itinerary, the subjects were then asked: How would you change this if you could? The obvious answer was: Do less. Sacrifice a few activities so that the remaining ones amount to something enjoyable. But people couldn’t. They were reluctant to nix even a single stop from the tour. Nothing seemed sacrificable. They moved things around, but that was it. It was FOMO run amok. No one seemed to have heard novelist Lin Yutang’s observation that “besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone… the wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”

For most of us, “less is more” only in theory.

This feels like the gluey heart of consumerism: the impulse to keep filling our boots is evidence, maybe, of a sucking lack of Why at the centre of our lives. We run around gathering stuff ballast against the confusion.

I’m getting a little taste of that today. A Do Nothing Day sounds kind of fun as a passing impulse, but when you actually try executing one, you find yourself bumping up against the Why of it. The whole thing feels contrived, an Arbitrary Stupid Goal. When you can’t come up with a good reason for doing something, it’s hard to keep doing it. Clearly, getting through today is going to require a deeper plunge.

The Biblical Sabbath is supposed to be that day of rest given to humans to mimic the day of rest God earned for creating the world. Somehow that mindset fell away – I guess as people gradually stopped going to church. Rabbi Abraham Heschel has said that how folks rest, whether we rest, defines us as moral beings. “What we are,” he said, “depends on what the Sabbath is to us.”

The Hebrew word shabbat means “to cease from.” God ceases from his work because “it is finished.” That may be why a Do Nothing Day is so difficult in this culture. The idea is ingrained in us that our work is never finished, so we kind of never deserve a day off. Until our honeydew list is retired, our inbox brought to zero, we should be working. “To the man of business, there is nothing more offensive than the idea that potentially productive citizens are prone, inactive, staring at the ceiling,” Hodgkinson writes. “Inaction appalls him. He cannot understand it. It frightens him.” If I had a boss, he/she/they would be disgusted by my behaviour. I’m like an underachieving locomotive in those Thomas the Tank Engine books. Sir Tompham Hatt would wave his hand and commission me to the scrap yard.

So be it! I stand against what writer Karen Russell called “the tyranny of the unprofitable moment.” Sir I am not my to-do list sir! Today, like Melville’s beleaguered clerk Bartleby the Scrivener, rising up on his hind legs, my motto is: “I would prefer not to.”

The poets and artists were way ahead of us on a lot of this. They’ve always understand that downing tools needs no justification. “Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for,” said Maya Angelou. “Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”

“If it’s efficient, you’re doing it wrong,” Jerry Seinfeld once said of creative work, after an interviewer from the Harvard Business Review put it to him that maybe there was a more “efficient” way to produce his TV show than a bunch of writers freestyling in a room.

Creatives have always known it’s not about bearing down. It’s about lightening up.


Noon rolls around. The only thing I’ve demonstrably accomplished is going for a walk. So far, I’m crushing this.

But a niggling admission keeps squeezing in. Doing nothing is … kind of boring.

Here I lean on novelist Ann Enright. “Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you.” The mystics say boredom is the starting point. We must sit in boredom until we pass through it into fascination. It all starts with the ability to be bored. The work becomes hanging in there till the adjective falls off, like a leaf from its stem. Then I am bored becomes I am. And now you’ve arrived at someplace new. In his book Man Seeks God, Eric Wiener goes to the Far East to kick the tires of Buddhism. There he meets a mysterious woman who writes a blog called Tao 61. What’s with that title? Couple of things, she says. She likes the Bob Dylan Song “Highway 61 Revisited.” But it’s mostly a reference to the 61st first verse of the Tao te Ching. That’s the one about the female overcoming the male, through stillness.

A meta-theme is starting to emerge here. Maybe what this day is really about is resistance. How we think about it, how we live with it. How we might evolve to engage with it differently.

When I was working on the Olga book, I came to see effort against resistance as one of her anti-aging secrets, practically the secret of life. Resistance is growth. Growth depends on resistance. A kite rises against the wind. The real gains at the gym happen on rep number, ten, the one you thought you couldn’t do. Etc. Resistance is also what overturns tyranny; it’s the necessary work of standing up to bullies in the name of freedom. But it’s also (in the Steven Pressfield sense), an impediment. It’s the headwind we self-destructively steer right into, the obstacle that kiboshes our best intentions. If the Olga example is the Western way of thinking about resistance, the Pressfield example is the Eastern way. Which is more like learning to build up resistance against resistance itself. Taoism says, resistance is like the current when you’re paddling. The way to move upriver is to follow the backeddy near the shore. Where – whoa, never been going slow enough to notice this before – the irises are beginning to peek out.


By evening I’ve found my rhythm. I think I’m starting to grasp the yin-ish virtues of stillness. The sediment is settling out. I’ve had a couple of “rambles” with Camus the rental dog, made a couple of meals. Otherwise, I have put nothing in the books at all.

“Intentional idleness,” if you please. Not every day, but some days.

This is a skill for the 21st century. The one that will separate us from the machines.

How to Win a Nobel Prize

How to Win a Nobel Prize

Featured Published Stories Archive Science

Inside Michael Houghton’s painstaking quest for a cure for Hepatitis C

From New Trail, Spring 2021

Illustration of Mr. Houghton by Adam Cruft

When Chiron Corp., a small biotech company in California, hired a young scientist named Michael Houghton in 1982, it was already clear he was an exceptional scientist.

Several top biotech companies had offered him senior scientist positions based on research he’d done since obtaining his PhD in 1977 from King’s College London, in England. When Chiron called, Houghton was researching human interferon genes at a U.K. research institute of the large U.S. pharmaceutical company, G.D. Searle & Co.

Soon after Houghton arrived at Chiron, he learned about a mystery unfolding in every country.

A dangerous new pathogen that attacked the liver was running amok in the global blood supply. Left untreated, it could cause cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease and cancer. It wasn’t hepatitis A and it wasn’t hepatitis B. Whatever it was, it was brutal. Apart from turning a blood transfusion into a game of Russian roulette, it plagued the world’s most vulnerable and stigmatized people when they shared a needle — for it seemed to spread through contaminated blood. Roughly 150 million people worldwide were infected with it.

Houghton decided to switch fields and devote his lab at Chiron to finding the mystery virus.

“I thought, ‘Yeah, this will be a good purpose for my lab,’ ” Houghton recalls.

He had no idea what he was in for.

By now you probably know the man we’re talking about. In October, he won the Nobel Prize in medicine, sharing the honour with Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice. Houghton, a virologist in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute at the University of Alberta, is the first scientist based at a Canadian university to win a Nobel in medicine since Frederick Banting discovered insulin at the University of Toronto in 1923.

And that, you might assume, is the story in a nutshell: young researcher gets on the train and hops off 40 years later at the summit of human accomplishment, feted by the world as a hero.

But of course, the story isn’t that tidy. And the final chapter is still being written.

“You want to know what it takes to win a Nobel Prize? You do something that many people think is not possible,” says Lorne Tyrrell, virologist and founding director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, which encompasses the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute that Houghton leads. Both work in the Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

Indeed, it’s necessary to not realize it’s impossible in order to be able to do it, as the Nobel-winning physicist J. Michael Kosterlitz once framed the task.

In video meetings with media following the Oct. 5 Nobel announcement, Houghton presented to the world an expression that was … complicated. A mixture of joy, relief and gratitude, for sure. But the face of the scientist, now 70, also hinted at the kind of determination you’d expect of someone who deals in the impossible.

In 1982, the disease Houghton decided to tackle was known only as NANBH — non-A, non-B hepatitis, as in not caused by hep A or B viruses. A mysterious blood-borne disease defined by what it wasn’t. This would become his quest: to chase a shadow.

Together with Qui-Lim Choo, whom he recruited in 1983 along with Amy Weiner, Kang-Sheng Wang and Maureen Powers, Houghton set to work. One of the things that had slowed progress on NANBH — let’s call it HCV, the hepatitis C virus, since we know now that’s what they were seeking — was the lack of suitable animal models. Other than humans, hep C is only known to infect chimpanzees.

Houghton visited the lab of Daniel Bradley of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an expert in the NANBH chimpanzee model. With Bradley’s collaboration, the Chiron team extracted nucleic acid (DNA and RNA) from infected chimps and patients and cloned them to create vast libraries containing millions of nucleic acid sequences. They began sifting through them for one that looked as if it didn’t belong — a task akin to finding a single typo in a dictionary.

These days, with modern techniques that vastly speed up the copying and sequencing of segments of the genome, virology is a different beast than it was then. Nothing in Houghton’s tool kit at the time was quite up to the scope of this endeavour. “The methods we were applying were not sensitive enough,” he says. If today’s technology had been available back then, Houghton says, “it probably would have taken seven weeks” to find the mystery virus and sequence it.

Instead, it took seven years.

It didn’t help that no one really knew what kind of pathogen they were looking for. Was the virus like hep B or yellow fever — or even a prion? Or maybe it was a retrovirus like HIV. Houghton’s strategy was to go wide, trying many different molecular approaches at once based on the scientists’ best guesses. It was like fishing with multiple rods over the side, each hook carrying different molecular bait. At one point, more than 20 different approaches were in play.

Their work was painstaking. And fruitless.

“After two or three years,” Houghton says, “we were still shooting blanks.”

The path to any Nobel Prize is paved with failed experiments, almost by definition. The breakthroughs that win a Nobel tend to be innovations wrought by failures that force you to rethink and try new approaches.

One day in 1985, three years into the research, Houghton went next door to the lab of George Kuo to discuss a new approach Houghton had been considering involving the generation of monoclonal antibodies against HCV. That key discussion convinced Houghton to try an immunoscreening approach to bacterial clone libraries. At about the same time, Bradley suggested the same idea.

So, the Chiron team put another fishing rod over the side, so to speak.

The tactic, never before tried to identify a new virus, would use antibodies — proteins in the blood that bind to foreign substances — to help detect the virus. The team would copy the DNA and RNA from chronic hep C carriers into DNA in bacteria and make libraries of many millions of bacterial colonies. Then they could screen the libraries using samples from patients with chronic hep C. 

If the idea worked, the antibodies would sniff out and bind to the foreign stowaway, the hep C virus, in a rare one-in-a-million colony.

Over the next couple of years, Houghton and Choo sifted through the cloned DNA and RNA in 11 different bacterial libraries — millions upon millions of genetic sequences. They found nothing at all that might be the elusive quarry.


It has been said that people, like teeth, come in two types: incisors and grinders. And surely this applies to scientists, too. Incisors make an early impact with a provocative paper, enjoy early fame and then often fade from view.

Houghton is unquestionably a grinder. People who’ve worked with him say he is like a dog on a bone. “What distinguishes Mike compared to other researchers is that he zeroes in on a goal and goes after it, and he just never lets go,” says John Law, lead virologist in the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute and a research associate in the Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology. “He’s not going to fall back on Plan B just because Plan A is hard.”

Back in 1987, after five years of trying and failing to find hep C at Chiron, Houghton was beginning to feel some pressure as the project leader responsible for the research. “The investors put pressure on management, and management put pressure on me.” Houghton knew he was close to being cut loose.

He didn’t particularly care. This was his mission: to fight the toll of disease on so many lives around the world.

“You can go ahead and fire me,” he remembers telling his boss. “I’ll just continue to work on this elsewhere.’ ”

The needle in a haystack

By the fall of 1987, Houghton and his team at Chiron had tried 30 to 40 different approaches and sifted through literally hundreds of millions of recombinant clones. 

Up to that point, Houghton and Choo had been screening the bacterial libraries with serum derived from the rare patients and chimps that had recovered from NANBH infection, assuming they would have the highest antibody levels. They decided instead to use serum from NANBH patients who had not recovered.

One day, while combing through a bacterial library — in a sample that contained a bit of contaminating “goo” that made it look so unpromising it was almost thrown out — Choo found something. It was “a very tiny little clone,” Houghton says. The wee-est fragment of a copy of … what? He and Choo scrutinized it over several months. It looked different from anything they’d seen, not derived from human or chimp genomes. Foreign.

It was a single, small nucleic acid clone derived from a large molecule typical of RNA viruses. Houghton and Choo also showed that the RNA encoded a protein to which most NANBH patients had antibodies that were not present in uninfected control patients. Based on this, Kuo developed a method to test a large number of patients, which confirmed the presence of antibodies in NANBH patients and not in control patients. As Houghton and Choo found more and more related clones and determined their sequence, they saw very faint but significant similarities with known flaviviruses such as dengue and yellow fever. That was when they knew they had it.

Houghton disclosed the finding at a seminar at the University of California, San Francisco, in 1988. Some hepatitis experts were skeptical, even after seeing the data. But not Houghton, Choo and Kuo. “We knew we had it,” Houghton says. “I don’t take drugs to feel good, but I was on a high for two years afterwards.”

Two years. That’s how long it would take to use their precious little snippet to sequence the whole virus. And then to convince the world, with at least eight rounds of verification, that they had the real deal.

Deadly viruses can be quite beautiful. Hepatitis C turned out to be caused by an RNA virus very distantly related to tropical diseases like yellow fever or dengue. Under the microscope, it was small and round and enveloped with surface proteins — a bit like the now-familiar SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 — the better to get its hooks into its host.

With a blueprint to work from, the team rushed to develop a test to screen blood for the newly identified contaminant. The team announced its blockbuster discoveries in Science in 1989: the isolation of the hepatitis C virus and a test that could successfully detect the virus in human blood.

Blood banks around the world finally had the gatekeeper they needed. Until then, the odds of getting hep C from transfused blood had been around the same as drawing a face card in a deck. With new screening tests that could detect tainted blood in advance, HCV was virtually eliminated from the Canadian blood supply by 1992.

Beyond making the blood supply safer, Houghton et al. published the genetic sequence for HCV, which allowed researchers to develop antiviral drugs to treat hep C. It looked as if the hard work was over.

It wasn’t.

The promise of making lives better

This is a story about hepatitis C. But it’s also a story about hep B — for it was Lorne Tyrrell’s work on hep B that, in a roundabout way, built the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology at the U of A. From Tyrrell’s research, pharmaceutical company Glaxo produced the antiviral drug lamivudine, the first oral treatment of chronic hepatitis B, and sank enough funds into the U of A to begin robust virology research and development. Hong Kong billionaire philanthropist Li Ka-shing decided to invest in the scientist whose work had improved, if not outright saved, millions of lives: one Lorne Tyrrell. It was the infusion of $25 million from the Li Ka Shing (Canada) Foundation that attracted $52.5 million from the Government of Alberta through Alberta Innovates. The funding allowed Tyrrell to vastly expand his budding virology institute and to found the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute in 2013.

The new institute was tasked with transforming virology research into treatments, drugs and vaccines that would directly improve people’s lives. And Tyrrell had just the person in mind to lead it.

It began with a phone call in 2009. It was a call that was bound to happen sometime. Tyrrell, in his lab, had made his mark with hepatitis B. Houghton, in his lab, had identified the hep C and hep D viral genomes during his time at Chiron. Between them, they nearly covered the alphabet. It was about time they stopped circling each other like double-helix strands and met.

Houghton was driving through San Francisco one sunny lunchtime when he got a call from Tyrrell. Houghton was then at a different small biotech outfit, where he was working on herpes viruses. Tyrrell floated the news that a new institute within the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology would focus on translating lab discoveries into practical and commercial applications. It needed someone to run it. Tyrrell wanted an outstanding virologist to apply for a grant from the new federal Canada Excellence Research Chair program, which would guarantee funding for seven years.

“Do you know anyone who might be interested?” he asked Houghton.

It was a nervy overture. If there is such a thing as a rock star in the world of virology, Houghton was it. He had won the prestigious Albert Lasker award in 2000. In 2003, his team had developed a SARS vaccine to address the major health threat of that year. (The SARS virus disappeared quite quickly, but had the vaccine been commercially manufactured and stockpiled, Houghton believes it could have changed the course of another SARS virus outbreak: COVID-19.)

On the phone with Tyrrell, Houghton fished for a couple of names of folks who might be interested. “But you know,” he said finally, “I might be.”

It was exactly what Tyrrell had wanted to hear. 

Research that cures disease and improves people’s lives — this is what drives Houghton and turned his eyes toward Edmonton.

Canada typically lags behind the United States in this type of “bench to bedside” research, and Houghton was thrilled to see the U of A cranking up that commercial energy. It was one of the things that made him take the job.

After arriving on campus, he wasted no time in hiring a vaccine team that included a dozen scientists and technicians, many of them Canadian, with Tyrrell as a close collaborator. The goal was to work across disciplines to turn basic research into a safe human vaccine to prevent hep C.

Spirits were high. But the vaccine team would soon run into major challenges — owing partly to the sneaky nature of the hep C virus.

“The virus is difficult in a few senses,” says Law, the lead virologist on the vaccine team. Each strain has a wildly different genetic signature. “It’s almost like a person who keeps dressing up differently to get into a bar he was kicked out of,” says Law. “He keeps putting on different clothes to get past the bouncer multiple times.”

Vaccines trick the body’s immune system into building a defence against a phantom scourge it thinks it’s encountering. The hep C vaccine being developed at the U of A is made from a cultured human cell tracing back to a single donor. It isn’t a weakened copy of the whole virus but rather a little piece of the outer protein shell. And that shell is super-delicate. Like a soufflé. 

“It comes apart easily,” says Law. “Also, the cells don’t like to make this protein. Other vaccines, it’s almost like making a piece of copper. It’s easy. But now we’re making a piece of gold. And we need to give it to everybody. So, we need to have an efficient way to go to the gold mine and extract enough to give it to everybody. And keep the costs down.”

Despite the challenges, something happened in 2013 that lifted everyone’s spirits.

Law and his team were experimenting with a new technique. Many were skeptical it would work, but after many trials, they got a promising result. The technique seemed to neutralize or prevent infection for multiple different strains of the virus. They had solved, as Law explained it, the “getting-past-the-bouncer” problem.

“I remember the day we sent [Houghton] the data,” Law says. “It was right at the time he had to give a report to the funding agency.” At a media conference, Houghton coolly presented the news. The U of A had made, for the first time, a hep C vaccine that appeared to work against most known strains of the virus. 

It was a game-changing development — a development that led to a promising hep C vaccine that Houghton’s team hopes to take to human trials this year or next.

“We’ve got a lot of partners lined up around the world — the United States, Germany, Italy and maybe Australia — to test it in the clinic as soon as we’ve made it. And I think it has a good chance of working,” says Houghton.

The ultimate goal: eradication

Houghton is sometimes asked why we need a hepatitis C vaccine at all. After all, thanks to his original hep C discovery, drugs now exist that can quickly cure most patients with few side-effects. His best argument goes like this: Any treatment, no matter how effective, is still just playing whack-a-mole with the disease. Despite advances in treatment, hepatitis C has infected an estimated 170 million people worldwide, while 71 million live with chronic infection that can lead to liver disease and cancer. Ultimately, a vaccine is the only way to eradicate it from the planet.

And quite apart from the cost in human suffering, there’s the financial hit. Tyrrell likes to say that if you accidentally drop your hep C pill down the sink, you’d better have the nearest plumber on speed dial. A full course of treatment costs around $60,000. An effective HCV vaccine would save Canada’s health-care budget close to $1 billion in antiviral drug costs over 10 years, Houghton estimates. “If you figure out how much it’s going to cost to treat those people with drugs, versus how much to vaccinate, then it’s night and day. It’s at least an order of magnitude cheaper to vaccinate.”

Every year since 2012, Tyrrell had been nominating Houghton for the Nobel Prize. And every year Tyrrell had called the university’s president and dean of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry to say they should keep an ear out.

He knew in his bones that Houghton was deserving. “To win a Nobel Prize, you’re making a discovery that is transformative,” he says. The hep C discovery has saved or transformed millions of lives, if you count the curative drugs developed from it and the blood screening that prevents the disease in the first place. An annual international conference around hepatitis C has been running for 27 years — a whole discipline that wouldn’t exist without the work of Houghton’s team.

Then last Oct. 5, at two minutes to 4 a.m., Tyrrell woke up as he does every year to check his phone for Nobel news. Nothing. He waited a few minutes. Nothing. And then … the kind of news that chalks a high‑water mark onto a whole life.

Houghton was in California. His phone rang at 3:10 a.m. local time. The Nobel committee didn’t have his phone number, so it was his friend, Tyrrell, who woke him up.

“Congratulations, Mike,” he said. “You just won the Nobel Prize.”

There was silence. Ice ages came and went. It was one of the greatest moments in the history of the University of Alberta.


What if Houghton — the man Tyrrell had hired partly for the kind of stubborn decisiveness that made him an awesome research scientist and a refuser of prizes on principle — refused the Nobel?

After all, he had refused the Gairdner in 2013, Canada’s most prestigious award in science, when he learned that it would go to him alone. To his mind, his former colleagues were an inseparable part of the hep C discovery. Choo was his wingman, working 100-hour weeks at the bench for years on end. And Kuo, well, he was the one who had convinced Houghton to try the approach that ultimately worked.

His frustration was not just about recognition. It was, and continues to be, that the world seems not to acknowledge the way science works, he says. Scientific discovery is not some kind of transoceanic row by a solo sailor. There is no single “aha” moment by the genius in charge. Innumerable small wins along the way advance the technology in ways the world never sees.

“I don’t think I’m being unduly ethical,” he says now. “I’m just being honest. When you’ve worked with people for a long time and you know that they’ve made key contributions, it’s just basic honesty.”

Which is why Houghton, after agonizing, told Tyrrell in 2013 he wouldn’t accept the Gairdner (or the $100,000 that goes with it), a gesture that was unprecedented in the award’s 54-year history.

Anticipating the same dilemma this time, Tyrrell had video-called Houghton the previous Friday for a temperature check. Just as he feared, his colleague was deeply conflicted. “Michael, we can’t go through this again,” Tyrrell said. “Please. Look straight at me and tell me, ‘I will accept the Nobel Prize if it’s awarded to me.’ ”

Houghton said he would.

It’s customary for Nobel acceptance speeches to be a little bit lighthearted. When Richard Taylor won the 1990 Nobel in physics for his work at Stanford, he said: “We were asked to be witty. But after a great deal of reflection I have decided that quarks are just not funny. … Perhaps next year the Royal Academy will award the physics prize to someone in condensed matter physics or general relativity. Those are hilarious subjects.”

Houghton’s speech
 wasn’t like that. Instead, via Zoom from his home in San Francisco, he laid a sober bread-crumb trail of his path to the hep C discovery, recognizing by name everyone who contributed along the way. Receiving a special hat tip were Choo, Kuo and Bradley.

It was Houghton’s way of cutting the Gordian knot. He was upset at how major science awards tend to prop one scientist up in the shop window. But he was honoured. 

“It would be too presumptuous to turn down a Nobel,” he says. He owed it to the U of A, to Tyrrell and to his colleagues not to refuse it. “And also, by accepting the Nobel,” he says, “I’ve been able to get the message out loud and clear: ‘This was a team effort.’ ”

After the announcement, the journal Nature reached out to Kuo and Choo for comment. Both took the high road. Kuo admitted he was disappointed to have been left out but was pleased to have had a hand in the accomplishment. And to have been able to model for his children “how important it is to work hard on something that you feel passionately about.” Choo broke down and cried — not with bitterness but with joy. “It’s my baby; I’m so very proud,” he told Nature. “How can I not be proud?”

The magnanimity breaks your heart. But by Houghton’s lights, gracefulness in the face of discourtesy should never have been asked of these two men.

“As knowledge and technology grow exponentially around the world and with an increasing need for multidisciplinary collaborations to address complex questions and problems, there is a case to be made for award committees adjusting to this changing paradigm,” he wrote in an op-ed in Nature in 2013 after refusing the Gairdner.

“What matters is that you are successful with a group of people. I firmly believe the ethical way forward is for all institutions to be more inclusive,” he adds today.

That is science’s bottom line. You’re always building on previous work. No one is freestyling. It takes a team to win a Nobel Prize.

A quirky fact on the way out the door here: Winning the Nobel Prize buys you almost two more years of life. The number comes from a 2007 study based on the lives of 528 Nobel recipients and nominees from 1901 to 1950. No one has been able to explain the phenomenon, though some have speculated that the spike in status may somehow boost the immune system. Perhaps the body knows it has earned a victory lap.

Or maybe the type of person who wins a Nobel is too dedicated to give up those two extra years in the lab.

The famed Merck virologist Maurice Hilleman, who developed eight of the 14 vaccinations that kids get today, carried in his pocket a list of childhood viral diseases that had yet to be conquered. This was his to-do list. When he knocked one off (rubella: check) he would literally cross it off and move on to the next.

Houghton has something of that same mindset. Shouldn’t it just be a normal thing to want to fix the world? And to believe that you can?

“If you really think about it, it’s almost a disgrace that we know so little about so many major diseases,” he says. “Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis. We are capable of curing those diseases. Why haven’t we? Because there’s not enough funding? Yes. But also, there’s not enough cultural momentum to focus on disease. And that sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?”

Houghton has his own to-do list, and it is Hilleman-like. The applied virology institute is collaborating with a wide international network to research, among other things, a Group A streptococcus vaccine, novel therapeutics for Alzheimer’s disease and cancer immunotherapy.

“I’ve always felt that contributing to disease solutions is well worth all the failures, all the frustration, all the funding issues, and all the politics,” Houghton says.

“Millions of people are dying and suffering from so many diseases around the world. Working for 40 years on HCV, and several years on other diseases, is the least that I can do.”


The Mystery of “Type 2 Fun”

The Mystery of “Type 2 Fun”

Essays Featured Psychology

From THE GLOBE AND MAIL, Sept 3, 2021

Last week, two videos landed in my inbox – field dispatches, from two friends who took off on adventures as soon as COVID-19 restrictions eased. One friend was cycling through the Rockies on a one-speed bike, sleeping rough and grinding it out over high alpine passes; the other was traversing the highlands of Iceland with his wife. Theirs was also a bicycle trip, at least nominally, although the couple seemed to be spending as much time carrying their bikes as they did actually riding them. “This ‘bikepacking,’ ” my friend posted after one very hard day, “is kicking the crap out of us.”

It all seemed enormously punishing. And yet, knowing my friends, I suspect that they’ll start thinking about their next adventure as soon as they return home and lick their wounds, expecting that if it’s even half as much fun as their last, it’ll be amazing.

Wait: How exactly does having the crap kicked out of you qualify as “fun”? What you need to understand, says the Colorado mountaineer and writer Kelly Cordes, is that we’re talking about a specific type of fun – what he calls “Type Two Fun.”

Mr. Cordes popularized The Fun Scale, which proposes that fun comes in three flavours. Type One Fun is just pure pleasure: Eating a doughnut, or watching a movie, or flying a kite, or skiing in fresh powder. Type Two Fun is miserable while it’s happening, but fun in retrospect, like my friends’ trips. Type Three Fun is no fun at all – not in the moment, not ever. It just sucks. (For example: A failed relationship that never contained much Type One Fun in the first place.)

Mr. Cordes isn’t a psychologist, but the fact that his Fun Scale resonates so deeply suggests he is on to something real.

The first and third types of fun are easy enough to understand: one is obvious, and one is ironic. But what’s the deal with that Type Two? What are the components of the mysterious equation of pain + time = gratification? Why would the brain invent such a cover story?

One theory is that this is just nature’s way to get us to do hard things. Otherwise no one would ever have a second child, or run a second marathon (which, millennia ago when we were living on the savannah, we’d have had to do to bag an antelope for next week’s dinner).

George Loewenstein, a psychologist and economist at Carnegie Mellon University, explained this through the lens of intense exercise, in a recent interview with NPR. He described how he used to go for lung-busting runs, churning up the steep hills of Pittsburgh, but the half-life of the actual pain would be short, before the happy chemicals hit the body’s reward circuitry like a gong. Almost right away, in the “cool state” of retrospective reflection post-run, Dr. Loewenstein literally could not remember what the unpleasant “hot state” of screaming muscles and oxygen debt felt like – all that was left was the triumphant memory of having done it. “It was all forgotten, within maybe 10, 20 seconds,” he said. The next move was a no-brainer: He laced ‘em up again the next day.

But Type Two Fun isn’t just about self-motivating biochemistry. We humans crave a feeling of progress, and so we also crave tests for ourselves. Ideally, these tests should be passable, but only barely so: the sweet spot that the psychologist Nick Hobbs called “just-manageable difficulty.” A perfect life, then, might be spent skating along the knife’s-edge of your competence. (We are maximally motivated, research suggests, when we reckon we have a 50/50 chance of succeeding.) “When one achieves this fine-tuning of his life,” said Dr. Hobbs, “he will know zest and joy.” (And also, surely, the Third Horseman of Deep Fulfilment – a sense of “liberation,” no matter how brief, from psychological restriction.)

In this finely tuned state, time collapses and we fall into that blissfully familiar state called “flow.” Contrast this with Type One Fun, which is really just quick sensory pleasure; it bursts like fireworks and then is gone, leaving a spiritual carbon footprint in the sky. If Type One Fun is purely hedonism, and Type Three Fun is masochism, Type Two Fun is more like stoicism. There’s a sense that you’ve banked the unpleasant stuff, that you’re somehow better off for having endured it and have now truly earned the joy. In that way, “Are we having fun yet?” also means, “I’m pretty sure we’re building character here, though we have no way to measure it.”

That’s why, when my bikepacking friend posted daily updates from the Icelandic tundra – casting us all as witnesses to an otherworldly landscape but also to the inconvenient rivers and the unrideably steep bits and the winds so fierce they nearly blew them off their bikes – he just tipped his hat to these obstacles for “keeping us honest.” It was clear that for him, Type Two Fun is also an attitude – a philosophy in itself.

Psychologists have a term for how our memory tends to sweeten past events, cherry-picking the good and ignoring the bad. They call it “rosy retrospection.” This isn’t exactly the same as nostalgia, but it’s what drives nostalgia – the dreamy reverie of how much better things used to be before.

But what many people don’t appreciate about nostalgia, notes the psychologist Krystine Batcho, is just how social it is. “It connects us to other people … in many beautiful ways.” When you’re rosily retrospecting, you’re not just thinking about what fun you were having; you’re thinking about who you were having all that fun with, and how you’ll share it with others.

The social dimension of Type Two Fun can’t, I think, be overstated. Even if you’re on a solo adventure, like my friend conquering the Rockies on a fixed-gear bike, part of the payoff is knowing that every squall and setback and close brush with death will make a good story. The stories of our misadventures are like what they say about wood: It heats you twice, once in the chopping and once in the burning. Pleasure shared is more pleasurable, and pain shared is diminished.

A kind of bonding happens when people endure hardship together that’s hard to achieve any other way. And that – exactly what we’ve been missing during the COVID-19 pandemic – is the stuff of good memories. Just ask any veteran hoisting a pint at the legion with old platoon-mates, or battered-and-bruised hockey players passing around the Stanley Cup. Or a couple schlepping their bikes up a snowfield in Iceland. (It’s better than marriage therapy, if you survive it.)

I saw this up-close when I was researching for my 2014 book What Makes Olga Run?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star, and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives. I followed Masters track-and-field athletes – competitors who were older than 40 – who travelled from meet to meet – and witnessed a camaraderie the likes of which I’d never seen before in any group of people. Competing at a high level in your 60s or 70s or 80s involves no small amount of pain; the engine doesn’t necessarily want to red line it any more, and if you try, it will make you pay. These folks weren’t competing against each other, I realized: They were competing together against Father Time. By the end of a meet, everybody’s hobbling around – and basking in a level of deep fulfilment that frankly, made me envious.

Type Two Fun can be a way of life for us all – these competitors just take it to its logical extreme. On the last day of the world championships in Sacramento in 2011, I watched two competitors, visibly limping, part ways at the taxi stand.

“Will you be back next year, Bill?” one said.

“Better believe it,” replied his friend. “If you don’t see me, it means I died.”

From the archives: The Railbike Chronicles

From the archives: The Railbike Chronicles

Featured Human Power Sport

From Explore magazine, August 1999.

Quinton Gordon photos

When you look at a grand old railway trestle from afar, it’s impossible not to feel something stir just there, below the sternum. The little matchstick beams crosshatch the sides of the bridge, and the whole effect is so delicate and spiderwebby, it seems an astonishing engineering feat that the structure can support a train’s passage over a chasm hundreds of feet deep while those aboard tranquilly sip their drinks. But try to cross one on anything but a train and you’ll enter into another kind of experience. Oh, you’ll feel something stirring below the sternum, all right: naked fear. Not only are you way, way above the ground, there are no guardrails.

The good news for us, on this crisp day in October, was that no trains would be coming along any time soon. This is because the trestle was condemned. The question was whether it would hold the railbike, though we were fairly certain it would. There were some rotting timbers, and in places damaged ties left gaps you could peer through, down, down. But it felt solid. The sweep of mountain across the pretty lake on Vancouver Island would have made a great Hey-Martha photograph if either my pal Drew or I had had the nerve to take a hand off the handlebars, which we didn’t.

The exposure revved our hearts, no matter how many mind games we played to prevent it. Random thoughts descended: To do this on a live track is probably a rite of passage to manhood in some doomed cultures. Drop anything up here—the pack, a crucial nut, ourselves—and this strange little adventure is done.

The sport of railbiking is the sort of thing that lodges in your imagination the moment you hear about it. For devotees, it crystallizes in crude plans you can buy through the Net, and comes to life in suburban garages, amid the clank of metal and the fizz of spot welds. To say it is a niche sport is to understate the matter; there are, by one reliable estimate, around 200 serious recreational railbikers in North America. And though it’s becoming more common in Europe, railbiking will be hard-pressed to upgrade its way-off-Broadway status, for reasons that will soon become clear.

But railbikes have some uniquely cool attributes. Like that handless riding: you can clean the bugs off your glasses without missing a beat. You can keep a roaring clip, in theory, because you never encounter a real hill. When you get on a bicycle built to ride on railway lines, you can go places cars can’t, see things few humans ever encounter wild and up close. Like?

“Wolves, cougars, foxes, badgers, deer, and, let’s see: 14 bears.” Dick Smart, a dentist from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, was recalling a single trip through Northern British Columbia. “It’s silent, so you can come right up on them and look them in the eye. On a rail corridor there’s a whole different wildlife perspective; there’s foliage around the track, so the animals have a little cover when they cross.” Periodically he’d run into hobos out there, heard their tales from a vanishing culture. That particular trip, 550 kilometres over 11 days, accounts for but a tiny fraction of the distance Smart has logged on a railbike. It is an Earth-girdling 52,000 kilometres, a Gretzky-like tally among railbikers, who regard him as The Dean. When I reached Smart he was heading out back to tinker with his custom “suitcase” railbike that folds into a case and then magically pops open at its destination. He was adapting the bike for the quirky narrow rail gauge of Patagonia.

If you found yourself sitting next to Smart on the bus, and he started talking about this strange hobby of his, and maybe brought a couple of pictures up on the iPod, chances are you’d be doing some serious recalibrating by the time you reached the office. (At the very least how to angle for more vacation time, and a vehicle that can take a railbike on the roof.) Smart’s patter on the subject is so spellbinding you might forget even to consider a question you really ought to be asking: What about trains?

It’s unsettling that some railway employees call railbikers “Darwin bait.” But Dick Bentley, another veteran railbiker, from upstate New York, put my own fears, at least, to rest. “If you’re careful and watch yourself, you never see anything,” said Bentley. “In an extreme emergency you can just lean in the direction opposite the outrigger. You sort of fall in slow motion. You replay your life story in your mind three or four times.”

I first heard about railbiking years ago on an airline flight (the guy hadn’t done it, but knew someone who had). And not long after I paid a visit to Chris DeKerf—whom you could call The Dean of West Coast custom bicycle building without starting a flame war. Chris headed the handbuilt division of Rocky Mountain bicycles before he struck out on his own. At his shop in Richmond, B.C., bikes in various stages of completion hung in racks. (Including one, for a Colorado surgeon, who asked that his paint-job look like “a glass of Guinness, with foam.” It did.)

Chris is not a man to avoid a challenge, but he needed data on my strange proposition. How had others built their rigs? It turns out there’s virtually no end of design variations for the wheels alone—from paired, flat-sided rings that enclose the tracks to a superwide front tire you just free-ride on top of a rail, on the theory that you could walk even on the blade of a knife if you had a fat enough pair of shoes. There have been railbikes with sails and railbikes with sidecars for passengers or canoes. Dick Bentley’s position is that you want to work with a proven set of plans, rather than just Red Green-ing it. And the design he’d mailed me had kept his own bike on the Adirondack Railroad track for decades through pretty straightforward means. You ride on one rail, an outrigger extends across to a wheel that rides on the other. A guide mechanism keeps the front tire going straight, and Bob’s your uncle.

Except that I’d bought a tandem, which neither Bentley’s designs nor anyone else’s accounts for. A little muscle twitched at Chris’s temple when I wheeled it in. I thought I heard some module in his right brain powering up. This was already fun, though Chris had yet to turn a single screw. The whole enterprise felt like Neil Young converting his Lincoln Continental road pig into a battery-powered electric with a biodiesel backup. It felt revolutionary, even though it really isn’t. Because railbikes have been around almost as long as there have been rails.

In the early days railroad companies (and telegraph companies, whose wires ran along the rail corridors) used railbikes to get maintenance guys out to remoter reaches, and many of them kept one in the baggage car like a lifeboat: in case of a breakdown the brakeman could ride for help. By 1908 you could actually buy a railbike kit in the Sears & Roebuck’s catalogue, for $5.45. The ad sat nestled between frontiersmen’s revolvers and magic-lantern projectors and the first phonographs—as if these technologies all had a bettor’s chance of taking the world by storm.

Railbiking fused the railway boom with the bicycle craze: a promising marriage. The problem for recreational railbikers was that there were just too many trains. It would take 70 years or so before a kind of sweet spot appeared—when rail travel was in decline but no one had got around to turning the tens of thousands of kilometres of neglected track into razor blades. (And there wasn’t yet, as Dick Smart puts it, “an attorney lurking behind every tree.”) There was a spell, in the 1970s, when a cool railbike design could land you in Popular Mechanics. One 1976 feature, running under the banner “It’s New Now,” showed a gentleman in a sportcoat rising out of his saddle, all techno-chic against fields of waving grain.

That was the time the modern popularizers emerged, including the two guys named Dick, all following the lead of The Founding Father of the modern era of railbiking—The Dean of Deans—a Canadian, no less, named Florian Grenier. Grenier, who died a couple of years ago, had a railbike on the tracks before the Allies had troops out of Germany. He was a marathoner, building a bike “with enough room to carry gear and grub” for weeks in the bush. He once rode 381 kilometres of BC Rail track between Chipmunk and Fort St. James—roughly the same route Dick Smart would later follow and call “the greatest adventure of my life.” Grenier proved that railbiking is really, foremost, about doing your homework.

“Florian was supposed to come with us but had to cancel at the last minute,” Dick Smart says. “But I used all his information because he was so good about mapping out the trip and knowing where we could get to.”

You’d think that that homework would be easier now, in the age of Data Smog, but it isn’t. There are no up-to-date atlases of abandoned track. “You can’t write a book on it because things change so quickly,” Smart says. “By the time you learn where to ride the track’s gone.” What’s left is spadework. “I call libraries and fire stations in the middle of nowhere and ask them if their tracks are still there and in use.”

Of course there’s the Net, but because the railroad companies are as eager as anyone to know where the bandit fish are jumping, you won’t get the real goods on pirate riding if you just Google “railbiking.”“We’ve gone underground, basically,” Smart says. There’s a website run by Peter Hoffman, founder of Bicycle magazine, but it’s impossible to find. “We have a code word for it,” Smart says. “There’s like 20 of us who belong.”

On a fall day in 2005 the call—actually an email—came. “Interested in a railbike?” said Chris Dekerf. “I happen to have one.”

It wasn’t finished finished, but it was ready to be tried: a prototype, the X-1. It was fairly beautiful. The outrigger tripoded down onto a skateboard wheel. He’d made the whole front-end weatherproof: stainless steel with brass bushings, and aluminum skid plates like a cow-catcher to kick the whole rig up in the event of a collision. To stop the skid-block from dragging, there was a hand-carved “lift-rod” mounted on the handlebars, so the rider could “fine tune” the guide-wheels while riding, keep them low enough to grip the rail but high enough to stay out of trouble.

“You’ll be amazed at what’s stuck on the side of rail lines,” he said. “There are cables, there are bolts.” There are also “greasers” that stick up and, activated by the weight of the train passing atop them, pump grease onto the wheels. “You hit one of those things at a good speed,” Dick Smart had warned, “it’ll stop you.” Higher up, the seams between the rails aren’t always tight. A half-inch gap is nothing to a train, but it’s enough to send the rider into orbit.

“Crashing is nasty,” Chris said. “If you come off at anything over 15 kilometres an hour, it’s ugly. This design minimizes the problem, but no matter how well the bike’s built, you can’t fully avoid accidents. You just don’t know. At some point, I think it’s safe to assume, you will come off this bike.”

Up in his office, Chris produced a liability waiver.

“Have you ever had to make one of these things out before?”


The railbike had taken Chris “probably 10 times longer than I thought” to build, and if he heard a call coming in asking for another one, he might pretend to be in Phoenix, indefinitely. And yet the project had lodged in him—like a deer tick, but in a good way. Chris had made a railbike you can assemble with a number-five Allen key, folding up the outrigger and bungying it to the frame. He was proud of it. He just wasn’t so sure about me.

“Don’t get yourself, or anyone else, killed on this, please,” he said as I shook his hand. “Then I’ll want my stickers off it.”

We tested the X-1 on a rusty urban rail line that slices through the tony heart of Vancouver’s West Side. (Since the CPR stopped running trains here five years ago, the corridor is used only by coyotes and raccoons in their nocturnal commutes.) Drivers slowed and stuck their heads out the window to gawk. “What is that? Did you guys build that? Hell of an idea!” Within 90 seconds of our actually getting the bike on the rails, three little kids materialized, and they were quick to diagnose problems: “The seat needs to be higher.” “The tires need more air.” A bigger issue, it turned out, was that the outrigger was light—if we leaned at all away from it it lifted, and once we crashed that way. (On an actual ride the weight of the pack would hold it down—we hoped.) Plus which, I’d brought the wrong wrench, so couldn’t adjust the guide wheels properly. The kids ran along beside us as the sun went down. They tried to organize another play date so we could all try this again.

The second test, a month later, was more promising. Chris had made adjustments to the X-2. A sandbag kept the outrigger down on the rail, but the rig, heavy to begin with, was now a bear to move. Couples, children and people’s aunts on one-speeds were overtaking us on the parallel service road. We were sweating like donkeys. I took off my down vest and strapped it to the outrigger, where blackberry canes sliced it to ribbons, and then it tangled in the rig, stopping us as abruptly as a drag chute.

In places the outrigger suddenly and inexplicably went off the rail—and when it did, with the weight of the sandbag on it, it slammed down hard and bucked us off. It became clear that the width between rail lines vary by as much as a couple of inches. How could that be? You’d think that measurement would be perfectly consistent, maintained to vanishing tolerances by an expensive machine—but apparently some co-op student was eyeballing it.

Not only that, from time to time our perfectly adjusted guides would suddenly start tightening up, slowing progress to a crawl. Turns out the width of the rails themselves varies wildly, as the weight of trains over time squashes and spreads them like a pie crust. This is something you don’t quite believe until you’ve seen and felt it. Train wheels allow a huge margin for error in this. They float, shimmy-shammying back and forth, bumping back toward the middle when they drift too far, like a blind man in a supermarket aisle.

As we approached a road crossing another issue loomed. Our great brainwave was to adapt a tandem bike—double the power, double the fun. But the tandem was so long it needed a back guide as well as a front, and our back guide was fixed. Which meant getting off and walking the bike across pavement. At one point the grade levelled out, and began to descend. We got some speed up. Then: Boom. A seam between the rails caught the rear guide, and the shock was conveyed up through the frame directly into the huevos of the two riders.

We travelled three kilometres in 2 1/2 hours. As Drew helpfully pointed out, “We could have walked this same distance probably three times.” But we were railbiking, baby! With a little tinkering we’d be ready to log some serious mileage, Out There, where the signals of the city die. The bike went back into the shop for some final tweaks.

Cut to: a calendar, its pages turning. At intervals, when I called, Chris seemed to have all-but finished with the bike, and at the same time was unwilling to give up. “Let me go another round with it,” he’d say. The X-3 became the X-4.

By the time the bike was finally ready, almost five years had elapsed from the time I’d first approached Chris.A lot had changed. Chris had bags under his eyes that I didn’t remember seeing before. We had both become parents. Different things were important now. Back when we started, I was better able to contemplate a lifestyle in which railbiking actually fit in—a nimble, low-overhead, light-out-for-the-territories-when-the-mood-hits kind of thing. And he was better able to imagine sinking endless hours into a weird lark that didn’t pay the rent.

Railbikes are a consummate do-it-yourself project. They depend on the same “fly-a-little, test-a-little” ethic that is driving the private rocket builders in Mojave to build a space-tourism industry. In this respect, it’s kind of sacrilege to have someone basically build one for you. But that disconnect between builder and user was only one of the things that had held Chris up.

“I’ve figured out why I’ve struggled so much with this,” he said, as we lashed the bike to the roof of the car. It’s because he is a perfectionist. His impulse is to do one thing at a time, do it very well, and then move on. He was able to scratch that itch with the front guide, its delicate machining. But railbikes are not bikes, and tandem railbikes are off the map. There’s nothing to compare the work you’re doing to, and no way to anticipate all the potential problems, and no literature on them even if you could.

“ When I got frustrated,” Chris said, “I just reminded myself, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to work.” It’s hard to imagine that more professional expertise has ever gone into a railbike.

NASA had done all it could. Now it was up to the astronauts.

It would tax an FBI profiler to come up with a “type” of person who railbikes, since the sport is full of contradictions. There’s a greeny, save-the-planet dimension to it that would seem to attract progressives. Yet the image of the lone frontiersman, pursuing a simple pleasure, asking nothing but freedom and shouldering what comes, is textbook libertarian.

If you’re a railbiker, you’re probably a gearhead, comfortable around power tools; you may be a history buff, and probably a railroad enthusiast; you hold strong opinions, and love nuggets of historical trivia, like the one posted on Dick Bentley’s railbike webpage: Why is the standard railroad gauge in North America such a weird number: 4 feet, 8.5 inches? The answer goes back to the original specifications for the Imperial Roman war chariots, which were made just wide enough to accommodate the hindquarters of two war horses. That funky rail width, the railbike enthusiast notes, determined the size of the engines that power the Space Shuttle. Those big boosters have to be shipped by train from the factory in Utah to the launch pad, and they have to fit through a couple of tunnels, which are only slightly wider than the track. “So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s ass.”

Railbikers can be obsessive. Whenever he’s on vacation, and driving over a rail crossing, a man named Dom Bencivenga told me that he instinctively looks for rust on the line—because rust means no trains and no trains means railbiking. Never mind that Bencivenga, who once built a recumbent railbike, no longer rides. (Not since his little-used stretch of line in Erie County, Pennsylvania, was bought by a shortline rail operator from New York, and many trains now ply the route.) It’s enough that he could. A railbiker is always recovering, never recovered.

Bencivenga “had the bug bad,” he admits; but his friends did not share his enthusiasm. And that’s why railbikers make up a weirdly oxymoronic group: a community of outliers.

“It is lonely,” Dick Smart told me. “It’s a sport you have to kind of keep inside yourself. It’s not like you can go into a bar and share railbike stories, because nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about.”

If you’re a railbiker, you’d better be thick-skinned, and able to tolerate the feeling that around the next bend may well be someone who really, really doesn’t want to see you.

“In 31 years I’ve been stopped a dozen times by people in high-railers [track-inspection vehicles] and told to get off—though never thrown in jail,” Smart says. “But I never wanted the same guy to tell me to get off twice.”

In the early days, Smart tried to make a commercial go of it, selling “Railcycles” of his own design, but liability issues put an end to that. “I formed a corporation and did everything I needed to do. I had people sign their life away. But still I had railroad officials treating me like I was making an AK47 or something.” He dropped the business plans and simply tried to ask permission to ride on abandoned lines. Which is easier said than done. How do you tell who owns the land, when tracks pass through streets and public parks? Again and again he was refused. Finally he threw up his hands, and a semi-organized outlaw railbiking ethic was born. “It’s easier,” he says, “to seek forgiveness than it is to seek permission.”

Other entrepreneurs like Smart have tried to develop organized railbiking in Canada, but everyone has been crushed by government red tape and liability issues. So Drew and I pretty much had no choice but to be renegades—albeit of the bespectacled, pencil-necked kind.

For a number of reasons, an awful lot of rail has been removed across the country in the last 10 years. But that still leaves thousands of kilometres of non- or lightly used track that is simply catnip to a railbike like the DeKerf X-4. We zeroed in on one of the most inviting stretches, the Esquimalt & Nanaimo (E&N) line, which snakes halfway up Vancouver Island. Inviting for its landscape—ocean, mountains, pastureland, high trestles over plunging gorges—and its history. (The true “last spike” on the CPR was pounded in not at Craigellachie but here, at the village of Cliffside, a little north of Victoria.) Best of all, it is barely used. Freight mostly stops moving on weekends, and a single passenger train goes the distance once-daily. Perfect.

“You’re not getting on that track until you show me the schedule with what times that train leaves,” my wife, Jen, said. She made it clear she was going along with this plan only under duress. Drew, too, was having misgivings. We are aging men who enjoy staying alive, and are supposed to be modelling responsible behaviour to our kids.

There was another way. Off of the main Victoria-to-Courtney line, a branch extends westward from beachy Parksville, over the mountains, to Port Alberni. The tourist steam train that chugs the 10 kilometres to Port Alberni’s historic Mclean sawmill was down for the season. The track is otherwise empty, and has been for six years.

In the morning mist of an October Sunday, sleepy Port Alberni was positively comatose. The plume from the pulp mill hung like a pall. The three mills on the harbour were all operating at way below capacity because of the depressed market for wood. It was easy to imagine a railbike-tour operation spiking the place’s metabolism a little.

Fifty-five kilometres of riding lay ahead. We’d power north to the sawmill, then follow the rail east, through bear country, past the old rail stops of Bainbridge and Bostock and Stoke, climbing the three per cent grade to the summit and then down through the northern hem of mighty Cathedral Grove and on through to Parksville.

We set up next to the Port Alberni train station, and as we did, two cars pulled into the lot, and the drivers exchanged cash for marijuana. This was an extremely good sign. It meant the area was lightly policed.

There’s something vaguely embarrassing about, as an adult, having to skulk around avoiding detection. The CPR gifted this line not long ago to a not-for-profit group called the Island Corridor Foundation, which was less likely than some to release the hounds on us, but it still seemed wise to move quickly along.

Speed! We rolled out of the train station, bound for Parksville. Only to find ourselves—Hello, Cleveland!—half a kilometre down the track staring at a locked fence. And so was born yet another new sport, even more marginal: urban portaging. We humped the rig through downtown Alberni, past brake shops and burger joints. I doubt it looked heroic, but it felt like a real expedition, like sledging heavy gear across the tundra. Railbiking inverts the old equation: the city is the country and the country is the city. The wilderness, laced with those smooth rails, is the zone of comfort and easy mobility; the city, with its fences and switches and progress-stalling traffic lights, is the inhospitable frontier, and the faster you put it behind you the better.

We pitched up finally near a train trestle on the outskirts of town, and plopped down to rest. “You know, if both people weren’t equally on board with this, it’d be tough,” Drew said, shaking sweat from his head. “Because that sucked.”

The way ahead was now clear. But the track itself was a mess. The century-old iron rails were pitted and cracked like old teeth, the outside worn to a sort of pinking-shears edge that seized Chris’s beautifully engineered guide wheels and shook them like a Rottweiler. It may have well suited Dick Bentley’s backyard track in the Adirondacks, but here the limitations of our design were becoming apparent.

Just as Chris had warned, there is no end of little things that can halt progress on a railbike. Some are predictable—like rocks that have rolled down the embankment and snugged against the track—and some not so much. It had rained, and the tracks were slick. And because train rail isn’t flat on top but rounded, if your tire is even a little off-plumb it can suddenly slip off, knocking the wheel assembly out of alignment.

As we sat trying to repair the front guide, we were suddenly aware we weren’t alone.

“You need a flange, eh?”

Bob Jones, a retired logger and heavy-duty mechanic had spotted us from the window of his house near the tracks. Laconic. Feed cap. Hands in his pockets.

The outrigger was providing balance, Jones had noticed, but it wasn’t keeping the bike on track, and a guide wheel with a big lip on one side might do the trick. Actually, he happened to have a few.

Apparently, when you take a train out of a community you create a vacuum that people’s imaginations try to fill. Jones told us he’s been meaning to adapt his snowmobile to run on the tracks. Meanwhile, Ken Wilson, a local electrician and welder, test-drove a railbike his Dad built, from the summit 15 kilometres east of here. “It was pretty Mickey Mouse but it worked well enough,” he recalls. Except that the outrigger couldn’t account for the hiccups in the gauge. The track went wide and the bike didn’t, and Wilson shot over the handlebars. “It wasn’t too good,” he remembers. “Shoulda had a helmet.”

Wilson decided a more skookum vehicle was called for. So he outfitted a little railway pump car with a 12-hp engine. He finished his last weld at midnight and decided to test-drive it then and there with his son and his son’s girlfriend. The car bucked violently to life—the drive system generated far too much torque—and was suddenly away, kerthumping over automobile crossings, picking up speed, hitting at least 50 kpm by the time they reached the trestle on the edge of town. A fine slime of slug guts peppered their faces, and a lawn chair and picnic cooler and the sticks Wilson had rigged for brakes flew off and vanished into the blackness. When they hit the summit, Wilson cut the engine and they all waited for their breathing to stabilize. It was good, but it wasn’t too safe. “Shoulda had a helmet,” he says.

Near Cameron Lake, the air was perfumed with the smell of a controlled burn on a nearby mountainside. It was the kind of setting where you long to feel the wind in your hair. (Drew and I, we longed for hair so we could feel the wind in it.)

But there is no wind without speed, and speed was not part of this afternoon. It turns out that trains are great lawn mowers. Take them away and the land very quickly reclaims a rail corridor. Here the scotch broom was happy to get a beachhead uncontested, and it screamed against the tiny steel cowcatcher as we crawled along. Soon it was as high as our waist. Our neck. Over our heads. It lashed our faces in a way that felt medieval. (This is of course why it’s so tempting to railbike on active track. Abandoned lines on the plains of Saskatchewan are one thing; abandoned lines in a temperate rainforest are another.) We had to stand on the pedals to get enough power. The brief unweighting made the wheels spin.

And so we were thrilled—thrilled!—to arrive at that condemned trestle. It was toothless and scary, but it was also broomless, which made it beautiful, and we nosed along it, toward some kind of lesser immortality.

I will not lie outright and tell you that we railbiked the entire 55-kilometre route. Nor can I claim that forest creatures gathered at our feet as we stopped to drink deeply from mountain springs. We did not so much “glide effortlessly on ribbons of steel,” as one railbiking book promised, as we did grind out yardage like fullbacks. There were bursts of exhilaration punctuated by our standing around scratching our heads.

And yet we came home strangely giddy. It felt like the opposite of failure, just to be out there. You probably couldn’t talk to more strangers in a day if you were handing out 10-dollar bills. You couldn’t learn more about how to do something right by doing it wrong. (We should probably alert Popular Mechanics now that the DeKerf X-5 will be a showstopper.) And all that iron somehow got into our bloodstream. Train rails—bearing their stamped dates of completion—throw you a century back in time. To be a railbiker is to be intimately inserted into the creation myth of our nation. Lots and lots of now-forgotten people laid track to the sea. And on it a whole country grew, developed Rep-by-Pop, the two-line pass rule, peacekeeping, Muskol. And the freedom to at least debate breaking the law, sometimes, just for the hell of it.

V for Vaccine: How we can signal our immunity to each other

V for Vaccine: How we can signal our immunity to each other

Essays Featured

From THE GLOBE AND MAIL, May 10, 2021

One recent weekend, the sun came out, prompting locals to spill out onto the forest trails. I joined them, but I found it a little too crowded for comfort out there, given that we’re still at DEFCON 1 with the COVID-19 threat.

As hikers encountered each other on these narrow paths, many of them unmasked, a question mark hung in the air: How safe are we?

On my walk, I reached a pinch-point, with a couple coming toward me. We both stopped. On an impulse, I raised two fingers, palm out, in a V sign. The man nodded, and his wife seemed to exhale – and on they came, still observing their buffer but no longer visibly troubled.

Now, it could be they thought that I was just being friendly – that I was a hippie-chill North Van guy, communicating peace to my brother and sister. But I like to think they understood my intention: to signal, with that “V”, that I had received a vaccine. If I’d been jabbed twice, I’d have made the V with both hands, for double reassurance.

This is a thing. Okay, it’s not yet a thing, but I reckon it could be a thing. If the V-for-vaccinated sign catches on, it could lower our collective blood pressure until we hit herd immunity – not to mention the possibility of forging bonds between strangers at a time when we need the solidarity more than ever.

But how do you get a gesture to become universally adopted?

In 2014, researchers Xiangling Zhuang and Changxu Wu – a psychologist and an engineer – published a study investigating whether hand gestures might make cars more likely to stop for pedestrians at unmarked street crossings. They invented 11 hand signs and tested four of them – including a horizontal point, a crooked-elbow hitch and “time out” T – on street corners in Beijing. They hatched the signs based on sociologist Kurt Lewin’s theory that an effective gesture must have three components: visibility, clarity, and what Dr. Lewin called “motive power” – that it has the intended effect. It turned out that a couple of the gestures proved pretty effective at persuading drivers to stop. But no pedestrian gesture has really caught on. As far as I know, no one, anywhere, just points or flashes a “T” at oncoming cars at street corners. The pedestrian crossing gesture is a high-five left dangling but the culture.

The V-sign, though, is a different story. It has been part of the human repertoire for at least 700 years, though it has meant different things – many of them extremely rude, if you display it backward. Some say the palm-facing V was exchanged by English bowmen in the Battle of Agincourt, in defiance of the French, who had threatened to lop off the shooting fingers of any archer they captured. The V said, effectively: “Ha, varlots! We are still alive and free and full-fingered.”

But it wasn’t until January of 1941 that the V detonated in a whole population. The instigator was a Belgian diplomat named Victor de Laveleye, who proposed it as a rallying symbol for the Allies – V for victoire, in French, or for vrijheid, which means freedom in Dutch. Remember, this was before social media, or even TV, so he couldn’t plant the image in people’s minds. He simply described it on BBC Radio Belgium. But the idea was so lock-in-key perfect for the moment that it took off anyway. The V became iconic when Winston Churchill flashed it on V-day (and perhaps became a little tarnished when Richard Nixon co-opted it a quarter-century later).

That element of urgency may help explain the difference between a meme that goes viral and one that’s stillborn. It could be dictated by whether a society is in the crucible of wartime, or in some random moment when it will be no less safe to cross the street tomorrow. Does a pandemic qualify as urgent?

When I got home, I told my wife, Jen, the story of my impromptu V on the forest path, and about my rosy hopes to launch the very symbol I was proudly showing her right then.

“Wait, when did you get your vaccine?” she asked.

“A week ago.”

“It’s supposed to be two weeks until you’re fully protected.”

I slowly lowered … one of the fingers.

Her face was a mask.

“I think you need to work on your messaging,” she said.

Housebound and Bored? Turn Yourself into a Human Guinea Pig

Housebound and Bored? Turn Yourself into a Human Guinea Pig

Essays Featured Psychology Published Stories Archive

THE WALRUS, March 22, 2021

A BASIC RULE OF SCIENCE is the more data points, the better. If you’re working with human subjects, you need enough of them to prove that your results apply not just to these people but to all people. Too small a sample size is a design flaw. But a single test subject—an “N of 1”—can still be useful if you run a controlled experiment for a long time.

When he was about twelve years old, Donald L. Unger, of Thousand Oaks, California, grew tired of his mother’s stern warnings whenever she heard him crack his knuckles: Don’t do that—it’ll give you arthritis. This sounded like BS. The boy was determined to prove his mother wrong. But how? He devised a test using the only guinea pig at hand: himself. He stopped cracking the knuckles of his right hand but continued his cracking habit with his left, making sure to do it at least twice per day. He kept this up for fifty years.

In 1990, Unger—now a physician and researcher—had his hands examined. There appeared to be no difference in arthritis creep. Aha! A triumphant rebuke to his mother—and one borne out, in those intervening decades, by other researchers, in other ways. In 2009, Unger was awarded an Ig Noble Prize, given to those who produce “achievements that first make people laugh, then think.” Unger’s venture is part of a long and storied tradition of folks experimenting on themselves. Plenty of things that have been discovered, invented, or confirmed would never have been without someone applying the basic algorithm: try something; observe results; learn; try again. And self-experimentation has arguably never mattered more. In today’s hypermediated world, with its steady diet of reconstituted information, self-experiments are a corrective. There is simply no substitute for personal experience.

Think of DIY science as a tree with many branches. Sometimes it’s done for high-minded reasons: to help humanity within the constraints of the Hippocratic oath. The Nuremberg code—put in place after the gruesome extent of medical testing by Nazi doctors came to light—forbids an experimenter from making their subject face any procedure they wouldn’t be willing to undergo themselves. Some scientists believe the only way to be totally sure they’re adhering to the code is to be their own test subjects. (Also, human trials require “informed consent”—but, as Nobel Prize–winning physicist Rosalyn Yalow pointed out, nobody can really give truly informed consent unless they helped design the trial. That’s why, she later admitted, “in our laboratory, we always used ourselves.”)

Sometimes, self-experimenting is done in the name of art—say, to test human limits, as Marina Abramović did during a show in Italy, when she allowed herself to be pummelled by strangers for several hours, or as Chris Burden did when he voluntarily took a bullet from close range. In the marketing world, self-experimentation is just good business. It’s dogfooding—a term that may trace back to Clement L. Hirsch, president of Kal Kan, who was rumoured to make a show, at the company’s annual general meetings, of opening a can of dog food and eating it with a fork in front of queasy shareholders. If you’re willing to demonstrate your product on yourself, that cements your credibility. The dogfooding metaphor has raced through Silicon Valley, where people pride themselves on beta testing their own products.

Sometimes, this has ended up working against the brand. Witness the recent parade of social media company insiders and software engineers—the ones who built those sticky engagement features—on the documentary The Social Dilemma, stepping forward, beetle-browed, to admit that they, too, have become addicted to their products. But there’s a simpler reason to experiment on yourself. It falls into the hopper of Why the hell not? There are lots of examples of people who, deep into seemingly interminable COVID-19 lockdowns with not a whole lot to do, found the most mundane aspects of their everyday lives weirdly magnified. Alone with our tics and neuroses, in the laboratories of our own homes, “we have turned into scientists of ourselves,” noted Sam Anderson, staff writer at The New York Times Magazine. Anderson found himself monitoring his intake of Doritos and then carefully, clinically noting how those little rafts of baked corn and flavour dust made him feel—before, during, and after he scarfed them down.

Other inward-bound argonauts have hatched experiments in a similar spirit. Like trying to construct a perfectly optimal day or making a list of things you’ve said or believed that you no longer agree with. As lockdown dragged on and she found herself housebound and mentally underemployed, writer Molly Young found “little harebrained ways to warp reality.” She tried “ground living” (no chairs). She wandered around naked and stayed up all night.

She ate a meal straight from the plate, like a dog, just to see what it was like. (“Sloppy.”) She practised considering doing stuff—making banana bread, investigating that stain on the carpet over there—without actually doing it. She called these little personal experiments “norm-shedding.” Her question to herself was: Does behaving unusually alter our perceptions of ourselves? If we are what we habitually do, then does changing what we do ripple back upriver and change who we are? Act like a different person for long enough and you eventually become one. And then the question is, When the experiment is over and you go back to your old ways—clothing and sleep and forks—do you find your old recognizable self waiting to meet you?

Upon reflection—and ye gads, there’s been plenty of time for it—many have come to realize that self-experimentation is actually just how we live our lives. We try to figure out how to surprise ourselves. We conduct little trials, some in public, some in private, kicking around what will take the edge off the restlessness and the fear. Some things prove reliably beneficial: exercise, facing something you’ve been avoiding, admitting mistakes, trying to make amends. Some of these experiments produce outsize results.

Some interventions, however, are fool’s gold and actually make things worse, leading to addictions and other wrong turns. It’s a trial-and-error world now. We are all Wile E. Coyote ordering stuff from Acme (er, Amazon) and seeing if any of it—the spring-loaded tennis shoes, the rocket-powered pogo stick, the instant icicle maker—gets us any closer to satisfaction.

Of course, what most of us have been futzing with is pretty low-stakes poker. As the COVID-19 crisis deepened, the death toll spiked, and a global all-hands-on-deck scramble for a vaccine ensued, a number of researchers hustled their trials along by testing their products on themselves. And it wasn’t just unaccredited biohackers who were eating their own dog food: it was some of the biggest names in experimental science. Last July, photos circulated of famed Harvard geneticist George Church shoving up his nose a vial of experimental COVID-19 nasal vaccine that he and twenty or so others, members of a rapid-response vaccine-development team, had churned out. When Gao Fu, the Chinese virologist and immunologist who heads the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, disclosed that he, too, had injected an experimental vaccine, he said it was partly to boost public confidence in vaccines. Convincing reluctant holdouts to buy in to COVID-19 vaccines may be the noblest dogfooding application of all: to sell the public on some needed pivot by defusing an unwarranted fear.

Twenty years ago, I carved my own modest notch into the self-experimentation bedpost when I underwent experimental dental surgery for a national magazine story. My reason was no more lofty than curiosity. (And, frankly, I needed the money.) The question under investigation was: To what extent can regular people override serious pain with a little mental training? The procedure, which involved the extraction of impacted wisdom teeth, was done at an alternative dental clinic in Calgary. It was successful only in the sense that I hung in till the end and lived. When I returned to Vancouver, my wife met me at the airport.

“So, how’d it go?” she asked warily.

“Okay,” I said. “I think I got the story. And no one was exploited.”

She said: “Only you.”

On Pandemic Time

On Pandemic Time

Essays Featured

from THE GLOBE AND MAIL, Aug 14, 2020

Have you noticed you’ve been perceiving time differently since the world turned upside down in March?

Many people report that the first month of lockdown felt like it lasted about a year. But then the clock started speeding up. And now it’s whirring like a propeller.

If that’s been your experience, too, the question is why.

The short answer: because time isn’t real. It’s a social and psychological construct, a “rubbery thing,” as the Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman puts it.

There’s often a pretty significant disconnect between the substantial “truth” of time – as measured by atomic clocks – and how it feels. Time seems to race or drag according to what’s going on around us.

What transpired in the early months of the pandemic was unprecedented in our lifetimes. Everything was novel. And novelty, psychologists have found, stretches time. Things that surprise us seize our attention, and gobble neural energy as the memories are processed. And that makes the weird episodes in our lives, as we reflect on them later, seem to have lasted much longer than they actually did.

Our brains are lazy – er, efficient. When they encounter something familiar, they kind of stop taking notes. Been there, done that. “See yesterday,” the brain jots in the margin, thereby preserving space for the next bit of real news – i.e., something different.

Those crazy, anxious early days of COVID-19 – the alarming numbers out of Iran and Italy, the chaos of everyone’s plans suddenly collapsing – were intense. And intensity of feeling, it turns out, pumps even more molasses into the temporal gears. It may have felt like a Michael Bay movie while it was happening, but in the brain’s director’s cut, it’s more like a Merchant Ivory film, the whole thing unfolding at the speed of a lazy river.

No wonder life B.C. – before COVID-19 – seems like eons ago.

But around late April or early May there was that shift. We started getting used to the weirdness. The shock of working from home and tracking the infection spikes and banging a pot in the evening began to wear off. Routine took hold (at least for those of us lucky enough not to be on the health care front lines). There were fewer unusual events to snag our attention and slow time, so the days started zipping by again.

This is all a fairly new discovery, this elastic property of the sense of time.

In the 1930s, an American physiologist named Hudson Hoagland was attending to his wife as she lay sick in bed with the flu. He nipped away from her bedside for a few moments and then returned, whereupon she remarked: “Where have you been? You’ve been away for ages!” Something was distorting her sense of time. Dr. Hoagland suspected the fever. Could it be there was some kind of clock in the human central nervous system – a chemical pacemaker that can be nudged by outside factors, like, in this case, heat? (Subsequent studies support Dr. Hoagland’s hunch that time slows as our core body temperature rises. So if you thought that Bikram yoga class would never end, now you know why.)

Today it’s clear there’s not just one internal clock governing our judgment of time; multiple systems work in concert. Dr. Hoagland’s original sleuthing sent us down a rabbit hole that is vastly deeper and windier than anyone suspected.

What’s interesting is that, while much of the variation in how we judge time is situational, some of it is not. One constant appears to be our age. Per the cliché, time actually does fly as we get older, studies suggests. This has always made me a little bit envious of kids, in their unleaky little boats. They never seem to lose whole days, let alone accidentally start writing the wrong decade on a cheque. It has been wild, during the pandemic, to think of our nuclear family holed up under the same roof, riding out this historical event together but experiencing it – the pace of it – quite differently.

Science cannot fully explain the generational discrepancy, but a few things may be going on.

One is, again, that novelty factor. Kids are relative newcomers to this planet, so they are still routinely surprised by stuff, and their brains work hard to sort it out. And since each passing hour is a larger proportion of a child’s short life, it may feel longer and more significant. Plus, kids’ attention and memory circuits are still growing, so the transmission of information may actually be physically slower, drawing time out even more.

Another possible ingredient in the mix: digital media. Gen Z is not exactly waiting on the pier for the next instalment of Charles Dickens’s new novel to arrive by boat. They have lived their whole life, as the writer Venkatesh Rao put it, “inside a cage of time made up of 32 satellites orbiting Earth.” What the young want – TV shows, songs, commodities – is available any time, and always has been. So: Less time spent reminiscing plus less time spent anticipating means more time moored in the present. We might guess – from other research – that this too puts the brakes on time.

In the early going of the pandemic, my wife and I got a wee inkling of what it might feel like to be a kid. We were jacked in to their time signature. Too bad it was mostly because we were overloading our circuits being stressed out and rolling the dice on what to do and which experts to believe; the lazy river was full of crocodiles. But as the weeks passed, and normalcy set in, the gulf between the generations began to open again. Time sped up as we calmed down, while they continued on their unhurried course. The kids seemed chill, for the most part – although much more was going on inside their heads.

There is a new word in circulation, hatched not from the neuroscience labs but from the jittery zeitgeist. The word is “shadowtime.” As defined by its creators, it is “a feeling of living in two distinctly different temporal scales simultaneously.” It’s as if two clocks are ticking at once – real time and existential time.

To use it in a sentence: “Kane was intently working on his presentation that was due the next morning, but as he looked up and saw the moon it occurred to him that the moon had been rising and setting for 4.5 billion years, moving ever farther away. He felt shadowtime for the rest of the evening.”

The word was coined by the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, a California-based conceptual art project, so it’s definitely more felicity than science. But it does capture the real and uncomfortable disconnect of having to navigate life, in its humdrum detail, while an environmental sword of Damocles dangles overhead. There’s some evidence that younger people sense the anxious doomsday countdown more acutely. They have more skin in the game, after all; it’s their future.

But there’s nothing like approaching one’s own personal expiry date to inject each passing moment with meaning. Gerontologists have found that older people, so long as they aren’t suffering, tend to positively cherish time. “The elders view time like a member of a desert tribe views water,” Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University, told me. “They can’t believe we would ever squander such a precious resource.” To younger people they counsel: “Think small.” Pay attention. Take delight in the hummingbird suspended outside your window. Relish your enchiladas – and the person who just laid them on the table in front of you.

To the extent that it stretches time, paying attention becomes a kind of investment plan.

Maybe the last reliable one we have left.

On Knowing the Winged Whale

On Knowing the Winged Whale

Featured Science

HAKAI magazine, July 7, 2020

Todd Cravens photo

In the middle of Johnstone Strait, close to the northern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, a calm June day has dialed up a plate-flat sea. But that won’t last long.

“Humpback,” says Jackie Hildering from the cockpit of her runabout, Fluke. She turns her head to a distant sound and a vertical cloud rising off the water.

There it is. Or he, or she; gender indeterminate. Hildering, a humpback whale researcher, angles the boat toward the humpback and throttles the engine way back. She’s just close enough to try—with a telephoto lens—to identify this individual by its unique tail flukes. Humpbacks are fairly slow swimmers, but this one’s moving quickly enough to make her job hard. A mobbing is going down. A half-dozen or so Pacific white-sided dolphins are swarming the whale Hildering will later identify from photographs as an adult named Squall.

The dolphins juke around Squall’s head and flanks. Why are they messing with the whale?

“Dolphins can be mystical and complete jerks—both things are true,” says Hildering, cofounder and director of education and communication at the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS), a Port McNeill–based nonprofit studying humpback and minke whales. These dolphins are potentially “learning by provocation,” as Hildering puts it. They’re clearly having a ball. Not so the humpback. This “most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales,” as Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, described the humpback, must be feeling mighty put upon. The whale flexes its body, trying to shake off the harassers, and rolls, exposing one of those great pectoral fins, which can be as long as one-third of its body length, and which gives the humpback its scientific genus, Megaptera, or “large-winged.” Squall slaps it down, apparently in self-defense, like a sweet-natured grandmother whacking a mugger with her umbrella.

As recently as a decade ago, this kind of scene was rare in BC waters. Dolphins routinely splashed about, but not humpbacks. Here in Johnstone Strait, the big show, the prime tourist draw, was killer whales—the salmon-eating residents that prowl the neighborhood. As the humpbacks began showing up in greater numbers in the early 2000s—here and across the North Pacific more broadly—their reputation grew to almost mythic status. They’re big acrobats and fascinating to watch. When researchers discovered that these filter-feeding baleen whales—they prey on small forage fish and invertebrates—will sometimes upend the marine mammal–eating transient killer whales’ dinner plans, that added even more to this new arrival’s narrative. Humpbacks are known to swoop in and disrupt a killer whale hunt, sometimes pulling a targeted seal or sea lion pup safely onto their belly with one of those pectoral fins. You could call them the ocean’s Justice League. “You know how you put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others?” says Fred Sharpe, a research biologist with the Alaska Whale Foundation who has been studying the species for over 30 years. “Humpbacks aren’t like that. They just wade right in to help those in need, as if they can’t help themselves.”

Spend time on the ocean watching humpbacks and you can’t help but be … stirred. Their ingenious feeding strategies, their transoceanic ambitions, the mere fact of their global recovery after a precariously close brush with oblivion, invites a depth of feeling rarely experienced in the average human day. Whatever depths there are to plumb in the hearts of humpbacks, we have been given a second chance to find out.

Hildering doesn’t want us to blow it.

Until the mid-1960s, humans were the villains in the humpbacks’ narrative.

Hunted to near extinction—as few as 5,000 remained, and they had disappeared from BC waters—humpbacks were saved by a 1966 ban on commercial harvesting in the North Pacific. They are managing to bounce back and repopulate in earnest. Of the 14 distinct populations of humpbacks worldwide, only four are still considered endangered. An updated census is in the works, but a 2008 study estimated that the entire North Pacific has around 20,000 humpbacks. The northeast Pacific Ocean has less than half that population: 3,000 to 5,000 each for the Gulf of Alaska and the combined southeast Alaska and northern British Columbia area, 200 to 400 for southern British Columbia and northern Washington, and 1,400 to 1,700 for California and Oregon. The numbers are encouraging. In 2014, the North Pacific humpback whale population was recommended for downlisting from threatened to a species of special concern under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, a change that came into effect in 2017.

In the United States, officials removed most humpback whale populations from the federal endangered species list in 2016, although the Mexico population that feeds off the coasts of California, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska was only downlisted to threatened.

We can embrace the humpback resurgence as a rare ecological good news story. Few animals that land on endangered species lists ever get off them, except for the wrong reason—they go extinct. But downlisting has some problems.

For one thing, it can paint a rosier picture than is actually the case. A humpback population can get a blanket bill of good health, while certain subgroups within it struggle mightily. In the Gulf of Alaska, humpbacks are not doing great, says biologist Jan Straley of the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) in Juneau. “I never thought I’d see the day when zero calves would [return to] Sitka Sound.” But for a few years there were no calves. The cause was probably a convergence of conditions six years ago that produced a Texas-sized patch of warm water—called the Blob—in the northeast Pacific Ocean that disrupted marine food chains and sent humpbacks into a nutritional tailspin.

Which is another problem with downlisting. When a species is no longer officially threatened, the sense of urgency can be lost, protections may fall away, and then recovery stalls when they’re suddenly dealt an environmental blow.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) began tracking individual humpbacks in BC waters back in 1989 when their recovery was still in question.

Wildlife populations are typically estimated in one of two ways: by sampling—counting the number of animals through line transects and extrapolating to a broader area—or by mark and recapture, whereby individual animals are caught, tagged, released, and then monitored. Humpback populations are unique in that you don’t need to mark them. “They come pre-marked,” as UAS researcher Ellen Chenoweth puts it, with those tails sui generis as a fingerprint.

DFO researchers systematically photographed the black-and-white pattern on the underside of a humpback’s tail and the pattern of bumps on its edge. They gave each photographed humpback an alphanumeric designation and sorted them into three groups—X, Y, and Z—based on the easiest shorthand visual: the amount of black or white on the tail. (So whale BCX004, for example, was the fourth mostly-black-tailed humpback documented in BC waters.)

In 2010, DFO stopped documenting individual humpback whales. However, MERS and the North Coast Cetacean Society (NCCS) on remote Fin Island, over 300 kilometers north of Port McNeill, and a handful of other groups continued the effort. In addition, they are also collaborating to achieve an updated province-wide catalog for humpback whales sighted off British Columbia’s coast.

Right now a mystery lurks in the local head count: humpbacks cannot reproduce quickly enough to generate the numbers we seem to be seeing in BC waters. “So they’re obviously coming from somewhere else,” says Hildering. Researchers in southeast Alaska have been keeping tabs on individual whales for a very long time, and while a few of their research subjects show up in BC waters from time to time, it’s nowhere near enough to account for the increase. To state the obvious, the ocean is vast and there are only a few scientists at specific locations keeping track of individual whales and comparing notes. It’s easy to lose sight of a whale between feeding grounds in the North Pacific and breeding grounds in Hawai‘i, Mexico, Central America, or Japan—one day you know exactly where it is, and then suddenly an animal the size of a city bus slips through your fingers.

Three years ago, however, a new tool debuted to help with the count more broadly: an online platform called Happywhale, which has brought thousands of citizen scientists the world over into the mix as data contributors.

Invented in 2015 by ecotourism operator and biologist Ted Cheeseman and rocket scientist Ken Southerland, Happywhale uses pattern-recognition software to identify whales. With Happywhale, you take a picture of the underside of a humpback’s tail and the algorithm tries to match it with one of the known humpbacks in its global database. With a good shot, the algorithm is now 99 percent accurate. A digital match isn’t the end of things, though; plenty of curation is still needed. Each entry is manually verified, and this is where local organizations like MERS and NCCS are invaluable. They provide the base data that Happywhale needs to solve the who’s-who puzzle. While a huge, multinational SPLASH project identified nearly 8,000 individual humpbacks from 2004 to 2006 using the old-fashioned method—eyeballing photographs of sighted whales and trying to find a match in a catalog—Happywhale boosted that number almost fourfold. Through the app, people have identified over 30,000 humpbacks worldwide to date, simply through eyes on the water.

Yet all this unsynced data can be confusing. Like international spies with multiple aliases, many humpbacks ply the oceans under different names. “I think the most we have is eight for one whale, traveling between Hawai‘i, British Columbia, and southeast Alaska,” says Cheeseman, who is a PhD candidate at Southern Cross University in Australia. Cheeseman is managing data from 74 different humpback catalogs worldwide. “The coordination,” he says, “is being figured out.”

Hildering and Janie Wray, of NCCS, are relentless in their data collection, gathering information from their personal sightings and those of local whale watchers and private boaters. When someone submits a sighting to MERS, Hildering and her colleagues look for a match in the MERS catalog. If a match is found, the sighting information is entered into a database, a record that keeps track of the whale. If a match can’t be found in any of the catalogs, the submission may be a first for an undocumented whale.

Whatever the system, at the top of the data-collection funnel is still a pair of human eyes. And Hildering’s are among the best.

Nikon dangling from her neck, Hildering steers her open boat out toward Weynton Passage. The wind blows her hair around. She stands five foot two (1.6 meters) but looks taller at the helm of Fluke. Gulls are circling, and common murres are diving in and bursting out of the water. That catches Hildering’s attention: the bird activity means there’s likely schooling herring, the same diet humpbacks in these waters enjoy.

“There,” she says, pointing. I see nothing at first, then, faintly, what looks like campfire smoke on the shore. It’s a blow, two meters high and straight up. That’s textbook humpback. “What we do now depends on who this is,” Hildering says. “If it’s a known whale, we document its location. If it’s a new whale we have to do more.”

Unlike killer whales, which can largely be identified by the shape of their dorsal fin, identifying humpback whales by their stubby little dorsal fin is trickier. “It’s like identifying humans by their nose,” Hildering says. “You can do it, but you can also go crazy trying.” But sometimes dorsal fins are distinct enough to offer a nickname. Gender is trickier. If a whale is lying on its back, tail lobbing, a bump called a hemispheric lobe is sometimes visible. It’s a telltale sign of a female. You can also tell a humpback is female if it’s seen with a tiny calf. As for the chances of spotting a male appendage, unless somehow caught in the act of mating, a penis is never visible.

The whale Hildering has spotted dives and resurfaces, draped in seaweed; he’s playing in the kelp beds. “I’m almost positive this is Ojos Blancos,” she says, pulling out her little yellow notebook. That’s white eyes in Spanish, named for the dots on the whale’s tail flukes.

“Who gets namer’s rights?” I ask.

“You don’t get namer’s rights,” Hildering says. The first to spot an unidentified humpback “gets the privilege of making a suggestion,” she says. The name ought, ideally, to evoke some distinctive physical feature of the whale. One local humpback has a dorsal fin with a little lean; it’s called Pisa. Another’s tail flukes boast what looks like a musical score—dot dot dot stripe. Da Da Da Dum. That’s Beethoven. Names like Zephyr and Poptart and Jigger are more likely to make the cut than, say, Humphrey. (Wait: that one did stick.)

There’s another reason to use names rather than serial numbers: it creates a connection. And connection is the royal road to conservation—as environmentalists discovered when they started giving names (like Luna or the Carmanah Giant) to individual trees within forests they were trying to protect. Whales have an advantage over trees in that you don’t have to split philosophical hairs about whether they’re actually sentient beings. It’s narrative engagement with humpbacks—becoming part of their story—that Cheeseman credits for the success of his Happywhale app. (After you report “your” whale, you get an email notification when it’s next spotted; you can track its progress as it lives out its life.) And that’s also why a number of marine nonprofits, including MERS, have adopt-a-whale programs—feeling a kindred spark with an individual humpback is a good way to open wallets.

Hildering finally gets a positive identification on the seaweed-draped whale—and I can practically feel her vibrating with satisfaction when she does. It is Graffiti, so-named because of the patterning on its tail flukes—to me, a pretty good facsimile of a Jackson Pollock painting.

While we do have an idea of where Graffiti, or Zephyr, or Poptart roam in any given year, humpbacks keep researchers on their toes: a couple of studies have shown that individual whales sometimes switch breeding grounds. One left the eastern North Pacific feeding grounds to breed in Japan one year, and went to Hawai‘i the following year. Another whale, spotted in Hawai‘i one year, was sighted in Mexico the next. Overall, what we know is still swamped by what we don’t know about humpbacks.

They don’t use echolocation like toothed whales doso how do they navigate to their breeding grounds? “Five degrees off and they’d blast right by the Hawaiian Islands,” says Hildering. One theory: animal magnetism. Biomagnetite crystals have been found in whale brains.

How do they hunt? There are only theories, and one of the more fun ones is that they listen for the farts of their prey. The truth is, however, that “nobody on Earth knows how baleen whales find their food,” Hildering says.

How long do they live?

“We haven’t had enough time to figure out how long they can live,” Hildering says.

Why do they sing?

Hildering leans close.

“We’ve been studying the question for over 40 years and still nobody knows why humpbacks sing.”

The first whales Hildering had the privilege of seeing in the wild weren’t humpbacks but killer whales—the matriline A12—here in Johnstone Strait. “Let’s call it what it was—an epiphany,” Hildering says. She heard them before she saw them: that telltale crunching of stones, through the hydrophone of the whale watching boat hovering outside the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve where the whales were rubbing their bodies in the shallows full of smooth pebbles. Then, together, they swam out of the reserve. “And slowly, I saw this family in unison. It felt like I’d been slapped upside the head,” Hildering says. “I realized that I’d drifted off course.”

At the time, Hildering was visiting from the Netherlands where she worked as the deputy head of Rotterdam’s international school. The killer whale encounter changed everything. Hildering moved back to Vancouver Island, where she’d grown up. Stubbs Island Whale Watching, the company that had delivered her transcendence, gave her a job as an interpreter. It was 1999 and humpbacks were still an absolute rarity in these waters. But as her boat tours ranged the area in search of killer whales, humpback sightings became more frequent. A true naturalist with insatiable curiosity, Hildering had to know who these whales were. Her position out on the water allowed her to do just that.

And so, aboard the tour boats, she told the humpbacks’ story.

How each spring they leave their tropical breeding grounds and make the long return trip back to their feeding grounds as far north as the Bering Sea—the second-farthest mammalian migration on the planet (gray whales are thought to swim farther). Humpbacks can put as much mileage on their odometers each year as the average North American puts on a car—up to 16,000 kilometers round trip.

Because Hildering was out on the water every day, she kept track of the local humpbacks: just seven in 2003 and double that the next year. The summer of 2019, she identified 93, perhaps more when all the data is logged. Hildering, a biologist and teacher by training, built her credibility as a humpback researcher through sheer dogged reporting—just observing the animal, taking notes, and reporting what she finds. The first humpback she ever identified—BCX0022, aka Houdini—hasn’t been seen in years, but some of her calves are still around. There are over 380 individuals in MERS’s catalog, and Hildering can often pretty much anticipate their movements. “Once Argonaut comes back, I know very likely where he is,” she says. “I know what Slash does when she has a calf. … Some of them are incredibly predictable in how they behave. But then suddenly things will change. Like, there’s a whale called Freckles that has incredible site fidelity, and then this year, she wasn’t sighted in our area at all; she was sighted in Alaska. Like, what the heck, Freckles?!”

Hildering has an accomplice at MERS: Christie McMillan, a marine biologist who is director of humpback whale research for the organization. The two make a formidable team; together they have made some unique contributions to the field.

In 2011, Hildering observed a young whale named Moonstar, just three years old at the time, engaging in some highly unusual behavior. Humpbacks in these waters are typically lunge feeders, surging up from the depths, mouth agape, to engulf the schools of fish neatly rounded up by diving birds. But what Moonstar did that day was totally different. He was at the surface, poised with his mouth open like a Venus flytrap, letting the birds do the work of scaring the fish into his mouth, and using his pectoral fins to give the fish the final push in. Little Moonstar and an adult male named Conger were the only ones doing it. Hildering was stumped.

“I thought, What the hell are you doing?” Hildering recalls.

Conger and his young pal Moonstar had hit on a sensible way to snack on a few stray juvenile herring. The new technique, which they dubbed trap feeding, soon spread through the local humpback neighborhood—at last count to 25 whales. All animals adapt or die. But it’s rare to observe one, in real time, MacGyvering a solution to changing conditions.

McMillan reckons trap feeding may be a response to dwindling fish stocks. Add in the other observed anomalies—humpbacks returning from breeding grounds to Alaska waters with fewer calves, and changing migration patterns—and the plot thickens. A prevailing theory is the new behaviors are linked to changes in ocean conditions, such as acidification of the water and the vexing Blob that’s been messing with their prey.

Hildering and her colleagues continued to study the behavior and in 2018 published a much-cited paper, coauthored with McMillan and Jared Towers of MERS.

It would be interesting to know what humpbacks are making of these massive changes in their lifetime, if only they could talk.

But of course they can.

On the rocky north shore of Hanson Island, just off Telegraph Cove, in the waters of the Inside Passage of northern Vancouver Island, sits a weathered building perched on pilings. It looks like either a destination brunch place or a redoubt to ride out the end of the world. This is OrcaLab, and on a Saturday afternoon, Hildering noses Fluke up to the dock for a visit with its founders, the husband-and-wife team of Paul Spong and Helena Symonds.

If whales had an undersea liberty monument, Paul Spong’s name would be on it. At the front of the push to ban killer whales in captivity—a stance that got him fired from his research position at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1974—Spong, a neuroscientist by training, is also credited with persuading Greenpeace to pivot from banning nukes to saving whales.

In 1980, Spong and Symonds built OrcaLab and set up a hydrophone array to capture killer whale conversations as they bounced along the acoustic window between northern Vancouver Island, the BC mainland via Johnstone Strait, and Blackfish Sound. For 40 years, volunteers have spelled each other off at the audio deck, 24/7, recording every sound. The by-catch of all that killer whale data is hundreds and hundreds of hours of humpback vocalizations.

That is what we’ve come to hear.

Symonds pushes play on some recent recordings, and, with the acoustic smog of boat traffic filtered out, humpback chat fills the room.

I hear pops and squawks and whirrs and clicks. Humpbacks sound quite different from other vocalists in their environment, unless they don’t, by choice: humpbacks have been known to mimic their neighbors. Sometimes they sound like killer whales, sometimes they sound like birds. Not long ago, OrcaLab picked up a particular humpback call followed by a rush of bubbles. It was puzzling. That call had previously been thought to be a kind of dinner bell, mustering up the group to get in position to eat by bubble-net feeding, a strategy where whales release bubbles from their blowholes to create a curtain around their prey, which panic and form a bait ball. On a signal, the pod lunges up to devour the fish. Each humpback has a particular role and a particular position. They all surface at the exact same spot in relation to others, every single time.

But this humpback was alone. “If they’re doing it on their own,” Hildering says, “that suggests the call has at least as big a role in getting the fish to school up.”

It’s in the tropical waters of their mating grounds that humpbacks really let fly acoustically. There, males issue purring “pickup lines,” a term coined from the research of University of Queensland, Australia, scientist Rebecca Dunlop. Males also dial it up; songs are louder than the non-musical social sounds humpbacks make. Researchers have recorded decibel levels well over 150 from more than 10 kilometers away—in comparison, a jet engine chimes in at 140 decibels from 30 meters away. Some have deemed these tours de force, with repeating refrains, crosses between a Bach fugue and “Stairway to Heaven,” as beguiling and downright sexy.

Those are the sounds that saved the whales.

Those tones pierced the heart of biologist Roger Payne in 1970, when he heard a recording of them captured by a US Navy vessel. Payne did something that now looks like genius: he released those humpback songs on vinyl. They caught an Age of Aquarius updraft to the top of the pop charts. Meanwhile, Payne’s peer-reviewed paper on humpback song was steaming toward publication as the lead article in the journal Science. Soon humpbacks were the face of the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden. “Really,

[the recording]

ushered in the modern ocean conservation movement,” says Sharpe. “It paved the way for stewardship of the oceans just generally.”

Payne called humpback song “the most evocative, most beautiful sounds made by any animal on Earth.” And NASA apparently agreed. Aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, launched in 1977 and now soaring through deep space, is the calling card of our planet: a golden record of a soundtrack from the third rock from the sun. Interspliced with greetings from UN diplomats, along with other natural sounds—thunder and crickets and the sound of a kiss—are songs of the humpback whale. In our only deliberate attempt to represent Earth to extraterrestrial beings, we gave humpback whales a status equivalent to our own. Which is not so far off Indigenous perspectives of humpbacks. To the Indigenous people of northern Vancouver Island, for example, humpbacks are the record keepers, repositories of ancient wisdom, swimming libraries. But in the Eurocentric telling, the story of humpbacks has been completely reversed. Two centuries ago, they were monsters. Half a century ago, they were hamburger. Now they are the ocean’s mystical elders. Not like us: in some ways better than us.

They are our janitors, even if they don’t know it, reversing our most egregious mess: climate change. The great whales are carbon-sequestering machines. The surface phytoplankton blooms nurtured by their poop pull vast amounts of carbon out of the air. And when a humpback dies, the 30-odd tonnes of carbon its body absorbed sinks with it. Not long ago, economists at the International Monetary Fund tried to put a dollar figure on those cetacean carbon credits, along with tourism and other economic benefits. The average great whale, such as a humpback, they reckoned, is probably worth US $2-million.

They share songs and embellish them, in a way that’s effectively jazz, yet, in a way, they’re ahead of humans when it comes to communication. Chatting across whole oceans, Sharpe says, their songs are such marvels of data compression—whereby songs are “packed up” for their transoceanic journey, like concentrated orange juice—that they’re now being studied by scientists at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, California, as an analog for interstellar messaging. Humpbacks also use tools (bubbles), and they learn from each other (hunting strategies).

There’s nothing to call that but culture. The Justice League? Well, that’s harder to settle. Whether humpbacks are genuinely altruistic remains a matter of fierce debate.

In October 2017, marine biologist Nan Hauser was filming a humpback in the Cook Islands when it seemed to turn on her, nudging her roughly back toward her boat. She climbed to safety, the only blood on her from scrapes from the barnacles that cling to humpbacks. Only then did she see the tiger shark. She’s convinced the humpback was saving her life. “I’m a scientist, and if anyone told me this story, I wouldn’t believe it,” she says. Having been scooped from the path of a tiger shark may produce a forgivably rosy view of humpback altruism, but scientists are inclined to explain such behavior in terms of an instinctive protective response against any predator that might hurt a baby humpback.

Still, the desire to anthropomorphize and interact with animals on our own terms can be strong.

Paul Spong himself was not immune. At the Vancouver Aquarium he’d observed that the resident killer whale seemed to like listening to music, and so “that first summer I was here at OrcaLab, I played music I thought the whales might be interested in,” he says. Through underwater speakers, he piped Beethoven and the Stones to see if the whales would respond.

They didn’t.

“Eventually I got it,” Spong says. “Their lives are centered around each other. And we really exist on the periphery for them.”

That’s more or less Hildering’s position as well.

Some people may feel a need for a relationship but it’s very one-sided, and respect on the whale’s terms has been slow to sink in, so noticeable by how unmindful we really are of their needs. Quieter oceans, yes, but also litter-free. Roughly half of the humpbacks in Hildering’s study area bear the scars of entanglement. Those are the lucky ones, the ones that broke free from our forgotten garbage or ghost fishing gear. It’s anyone’s guess how many, less lucky, sink to the bottom each year.

On a still evening in late June 2019, locals, visitors, and a few dozen local business operators file into the whale museum in Telegraph Cove, a picturesque outpost on northern Vancouver Island that, in summer, is usually a bustling base camp for ecotourism. At this preseason meeting, which includes organizations such as MERS, DFO, BC Parks, and others, people take seats under the skeleton of an 18-meter fin whale hanging from the ceiling. Jim Borrowman, a former whale watching captain who now runs the Whale Interpretive Centre, introduces everyone, and then the presenters get up one by one to speak.

“Show of hands,” says Hildering, when it’s her turn. “Who here has hit or almost hit a humpback whale?”

Eighty percent of the hands shoot up.

“I myself have almost hit one,” Hildering says. “They are that unpredictable.”

In the inshore waters of British Columbia, boaters have become used to navigating around killer whales—they are, usually, pretty obviously going somewhere. They generally travel linearly with their iconic black dorsal fins often visible at the surface. Humpbacks, meanwhile, can surface suddenly after a long dive. They travel in unpredictable patterns. On top of that, they will burst into acrobatic action. Hildering sees it over and over: a boater assumes the humpback is going in a straight line and steers accordingly, like a driver casually calculating to just miss a crossing pedestrian. And the rest is trauma care.

Hildering keeps news reports at the ready as cautionary tales: in May 2013, a Campbell River man needs facial reconstruction surgery after a humpback suddenly breaches in front of his fishing boat, sending him through the windshield. In 2017, a customer in a guided fishing vessel off Haida Gwaii is thrown when the boat collides with a suddenly appearing humpback. He breaks his spine.

Hildering considers this the most urgent work of MERS right now: “To try to close that awareness gap—that you’re putting yourself at risk if you’re just bombing along as per normal not realizing that a whale could suddenly surface in front of your boat.”

In May 2019, humpbacks were spotted in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, lured there by the good hunting and undeterred by freighters, ferries, and cruise ships so big they can kill a whale with their bow. Humpbacks can be astonishingly oblivious to boats. Most of the time, it’s become clear that humpbacks don’t know where the boats are, Hildering says. “Or, they might be aware of a boat, but choose to keep feeding.” And those boats have an impact beyond the risk of collision. Hildering says all marine mammals could well have hearing loss from the low- and high-frequency noise we add to their acoustic environment. It’s not a far-fetched theory. Some biologists believe that the sounds of modernity—like explosive seismic testing for petroleum resources, loud military sonar, and boat engines—significantly harm all kinds of ocean animals.

Whether or not marine mammals are actually going deaf, there’s growing evidence noise is a stressor for them. The first evidence came out of the unanticipated experiment that was 9/11. Two New Brunswick–based research teams had been studying right whales in the Bay of Fundy when the tragedy happened. Shipping along the East Coast was suddenly and completely shut down, and for a few days, the ocean got very, very quiet. The whale researchers had been finding high levels of stress hormones in whale poop. But as the seas briefly returned to 17th-century tranquility, the stress levels in whales eased up.

Anthropogenic noise likely impacts whale communication—exactly how much is under scrutiny. Like most whale species, humpbacks only became objects of scientific interest in the 1970s, and until we know more, giving the whales lots of space is probably the kindest, most sensible thing we can do.

Which is, of course, exactly what most people aren’t inclined to do. At the meeting in Telegraph Cove, an image of a section of Johnstone Strait where whales ply is beamed onto a screen. Boats cram the frame.

Hildering has complicated feelings about the whale watching industry as a whole. On one hand, she knows firsthand the power of seeing whales in the wild; it can be the gateway to a lifelong appreciation for, and stewardship of, nature. Endangered species are never saved if no one cares. Research shows commercial whale watching operations are far less likely to flout the law and encroach on whales than pleasure craft are. And from the very beginning, whale identification has been a joint project of researchers and whale watching captains, deckhands, naturalists, and other citizen scientists who supply valuable field data. Of course, not all whale watching is the same. The difference between doing it respectfully and doing it for the almighty dollar can be subtle. Those that roar in, deliver the guaranteed sighting, and roar out is a perpetuation of the idea of human above nature. That’s also a lot of carbon in the air, a lot of decibels in the water.

There is a passage in Diane Ackerman’s 1991 book The Moon by Whale Light in which the intrepid author acts on a “swim with the [fill in the blank]” zeitgeist. She swims close enough to a humpback and its calf to touch them. She peers into the mother’s eyes and sends messages of loving kindness. It’s a scene so seductive it made a whole generation add “swim with whales” to their bucket list.

Hildering’s mission is to undo this kind of thinking. To explain why getting up-close and personal is a bad idea. To limn the tricky balance of appreciating these animals and celebrating them, without making everyone think they have to mind-meld with them.

“Burdening them with our spiritual needs” is the last thing humpbacks deserve, she says. “They’re not monsters and they’re not gods. They’re just wild.”

In a few places in the world, there are opportunities to dive or snorkel with humpbacks, considered among the most docile of whales and unlikely to do you intentional harm. But they are rather large. As one online poster in a forum on swimming with gray whales, called friendlies, in Mexico mused: “Would you stand out on the interstate to get a closer look at the 18 wheelers?” They’re not out to get you, but they’re dangerously big.

Swimming with whales—interacting with any wildlife on our own terms, in general—is about ourselves, not the conservation of the species.

In fact, if you were a jerk, you could go have an interaction with a humpback called Two Spot near Campbell River. “There are whales that, for whatever reason, sometimes choose to interact with boats, and if you have the knowledge of how to identify these whales, you can set up an interaction like that,” Hildering says. “You have contributed to the hot breath of humanity wanting to get closer to whales. So you have your close encounter, and then you post it online. And now you have helped contribute to the habituation. And if next week Two Spot is sushied up by a boat motor, that’s on you, buster.

“Look, not wanting to suck the pure joy out of it—it does happen that sometimes they just come up to you,” Hildering says.

“What should you do then?” I ask.

“If, unexpectedly, a whale suddenly is close to the boat, and you can’t slowly get out of the way, then shut off your engines,” Hildering says. “The experience you’re having should be as close as possible to the wildlife doing what it’s doing as if you were not there.”

Watching whales should be like going back in time in a thought experiment: you can’t touch anything, or do anything, or even say anything that could even slightly knock off-kilter the natural progress of events. Interference is deadly, but in ways impossible to comprehend in the moment.

In our last hour on the ocean, Hildering hitches Fluke to some bull kelp and cuts the engine. From a cross section of kelp she fashions a horn, which she tips to the heavens and flugels out an almost-recognizable “Baby Shark.”

Hildering has a more ambitious agenda than simply educating people about marine creatures.

“The humility we need to have about humpbacks suggests a humility we should also have about the world in which they live,” she says.

A question we have no business asking of charismatic mammals—“Do you love me?”—ought to be replaced with the more useful “Who are you?” ecologists have suggested. But that latter question can be turned on ourselves. For if whales tell us things about the health of the ocean, they are also a barometer, Hildering says, of our own value systems.

So it’s probably worth making a habit, at every turn, of questioning where we are in our relationship with wild animals and wild spaces in general—how do we fit into their world?

How Do Scams Bypass Our Defenses?

How Do Scams Bypass Our Defenses?

Featured Psychology Published Stories Archive

The answer lies in the way powerful stories exploit our cognitive blind spots. Some of us are more blind than others — as I discovered on Christmas Eve.

Natalie Vineberg illo

from THE WALRUS, Feb 11, 2020

I: The crime report

THE EMAIL popped up on my screen at 6:45 a.m. on December 24. I’d already been up for a couple of hours, working to deadline. It was from someone I know quite well: the minister of the North Shore Unitarian Church, which we attend.

No one else in the house was up, so there was no one to run this by. But then, I probably wouldn’t have asked for a second opinion anyway. For reasons I’ll explore, reasons that are the heart of this story, it didn’t really occur to me that this might be a scam.

“Ok,” I emailed back.

“THANK YOU so much, Bruce,” my correspondent replied. Then he got down to business. I was to buy $300 of cards. (That is quite a lot of music, I thought.) “I need you to scratch the silver lining laced at the back of each card to reveal the redemption code, then take a snapshot of the code and have the picture or the Ecodes sent directly to Sharon at the hospital on her email.” He gave the address.

“Let me know when you’ve sent it,” he said. “God bless.”

God bless? We’re Unitarians. Optimistic agnostics at best. The “G” word doesn’t come up much. Totally weird sign-off there. I assumed Ron’s mind was still on the dire circumstances of his friend Sharon, who was evidently a Christian.

“I can pick up the card around noon and engineer this by tonight,” I said.

He was super grateful, he replied six minutes later, but tonight’ll be too late for Sharon to use the cards. “Can you please send them to her by noon so she could be able to use them before her surgery?”

This was unhandy. But hey, what was my slight inconvenience against this woman’s cancer fight—on Christmas Eve, no less? I drove to the grocery store and purchased four gift cards. The clerk activated them at the till, turning them into currency. Back home, I took pictures of the codes. At 9:30, I emailed the pictures with the following message:

Dear Sharon,

The codes on the cards below will buy you music via iTunes.

Everybody is pulling for you.

A busy Christmas Eve day then unfolded. I forgot all about this until, around 4:30 p.m., while waiting for takeout fish and chips, I checked my email. A follow-up message had been sitting in my inbox.

“Sharon just emailed me now saying she got the cards. I want to really appreciate you for that. I’m sure it’s going to go a long way in her fight over cancer.”

But now there was a new development. Apparently word of the gift cards had made its way around the cancer ward. Now other patients were asking for the same thing.

“Could you please get me additional $500 worth of Itunes gift cards right away? I will be paying you back $800. I’m so sorry for the inconvenience.”

This was a bridge too far. The personal friend was one thing, but random strangers on the ward? Don’t these women have family? And anyway, I thought, it might be too late.

I called Ron.

“Hey Bruce. What’s up?”

“Are we too late to help those other patients?” I asked.

Silence. Then: “Um. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Those other patients on the ward who now also want music,” I said.

“Uhhh . . . ”

“I’ve been copying you on these emails,” I said. “Haven’t you been getting them?”

“Bruce.” A long beat. “It’s a scam. Somebody has been impersonating me. I put out a warning out on Facebook.”

“I didn’t . . . see that.”

I heard Ron exhale. Neither of us knew quite what to say next.


II. The narrative architecture of a successful scam

Phishing, the current “attack vector of choice among cybercriminals,” as one security consultant put it, is now so common it’s practically a demonstration sport at the fraudster Olympics. Indeed, the exact scam I’ve just described can be found on the Internet in 30 seconds. But it never occurred to me to check. The question is why.

Near the end of the film The Sixth Sense, director M. Night Shyamalan springs his trap. And you go: Wait. Bruce Willis is … dead? I remember feeling stung. Disoriented. And yet, in retrospect, the evidence was there all along.

It was exactly the same experience when Ron — the real Ron — said over the telephone: “It’s a scam.” There was the sudden reframe, the forehead-smiting denouement. The resolution seemed almost literary: both shocking and somehow inevitable.

That is the human brain on a well-crafted fiction, says Vera Tobin, a cognitive scientist at Case Western Reserve university in Ohio and author of Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot (Harvard University Press). The sympathies and attention of the “victim” are expertly manipulated by narrative sleight-of-hand. O Henry-ish storytellers are social engineers in the same way that scammers are. The architecture of “the con” is the same. Carefully, we are led down the garden path.

The stakes start small. In my case, the initial contact was modest and believable. There were the shoe-shuffling apologies, the thanks in advance. From there, the story unfolded. Next thing I knew, I was putting on my jacket. It was as if I had been “activated,” like a sleeper agent. Once I’d bought the gift cards, I was all-in.

Stanley Milgram, the experimental psychologist—and really, all experimental psychologists are con artists of a sort—ran his most famous ruse out of his Yale lab in 1961. In it, test subjects swallowed the fiction that, by flicking switches of a console, they were administering increasingly powerful electric shocks to a man in the next room as punishment for his getting test questions wrong. The experiment was designed, in the wake of the Nazi atrocities, to test people’s willingness to blindly follow orders to dire ends.

What kept those volunteers going was that they had been led into the madness gradually. They had no idea they’d crossed a border until they were on the other side. “It wasn’t a study of obedience,” said behavioral economist Tim Harford not long ago, “so much as a study of our unwillingness to stop and admit that we’ve been making a dreadful mistake.” We get in over our heads, so we just keep going. For me, beyond a certain point, bailing wasn’t even an option. Three hundred dollars seemed like an audacious ask for some music, but it was just within the realm of the credible.

Scammers exploit thinking errors in the same way those surprise-ending storytellers do. We are “cognitive misers,” taking mental shortcuts and jumping to conclusions wherever possible. That’s why the University of Toronto psychologist Keith Stanovich insists gullibility isn’t a sign of low intelligence. It’s a sign of “low rationality,” which is different. The frontbrain never has a chance; the horse had already left the barn with that first snap judgment. And now all that’s left is rationalization.

Scammers exploit other cognitive errors. Like “optimism bias.” Most people think they’re a little bit charmed, a little luckier than average. We harbour a personal fable that things are likely to go well for us. The possibility that we’ve been hoodwinked just isn’t as “available” as a happy ending. So the Debbie Downer story gets suppressed.

And then there’s “consistency bias,” which says people tend to act in accord with who they believe themselves to be. As I sat waiting for my takeout at the fish shop, and retrieved that second email asking for more money, annoyance flared. But it was soon swamped by another feeling: I’m a nice guy and here’s an opportunity to prove it. “You were on a goodwill mission,” said the cop at the North Shore RCMP detachment who dutifully took down my report. “And that kind of put blinders on you.”

Behavioral economists coined a term, the “curse of knowledge,” which psychologists have adopted. “It’s hard for people to set aside the things you know,” says Tobin. “The more experience we have with something, the harder it is to step outside it.” The scammer had fixed in my mind the image of a cancer ward. Meet my friend, Sharon. She is craving distraction because she’s terrified to die. I could see Sharon, because I have been there. I was at my father’s bedside when he died of cancer. “Once you know something, or think you know something, it’s really hard to suppress that way of seeing things,” says Tobin. “And now you’re suddenly blind to what would be obvious if you didn’t have that baggage.”

That the cancer story was ripped right out of a made-for-TV movie was also no accident. The emotional content put me in what psychologists call a “hot state.” “The more gripping the story, and the more emotionally engaged we are in it,” says Tobin, “the less we’re thinking critically and asking ourselves, ‘What are the discrepancies here? Should I trust this source?” Under such highly charged conditions, “you can talk yourself into anything.”

My scam landed in my inbox in the early morning. The dreamy pre-dawn is a great time to be creative; our “ego defenses” are down, Carl Jung claimed. But it’s a lousy time to be logical.

Then I learned about the tight deadline. Again: no accident.

Studies show people are more likely to respond to an internet solicitation when a quick response is required. The sense of urgency “short-circuits the resources available for attending to other cues that could potentially help detect the deception,” said Arun Vishwanath, a University of Buffalo psychologist and now a visiting lecturer at Harvard. The ticking clock is a “visceral trigger,” an express ticket to a hot state, where sound reasoning goes to die.

All these factors together may incline scam victims to overlook what should be glaring red flags. My minister didn’t use my name in the first email. Then again why would he? Obama famously texted his friends in the early morning with a simple “U up?” (Of course the real reason the scammer didn’t use my name is he didn’t have it. Until, with my response, I gave it to him.) And the grammatical errors and weird capitalizations from a person I knew to be fastidious with the language? I chalked it up to stress. Basically, I read those emails through a filter that cleaned up the language, imputed only good motives and kept me from looking up from the puppet, even once, to see if there might be strings.

III: The few, the proud, the incredibly gullible

But wait: if successful scams exploit these universal cognitive biases, why don’t all of us fall for them? Around 20 percent of the population is especially vulnerable to scams, says Stephen Lea, an emeritus psychologist at the University of Exeter in the UK who studies the personality traits of likely fraud victims.

Of the folks who receive phishing emails like mine, only around four percent actually bite, according to a recent study by the telecom giant Verizon.

So we few, we sorry few, we band of schlimazals: what’s different about us?

There’s a widespread perception that scam victims are predominantly older folk. But that isn’t quite right. Millennials are actually scammed more than any other group, according to Federal Trade Commission data. But they lose less money than seniors because they have less, notes Frank “Catch Me If You Can” Abnegale, the former con man who now consults to law enforcement. (Curiously, seniors are more likely to get scammed face-to-face. One theory is that older people are less alive to visual cues of insincerity. Shelley Taylor, the UCLA psychologist driving this research, found the brains of older people showed less activity in the areas that process risk and subtle danger.)

The stereotype that the lonely are sitting ducks is true. Lonely people are more likely to let scammers get their foot in the door; they open unsolicited mail and stay on the line with those bogus Canada Revenue Agency officers. A scammer can figure out if you’re lonely from your social-media trail. But when a reporter for Mother Jones magazine traveled to Nigeria to interview a group of email scammers, the young men were pretty clear that they didn’t care about lonely. They only cared about wealthy. “We know how much you have in your account,” one said.

I’m not lonely, not a millennial and the opposite of rich. But I was randomly phished in a pool that is statistically promising for scammers: a minister’s congregation. There’s evidence that con artists disproportionately target religious groups — although it’s less clear whether “people of faith” are actually more gullible to such scams. Most Unitarians, I’d venture, are of the “trust but verify” variety, too intellectual and circumspect to fall for these kind of shenanigans. And sure enough, I learned that no one else in my congregation was fooled. This scammer was lucky to have found me. I have a history he could only have dreamed of.

I am the kid who sent away for the full-size “Frontier Cabin” from the back of a comic book — perhaps as a place for the Sea Monkeys I’d previously ordered to hang their little crowns. That kid grew up to be the adult whom panhandlers naturally find in a crowd. I have accepted at face value every hard-luck story going, and duly coughed up five bucks for a hamburger, ten bucks for a bus ticket, twenty for gas to get back home to Abbotsford. “Remember the time you almost bought a car with a lien on it?” my wife reminded. “Or the time you went, with great hope, to the Downtown Eastside to meet the guy who said he’d found your stolen camera?” She started enumerating the scams she could remember; it took two hands.

Gullibility is a hindrance for a journalist, to say the least. It seems to take me twice as long as everyone else to write a feature. I routinely have to rip the whole thing back to the studs when I hit the fact-checking stage and discover people weren’t being entirely honest. Or at the very least, the truth is way more subtle than it was presented. Shoulder-checking earlier would have saved me a lot of trouble. But shoulder-checking earlier would have also broken the spell — the spell of the perfect story that was taking shape.

Perhaps gullibility is a “neural trait,” rather in the way hypnotizability is. (Brain scans of “very hypnotizable” people reveal distinct activity patterns, Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel found.) Whether that proves true, there are other character traits we scam victims demonstrably share.

We are decisive. Okay, impulsive. “Ready-fire-aim.” Deficient “depth of processing” is another way to put it, and mine was abysmal in this case. I read those Christmas Eve emails the way our dog eats her dinner: I wolfed them down without really reading them. I got the gist, and then my imagination quickly filled in the rest. That’s how it works. “You see things that aren’t there,” says the cognitive scientist Vera Tobin, “or you fail to see things that are there, because your expectations are driving the bus.”

“Naive” or “trusting” come close, but social scientists prefer the descriptor “unsuspicious.” That’s another way of saying I just have a low-wattage bs detector right off the shelf.

And we are “risk takers,” physically, financially, emotionally. The psychologist Stephen Lea found that self-reported risk-takers were twice as likely to be victims of scams.

But the likelihood of being duped is also circumstantial.

Fraud victims are “far more likely to be facing a rough patch in their life,” according to Doug Shadel, lead fraud investor of Washington, DC-based AARP and author of Outsmarting the Scam Artists.

Having suffered a “serious negative life event” — like a divorce, a layoff, a health crisis, the death of someone close to you — more than doubles your risk of falling for a scam, according to a 2013 US Federal Trade Commission study. Also, people juggling more debt than they can handle are “significantly” more vulnerable to scams, a separate study found. (Perhaps because stress ties up cognitive resources that could otherwise be used to spot scams.) You can see how being financially underwater could create an intense desire for immediate relief, of the sort that get-rich-quick schemes offer. That’s not the kind of ruse I fell for; but the drowning metaphor still applies. Divers suffering from oxygen debt can experience “rapture-of-the-deep,” where reality-testing fails and magical thinking blooms. The journalist Jonathan Kay, author of the 2011 book Among the Truthers, found people were more likely to start believing in wild conspiracy theories after they’d hit a bumpy patch in their lives.

You’d think ignorance would be a precondition of getting bilked. But weirdly, the opposite may be true. Sometimes the problem isn’t knowing too little, but too much.

One of Bernie Madoff’s victims was a psychiatrist named Stephen Greenspan, who lost about a third of his life savings to Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Just two days before he learned he’d been hoodwinked, Greenspan hadpublished a big authoritative tome, the fruit of decades of research in his area of expertise. It’s called The Annals of Gullibility: Why we get Duped and How to Avoid It.

“Scam victims often have better than average background knowledge in the area of the scam content,” notes the psychologist Lea.

Some expertise, it turns out, can make people a bit cocky. This is the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s basically the premise of every Will Ferrell movie. Overconfidence can produce a kind of unwarranted swagger, an almost comically obtuse misreading of events. The more we know, the less likely we are to second-guess our initial take on something — which may have arrived via the gut rather than the brain. Overconfidence disarms the sensor of sober-second thought.

And while you can teach people to detect scams, until their scam-detectors become as sensitive as a sandpapered fingertip, the effect may be short-lived.

Not long ago a group of cadets at West Point, the prestigious military academy in New York State, was trained to accurately detect e-mail phishing schemes. They got good at recognizing incoming emails with links that could activate malware and other security risks. But old habits and sloppy cognitive processing die hard. The cadets soon slipped back into their old email reading habits. Ninety percent of them fell for a phishing scheme resembling the ones they’d just learned about, a mere four hours after receiving the training.

I actually know quite a lot about scams myself. I own a copy of the 420-page scam-detecting bible How to Cheat at Everything, by short-con guru Simon Lovell. I know quirky facts, such as that there are two key pieces of information you should never divulge together: your date of birth and city of birth. (With those a scammer has 98 percent of what they need to steal your identity.) Plus, ironically enough, I’d been right in the middle of editing some articles on how to avoid scams. That kind of knowledge should have made me be able to smell a ruse at fifty paces. But here’s the thing: while I had a solid general knowledge, I’d somehow never encountered this particular dodge. There was no Nigerian prince. No one claiming to be from the Canada Revenue Agency, or Windows, or Apple. No relative had been falsely arrested and needed bail money. It wasn’t a pyramid scheme. It didn’t even involve money. Why would a crook want music? (The answer is, of course, that they don’t. The reason why scammers ask for iTunes gift cards is simple: the codes are hard to trace. And once they have them they can resell them for money on the aftermarket. Gift cards are the new wire transfers.)


“I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do,” said the agent from Visa’s fraud department, after silently hearing out the whole story when the investigators came back on shift after Christmas break.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not fraud,” he said. “When we dispute a charge, our claim is against the merchant. But the merchant didn’t do anything wrong here. You willingly purchased those gift certificates.”

Wait, what? I didn’t willingly purchase them.

Or did I?

What distinguishes fraud from all other crimes is that it demands co-operation from the victim, notes Stephen Lea. The underground card magician Wesley James puts a finer point on it: “The dupe is always to some extent complicit.” But what could possibly be the payoff in getting robbed?

Maybe the answer is not so different from why we go to magic shows, or Sixth Sense-style movies with whipcrack endings. It’s weirdly pleasurable to suspend our disbelief and then have the rug pulled out from under us. “That aha moment,” says the cognitive scientist Vera Tobin, “is something humans like a lot.” The tension-and-release, after being led into jeopardy, is something I’ve probably been missing on the flat sea of midlife.

And of course, for a writer, drama is its own kind of payoff. What did I get out of the whole ordeal? I got a “moment” – a frisson of aliveness, a memory to distinguish this day from all others, forever. And, not least, a story.

Was all of that worth a few hundred bucks and public humiliation?


As soon as I’d learned I’d been scammed I contacted Visa. The first agent I talked to was sympathetic. He was a young man sitting alone in a call centre someone on Christmas Eve and the melodrama in this story seemed to overwhelm his stick-to-the-script professionalism.

“Oh,” he said gravely. “Oh.” Well, first of all, you were trying to do a nice thing. Never forget that.

“We will dispute this,” he said. He prepared me in advance that this was a tricky one. I might not recover the money. “I’d say it’s fifty-fifty,” he said.

He must have been looking at my name on the screen.

“Wait, are you the guy who wrote What Makes Olga Run?

I said I was.

“That was a great book,” he said. “I will fight for you, man.”

And right then, my heart swelled with that familiar feeling of hope.

The Other Side of 110

The Other Side of 110

Aging Essays Featured


from THE GLOBE AND MAIL, Feb 20, 2019.

Like pretty much everyone of extraordinarily advanced age, Dr. Robert Wiener was continually peppered with one question: “What’s your secret?” He preferred to show a visitor rather than tell them. After cordial small-talk about politics and hockey, he slipped into his workout togs and, moving his dumbbells out of the way, hopped on the CCM stationary bicycle that sat next to the window in his top-floor residence overlooking Montreal. And then, with St. Joseph’s Basilica looming below, he demo’d his daily regimen: fifteen minutes fast, then fifteen minutes with the tension cranked up, until he was sweating.

The retired oral surgeon, who died on February 17, was Canada’s only male supercentenarian, a term reserved for people who are at least 110 years old. A highlight of his 55-year career was founding the dental clinic at the Jewish General Hospital for those of limited means. When he graduated from McGill University’s dental school, most people were still brushing their teeth with short pieces of bone fitted with pig bristles or badger hair; the first modern nylon-bristle toothbrush wouldn’t go on sale until two years later, in 1938.

According to the UCLA-based Gerontology Research Group, which tracks and verifies supercentenarians, Dr. Wiener is considered the oldest man ever to be born and die in Canada. There are thought to be between 600 and 1,000 supercentenarians in the world, the overwhelming majority of them women. Dr. Wiener, at 110 years and 113 days, was believed to be the 18th-oldest man on Earth.

Dr. Wiener was fastidious about his healthy habits, including a Mediterranean diet, regular exercise, a cultivated optimism and two squares of dark chocolate a day. His daily perusal of The Montreal Gazette and numerous health journals he subscribed to online may also have been medicine, although he mostly did it for fun.

Robert Manuel Wiener was born in Montreal on Oct. 27, 1908. The youngest of seven siblings (“I was the one who always had to run the errands,” he once told The Canadian Jewish News), he grew up in the Mile End neighbourhood – Mordecai Richler’s stomping ground – an ethnically rich area of fruit sellers and outdoor staircases where his parents, Louis and Anna, immigrants from Poland and Russia, respectively, had settled after moving from Amsterdam, where they met.

In grade school, he and his classmates knit towels for the soldiers in the trenches – of the First World War.

With no mass media as a diversion – commercial radio didn’t arrive until he was 12 – there were a lot of pick-up games of almost every sport. Street hockey was interrupted not with shouts of “Car!” but “Horse!” (A hockey fanatic, Dr. Wiener remembered rising from his seat in the old Mount Royal Arena, then home of his beloved Habs, to watch speedy Howie Morenz take the puck end-to-end himself – a testament to both the centreman’s skill and the fact the NHL didn’t allow forward passing in all zones until 1929.)

He was 13 when Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid opened at a cinema on St. Catherine Street and in his 20s when women became “persons” under the law in Canada.

He followed his older brother Judah into dentistry and his career in oral surgery included teaching dentistry at McGill for 25 years.

One measure of the spread of Dr. Wiener’s life was the number of his Zelig-like brushes with history, as cultural figures one after another somehow ended up his chair.

In 1942, while Dr. Wiener was chief dental surgeon at the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi and his team took over the squash courts under Stagg Field to make the first nuclear reactor. When Mr. Fermi developed vision problems that no specialist could solve, it was finally suggested they look south, at his mouth. Dr. Wiener took X-rays, then extracted an abscessed molar that was pressing on the optic nerve, restoring the great scientist’s eyesight.

Four years later, the novelist Thomas Mann came striding in. The German Nobel laureate, then based in California but passing through town, complained of a toothache on the left side – just like the character Thomas Buddenbrook in the eponymous novel. (In the book, the dentist buy ambien cr 12.5 mg online wrenches out the tooth and soon after, the man falls dead on the street of a stroke – and Buddenbrook Syndrome becomes a medical term for toothache as a potential red flag for cardiac stress.)

Curiously, Mr. Mann appeared to speak no English, instead asking his wife to translate every question, right down to “Where does it hurt?” But at the end of his last appointment, he extended his hand and said, impeccably, “Thank you very much, Dr. Wiener.” And presented him with an autographed copy of The Magic Mountain.

Missing continuing contact with patients, Dr. Wiener left the University of Chicago’s Zoller Clinic and returned to Montreal, where he set up shop on Mackay Street in downtown Montreal. Dr. Wiener’s easy manner provided a kind of sanctuary unusual for a dentist’s office, and he soon built a client list that included Montreal business royalty – among them most of the Bronfman family.

In 1968, Charles Bronfman, then the new majority owner of the fledgling Montreal Expos, arrived for an appointment. It was stressful early days, with stadium issues and other hiccups making league brass nervous and there was a real chance the club would be moved. Dr. Wiener delivered just the right tonic. “My son’s very excited about the team!” he said. The next day, a limousine appeared at the house and when young Neil opened the door, the driver handed him an Expos cap – signed by Mr. Bronfman himself, because no actual players had been drafted yet.

Four years earlier, in 1964, Dr. Wiener took on a patient whose fine dress and old-fashioned manners belied his day job of sausage-making and intimidation. This was Vincenzo (Vic) Cotroni, a.k.a “the Egg,” the local capo for the New York-based Bonanno crime syndicate at the time, charged with overseeing heroin trafficking out of the port. Some called him the Godfather of Montreal. Mr. Cotroni would arrive for his dental appointments flanked by a bodyguard and accompanied by either his wife or mistress. He always paid cash and was the only patient who ever tipped Dr. Wiener’s assistant.

Twin studies have established that, on average, longevity is around 30 per cent determined by genes and 70 per cent, lifestyle and environment. But considering Dr. Wiener’s advanced age, he was undoubtedly very lucky in his DNA. His ferocious good health spoke to a genetic tailwind scientists are still trying to understand. Indeed, nine years ago, Angela Brooks-Wilson, a geneticist and researcher at BC Cancer, collected DNA samples from both Dr. Wiener and his older brother Dave – a near-supercentenarian himself at the time – as part of her study on “super seniors,” investigating the puzzle pieces of healthy longevity.

There is no known case of two supercentenarian men in the same family. The Harvard geneticist George Church put the odds of it happening at north of one in 100 million. The Wiener brothers – Robert, who was 110, and Dave, who was 109 and 324 days when he died – may have come closest. Indeed, an online community called “The 110 Club,” peopled with supercentenarian enthusiasts and curated by the head researcher for the Gerontology Research Group, saluted the pair in a post on Oct. 27, Robert’s birthday. “Together, they are the oldest known brothers of all time – not counting Joan and Pere Riudavets, who were half-siblings. Happy 110th birthday, Dr. Wiener!”

Even well into his 110th year, Dr. Wiener prided himself in not asking for help with routine tasks; he got himself out of chairs and picked up dropped pencils. Apart from hearing issues, he had no real health complaints until the very end.

The only thing he suffered from was heartbreak.

Ella, his wife of almost 73 years, died seven years ago. In her last years, when he was more than 100 years old, he cared for her by himself. Dr. Wiener was not a religious man, but after she died, he burned the Shabbat candles, not so much in honour of her faith, but in honour of her. Although it wasn’t strictly necessary for support, he often picked up her cane while going out. “It’s like holding her hand,” he said.


Two ways to climb a mountain

Two ways to climb a mountain

Blog Entry

It can’t be just chance that the two best climbing films ever made were released this summer within a couple months of each other.

Both featured world-beating young American climbers achieving never-been-done things on the storied rock El Capitan, in Yosemite. Together — if you want them to – the two films say something about competing paradigms in the world right now.

The first film, The Dawn Wall, features two climbers, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, who aim to spider up what’s long been considered an unclimbable face — a smooth, 3200-foot granite table tipped upright. With finger-shredding holds no bigger than the width of a credit card. Caldwell’s the superior climber, and at one point Jorgeson encounters a pitch he just can’t solve. He tries and fails for literally days. Eventually he decides to just give up and belay his friend to the top. But Caldwell refuses the gesture. They’re in this together — either they both make it or neither of them does. The film is a hymn to bro love, but more than that to the power of teamwork.

The second movie, Free Solo, involves Alex Honnold’s attempt to conquer El Cap all by himself, via a slightly easier route but without protection. This one’s about what one ubermenschalbeit one not quite right in the head — can do alone. Unfettered by gear, or rope, or other people. With the stakes as high as stakes go.

It wasn’t either filmmaker’s intention to make a political statement. But they accidentally did just that.

We’re almost talking about two rival spiritual orientations in America right now,” the journalist Anand Giridharadas said on a recent episode of the podcast On Being.

“There’s a spiritual orientation that celebrates what we each do alone. And there’s a rival orientation that celebrates what we do together. These are both very strong parts of our culture. And they map onto this idea of the celebration of a heroic, capitalist, pull yourself up by your bootstraps story.

“But that’s never been the only story. We’ve also always had this story of movements – it wasn’t individuals who got rid of the King of England. The most important things we’ve done in this culture have also been together.

“And I think these two tendencies – what we do together and what we do alone – have always vied for primacy in American life. At different moments, and for much of the twentieth century, they had a certain healthy tension. But now the relationship between them is very unhealthy. The relationship is one of mutual annihilation instead of adversarial co-operation.”

Any other year, The Dawn Wall would have been a roaring success, the water-cooler subject of every outdoor enthusiast.

But Free Solo is crushing it. The story of the daredevil individual risking everything for glory is simply burying the story of the friendship and teamwork.

Americans at our best,” said Giridharadas, “we do things together in a way that allows people to do things alone. And we also do things alone that creates the opportunity to do them together. These things don’t have to be at war with each other. But they are absolutely at war today.”


The Cavernous World Beneath the Trees

The Cavernous World Beneath the Trees

Essays Featured Published Stories Archive


From HAKAI MAGAZINE, Nov. 20, 2018. Photos by Grant Callegari.

In the twilight hush of the fanciest restaurant in townPaul Griffiths pulls out a tiny device that looks like a primitive cellphone and sinks it in his water glass. He’s trying to figure out where the water came from—here, Campbell River, a small coastal community in British Columbia, or somewhere else?

The instrument, an electrical conductivity meter, reveals the path the water took from its source to Griffiths’s glass by measuring the charged minerals picked up along the way.

“Twenty-two, 23, 24 …,” says Carol Ramsey, reading the display.

A server orbiting past the table stops midstride and stares.

“We’re just testing the conductivity of your water,” Ramsey says cheerfully.

“Do you know where this ice came from?” Griffiths asks.

“Uh … the ice machine? I’m not sure,” the server says shyly.

“Is it possible to get a glass of just tap water?” Griffiths suspects the ice is bringing down the numbers.

Maybe the ice was shipped in from the nearest big cities to the south, Victoria or Vancouver, where drinking water comes from reservoirs. The server returns with a glass of ice-free water. Immediately, the reading climbs past 40. The higher number is a geological tell. It’s proof that the water ran underground through karst, an underground ecosystem of dissolved rock.

“That’s more like it,” Griffiths says.

Something naturally perfect happens to water when it flows through karst. It trickles and tumbles, picking up oxygen, picking up minerals, losing its acidity. The result is life-giving, luring and nurturing organisms from the tiniest microbes to humans to bears.

To be clear, karst isn’t a kind of rock. It’s a topography, one shaped by water that seeps and squeezes through limestone or gypsum or marble or dolomite, creating cavities from the size of the ones in your teeth to caverns the size of ballrooms, filigreed with delicate speleothems, dripping down and growing up and sometimes meeting in the middle. Limestone bedrock—the kind found here—was once alive and in the tropics before plate tectonics ferried it to Vancouver Island 100 million years ago. Limestone, composed of skeletal fragments of shallow-water marine organisms, such as corals and mollusks, is found in your toothpaste, your newspaper, your store-bought bread, and the cement beneath your feet—but the true worth of this karst bedrock includes more than its commercial value. A single subterranean water droplet is an ecosystem of its own. Two drops less than a meter apart have been found to harbor entirely different biological communities. For something that’s mostly nothing, karst contains an awful lot.

This is a chronicle of karst, one of Earth’s most underappreciated ecosystems, so vast and unmapped, many explorers and biologists consider it the next frontier of terrestrial and extraterrestrial discovery. NASA scientists are probing deep into karst systems as part of their research into organisms that thrive in hostile environments to better detect life elsewhere in the solar system.

If a karst landscape and its glorious biodiversity fail to grab the same attention as the Amazon jungle does, that’s because you can’t see the karst. Or can you? A karst biologist will tell you it’s right there in front of you; the forest above is an extension of the karst.

“Say you move vertically through a karst system,” says Griffiths, who is the karst biologist in these parts. “The tree canopy is an ecosystem of its own. The trees grow the way they do because of the karst, but they also influence the development of the karst—it’s a feedback loop.” Below the surface, the tree roots cradle a dense fungal web teeming with microbial life. “So when you’re talking biodiversity, you’ve got it going in both directions.”

That Griffiths has devoted pretty much every spare minute and every penny of his earnings for the past 40 years to karst, well, it’s hard to say whether that speaks more of the karst or the man.

Griffiths, who is 67 and looks a bit like The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, could be called many things. Defender of karst. Explorer of karst. Explainer of karst. He cannot yet officially call himself a karstologist—at least not until the stack of paper piled sternum-high in his Campbell River home transforms into PhD credentials, likely by Christmas. However, his colleague Carol Ramsey, who, in Middle Earth, might be the elf Galadriel’s older sister, is a karstologist—one of a handful of scientists in Canada with that title. In this country, karst studies are typically a subspecialty of geology. In Europe, karst science is well established. Ramsey got her PhD at the prestigious Karst Research Institute in Slovenia.

The PhDs are strategic. Out-credentialing everyone lends this team of two the power to influence environmental practice—in theory. Logging has forever altered much of the karst ecosystem on British Columbia’s coast, particularly on Vancouver Island with its accessible forests. And a ready, aim, fire approach to development threatens to make moot the most basic of questions: what is it about the structure of karst that makes it so sensitive to disturbance? In their fight to protect what’s left of the ecosystem, the pair’s prime tool is data.

We simply do not know exactly how much coastal karst is left. And so Griffiths and Ramsey have made it their task to monitor the bejesus out of their patch: the whole northern half of Vancouver Island. In a project that falls somewhere between a duty, a calling, and a cosmic test of character, they routinely tramp through first- and second-growth fir and hemlock forests, meticulously documenting changes in the topography. They fly over the land snapping pictures to create a photographic time series. They take soil samples from caves where they know logging will happen overhead—before and after the trees are gone. They scan newspapers for legally required notices of independent power projects and suss out whether there are implications for the karst. They lobby for toothier legislation and push for enforcement of policies already on the books. Though Ramsey is no less ferocious in her commitment, Griffiths has the bigger body of work because he’s simply been in the game longer.

Ramsey first met Griffiths while she was studying environmental archaeology at the University of Victoria in the early 2000s. Griffiths, who knew of a cave with the potential for old faunal remains on the west coast of Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, volunteered to take her to check it out. They found bear bones, which were carbon-dated at 14,000 years old—among the oldest recorded bear bones in British Columbia at the time.

Together, the pair has the air of forensic accountants. Or spies. They bat around terms like “swallet” and “ponor” and “hydrostatic head.” It is not much of an exaggeration to say that they live and breathe karst. “When you guys are alone, do you talk about anything but karst?” I asked them once. There was a pause, and then they replied, simultaneously, with either masterfully contained irony or perfect earnestness: “No.”

Personality wise, they are karst and cheese. Ramsey is a quiet, sensitive soul, the person you never know is the smartest one in the room. Griffiths has the charged energy of an entrepreneur, the confidence of a history lecturer safe in his tenure. He is Noam Chomsky by way of Spalding Gray—an academic storyteller. Because stories are the most effective delivery system for big ideas.

“This is the next battleground,” says Griffiths, running his eyes to the horizon. “Or it would be if people cared about karst.” He’s talking about the old-growth conifer forest stretching out below, in a slice of the Hankin Range known as the Kinman, 150 kilometers north of Campbell River. Where he’s standing, on the mountainside, there are no trees at all—just stumps and the odd purple flash of fireweed. Until the early 1990s, this too was old-growth forest on karst. Then it was logged. Then, in July 2014, it caught fire. A fire on karst can easily become a roaring blaze—the air cavities below the ground may feed it with oxygen like a barbecue. In this case, the highly combustible piles of dry stumps and slash left behind by loggers made perfect tinder.

After the fire, the already thin soil layer soon washed through the crenellations in the rock, leaving behind the brain-like topography we’re standing on. Called rundkarren, its haunting beauty is usually hidden under a mossy forest blanket. That’s why Griffiths and Ramsey bring people up here: it’s like peeling back the skin on a cadaver in anatomy class. “I never got karst until I saw a burnt landscape,” says Ramsey. “That was when it came together for me. Okay, this is what’s underneath. Once you get it, there’s no going back.”

Intact temperate rainforest over karst is a rare thing. There’s a little left on the south island of New Zealand and some in Tasmania and a few other scattered places. But fully a quarter of what remains in the world is in coastal British Columbia. Another quarter is in Southeast Alaska.

These forests enjoy a happenstance of perfect conditions—lots of rainfall, yes, but also a way for the water to get into the rock. Tectonic activity along the Juan de Fuca plate just off British Columbia’s coast fractures the rock a little more with every sizable tremor. As a result, the karst is self-draining. The soil never gets swampy. Tree roots get a skookum foothold in the crevices and microcaves, snaking deeper, drawing nutrients out of the ground.

Merchantable timber grows like kudzu on coastal karst. In the early 1990s, Derek Ford a geologist and professor emeritus at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and his colleague Kathy Harding compared trees growing on limestone—this very limestone here, part of the Quatsino Formation—to trees growing on the adjacent volcanic formation. The karst trees grew fat. Irresistibly fat. Left to their own devices, timber companies would cream off the karst forest first.

And that’s largely what they have done. Karst in Southeast Alaska was logged at three times the rate of other areas in the state. Timber companies so reliably cherry-pick the karst landscape that you can sometimes identify the extent of karst from the air. It follows the contours of the cut blocks.

“You can understand the rationale for that kind of strategy—it’s just about the cheapest way to log,” says Tom Aley, a hydrogeologist who runs an independent consultancy called Ozark Underground Lab in Missouri and must be one of the very few people to own his own cave. But clearcutting on karst creates problems both on the surface and below it. Take away the trees and soil is cast adrift. It’s redistributed from where it should be—up top, governing the rate at which rainwater enters the underground streams—to where it shouldn’t be, in the aquifers. In these natural, underground cisterns, a dump of soil deoxygenates the water and starves aquatic organisms. More to the point, logging on karst is a killing-the-golden-goose proposition.

A 1993 paper by Ford and Harding widely recognized as the shot heard around the karst world, had an intentionally provocative title that included the phrase, “Deforestation of Limestone Slopes on Vancouver Island.” Deforestation is an aggressive word. It suggests—as in the Amazon—that once the forest is gone, it’s gone. What comes back in the regeneration isn’t forest. It’s a timber farm. In their research, Ford and Harding studied a karst landscape clearcut in 1907. Ninety years later, “it really hadn’t recovered,” Ford says. When you clearcut on karst, what little soil you had goes AWOL. And the biodiversity is lost.

The rest of the world has been a test case on this for millennia. The lesson goes back to the ancient Romans, who harvested the great pine trees on the Dalmatian karst on the southern tip of Croatia. “As soon as new trees got started, the sheep or the goats ate them,” Ford says. “The word karst means stony ground—stony because they wrecked it.” In the Middle East, the mythic Cedars of Lebanon—believed by some Christians to be the place where the resurrected Jesus revealed himself—grew on pure limestone karst very much like that of Vancouver Island. They were mowed down to build the temples of ancient Egypt and Jerusalem. The soil disappeared and never came back. Around one percent of the original cedars remain, in scattered, protected groves. Slovenia banned clearcutting on karst in 1949—but by then it was too late. There are photos, circa 1900, of babushka-wrapped Austro-Hungarian peasants hauling topsoil back onto the bald karst after it was clearcut.

The Bordeaux region of western France, once home to karst forests also much like Vancouver Island’s, was logged long ago for the wood itself and agriculture. There, too, the soil vanished. Today, Bordeaux is winemaking country, and the big vintners view the region’s thick karst as a built-in soil supplement. Machines grind up the top layer of the limestone, adding calcium to the grape’s terroir and to the Bordeaux brand. But the top few centimeters of a karst system are the biological cream, dense with life. And plowing it like a beanfield makes the karst less porous for decades. “It’s an industrial approach that takes no account of the complexity and delicacy of the environment that they’re smashing up,” says Ford.

We leave behind the grooves and fissures of the rundkarren and head south, bouncing along a logging road until we come to a trailhead pullout. Just inside the forest, an interpretive sign, containing more than a dozen typos and grammatical errorsadvertises the Eternal Fountain—a fairly spectacular waterfall disappearing into a hole in the ground.

Forty years ago, the British Columbia government, together with the now-defunct logging giant MacMillan Bloedel, tried to boost tourism on the north island by bugling the virtues of some geomorphic attractions within a 100-kilometer scenic drive called the Alice Lake Loop. The Eternal Fountain was one of them, along with the Devil’s Bath and the Disappearing River—karst formations all. The attractions were featured on recreation brochures and maps, and even included in the internal newsletters issued by MacMillan Bloedel. Employees and their families dutifully visited them on weekends. But the features have collectively become a kind of cautionary tale, a fact driven home on a cool spring morning when we pay each one a visit.

At the end of a short boardwalk, the Eternal Fountain spills into its underground den as expected. But Ramsey and Griffiths are riveted by something else: on the embankment above the waterfall is a sinkhole, or doline, around two meters in diameter.

“Most holes in a landscape fill up over time,” Ramsey says. “But dolines just continue to grow. That’s why they’re weird.”

As dolines go, the BC coast has some beasts. On Moresby Island in Haida Gwaii, there is a feature called the Great Depression. It is the size of Disneyland. Not far from here, in the Tahsish River valley 40 kilometers to the west, there’s a doline so big, a fall into its mysterious depth would probably be fatal. It’s called Paradise Lost. The doline above the Eternal Fountain is much smaller. But what’s remarkable is it wasn’t here when Griffiths and Ramsey visited two years ago. Griffiths offers his best guess on the doline’s appearance—logging upstream changed the hydrology.

Nearby, similar declivities have appeared—some smaller, some bigger. In one spot, fenced off for safety, is a karst window, a deep hole in the rock giving a peekaboo glimpse of a running freshet beneath. A sinkhole in the woods is like a big Men at Work sign, except the excavator below your feet is water—with implications hard to fully fathom from the surface.

Water runs through karst like a pinball through a pachinko machine. Its route, though tied to the glacial history of an area, is definitively unpredictable. Logging on karst is like bumping the machine, a small change that can radically affect the result. On the morning drive along the loop, between watersheds pocked with clearcuts, we keep crossing bridges over dry riverbeds that once carried the water overland, boinging up and down on roads that were once more or less flat. Rerouted water is changing the architecture below.

The effect on the topography is even more pronounced as we near the Devil’s Bath. It looks like a crater lake, similar to the cenotes on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The bath was once one of the most majestic features on the north island. In 1984, MacMillan Bloedel logged right up to the north rim of the bath. In 2012, the entire area was clearcut to within 18 meters of the observation platform. People mostly stopped coming to visit after it lost its postcard charm, its disturbed setting now the feature’s main trait.

Griffiths and Ramsey have kept tabs on the Devil’s Bath since the clearcut. Two years ago, the mossy forest ground nearby was mostly flat, like a green rug pulled over a toy-strewn floor, but as we bushwhack through alders and salmonberry, across the rolling land, the ground sinks underfoot. Logging in the catchment area rerouted groundwater, Swiss cheesing the bedrock below. The whole forest feels as if it’s about to collapse.

In one spot, the earth has dropped at least three meters. But strangely, Griffiths’s mood lifts at the discovery. The collapse has revealed an entrance to a cave.

Not all caves are karst, but caves are a common feature in karst, and, like an Amazon biologist who discovers that a botfly has laid eggs under his skin, bad news, but too cool not to be excited about. Griffiths has to investigate. He’s just in running shoes because he hadn’t expected to be exploring a new grotto today; there was none here last time he checked. In a flash, he’s down the hole. The glow from his headlamp fades as he descends.

“It goes!” he calls out from inside the cave, staring into the unplumbed depths. “Oh my God!”

A few seconds later: “Woop! Woop!”

“He’s happy,” I say.

“He’s echolocating,” says Ramsey.

It’s completely fitting that Griffiths jumped into a new entrance to the underground. His introduction to karst came by way of caves.

At age six, he discovered his first cave—a one-time refuge for drifters near the train tracks of Hamilton, Ontario, where his family had moved so his father, a professor of French literature, could teach at McMaster University. His father had studied at the Sorbonne, and every summer the family returned to France, where Griffiths linked into the caving network—eventually seeking out luminaries like the famous French speleologist Norbert Casteret. Somewhere in the middle of all those visits to the karst-scapes of France, Griffiths developed a theory about French cuisine. “People can detect calcium—it’s a sixth taste,” he says. “I think about the food there: the pâté, the wine, the cheese. I’ve wondered sometimes if it’s related to the karst.”

The family moved to Vancouver Island, and Griffiths’s father soon settled in for a long tenure at the University of Victoria. For years, up to and including his 25-year-long post as head of the British Columbia Speleological Federation, Griffiths voluntarily mapped every reported new cave on the north island—a painstaking process, involving sketching and measuring in three dimensions. Griffiths attributes his digressive thinking to so much time spent in caves. “In a cave you look left, right, up, down.” His mind likewise follows every spur line.

As an environmentalist, Griffiths realized that when it comes to karst, caves were the best route into the public’s imagination, and, through this engagement, a pathway for protecting karst.

In the 1980s, when he lived in Gold River, over 50 kilometers southwest of Campbell River, monitoring environmental impacts for a timber company, he pitched to the town council the idea of selling the remote village in the middle of the island as a tourist destination—the cave capital of Canada. Then he held his tongue as city officials got a little too enthusiastic about the idea and created a summertime festival called Caveman Days, where folks dressed as Fred and Wilma Flintstone.

Another time, Griffiths and his wife, Karen, from whom he separated a number of years ago, hatched the idea to offer a one-day public tour of the underground glacier at White Ridge, a cave system in the mountainside high above Gold River. Twenty-five bucks got you a helicopter ride up and a guided tour of the caves. The offer proved so popular, two helicopters were kept busy all day long. “Our hidden agenda was, we planned to turn White Ridge into a provincial park, and we wanted to get the town onside,” he says. Mission accomplished; it became a park in 1995. Griffiths later managed to protect, or help protect, karst elsewhere on the island in the same manner: Weymer Creek, Artlish Caves, Clayoquot Plateau, and Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park, one of the most popular guided-cave operations in Canada.

Yet caves, like karst, also have an intrinsic worth beyond their commercial value. The conditions inside a cave—the constant cool, photon-free darkness, the moisture buffered by dissolving salts—are perfect for preserving evidence of habitation, human and otherwise. On Haida Gwaii, expeditions into caves on the west coast uncovered ancient tools and cooking-fire ash, as well as bear bones dating back 17,000 years—even older than the ones Ramsey discovered. Partly because of those finds, the archipelago is further ahead of the rest of the province in its karst protection.

Caves are an even richer lode of rare biology. “If you monitor a cave long enough, you will find a never-before-seen species,” Griffiths says. But a cave’s potential bounty is not enough to keep it safe from disturbance and harm. If a cave fails to prove itself significant for obvious cultural, archaeological, or biological reasons and isn’t actively protected, it’s likely toast.

Back in 2006, Griffiths and Ramsey helped First Nation and activist communities when they ran out of options in fighting a massive proposed golf and spa resort called Bear Mountain, north of Victoria. In the path of the idling bulldozers was a karst cave long used for sacred rituals by the Songhees and Tsartlip Nations. After a bit of low-comedy involving Vietnam-era military logic—the unstable cave was blown up with explosives before geologists felt satisfied they could safely enter it to see if it was worth saving. Nothing of consequence turned up in the rubble. “The government had its hands tied with the legislation,” Griffiths says. “If they couldn’t find archaeology, they couldn’t do anything.”

Just before it was dynamited, Griffiths documented the cave for Chief Chris Tom of the Tsartlip Nation. Then he turned his mind to the funding of Bear Mountain. The project hinged on a half-billion-dollar loan from HSBC. After a little probing, Griffiths discovered that the bank had adopted a policy called the Equator Principles, meaning that it couldn’t lend money to a project that was ecologically irresponsible or was inconsistent with Indigenous wishes. He picked up the phone, but his appeals went nowhere. Now the closest thing to a karst cave at Bear Mountain is the sand trap on the seventh hole.

Caves are good at firing up the public’s imagination, and in a backhand way, inspire people to care about karst. But there is a dilemma.

When you talk up caves to tourists, they want to check them out. Which is a little like getting bulls excited about china shops. “In some caves, the biggest disturbance is a water droplet falling from the ceiling once every thousand years,” Ramsey says. Caves are the last bastion of stasis in a world in flux. Like quietly praying monks, their benefits are sometimes intangible, but most of us value a world that allows them to exist.

Ramsey and Griffiths may know the location of more caves on Vancouver Island than anyone else. That they sometimes hide this knowledge makes them controversial in the caving community. “For some of these caves,” Ramsey says, “the only protection they have is their obscurity.”

“Caves are perhaps .01 percent of all void spaces of a particular karst block,” Griffiths says. If you can’t get a park established, then what? Maybe you create a wildlife habitat area—if there was a cave with bats it would be automatically protected under that legislation. But then it’s about the bats, not the karst.

Still, the karstologists would take any kind of protection. Linking caves to bats is one thing, but linking them to salmon—that would be even better, Griffiths thought.

Griffiths emerges from the new cave he has discovered near the Devil’s Bath in mud-caked jeans, and we head downhill, hiking down to the river where salmon spawn. Exactly where those fish were coming from was a longtime mystery; there was no obvious path from ocean to stream.

A few years ago, Griffiths got the notion that if, as he suspected, finfish ply the subway systems deep in the karst here, then karst is actually a wetland and potentially subject to stricter legislation through Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Whole karst landscapes have been protected because they’re wetlands—in the United States and elsewhere. So, underwater camera in hand, Griffiths hung out in a cave connected to the Devil’s Bath. And waited. Just when he was about to call it quits, two fat coho salmon emerged through a hole in the rock and swam past him.

Griffiths’s amateur photo caught the attention of Canada’s national broadcaster. In 2015, CBC’s The Nature of Things devoted an episode to the biology not within the famed Great Bear Rainforest, a huge temperate rainforest spilling over northern British Columbia and Alaska, but under it. Videographers caught on film, perhaps for the first time, the passage of salmon through a karst system. Turns out Griffiths was right. People on the coast care about salmon. A lot. Back up those emotions with hard science and you have a powerful lever to save the karst as Jim Baichtal discovered in 2001.

Baichtal, the forest geologist for Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, conducted a tracer-dye study he now considers the game-changing moment for Alaskan karst—the demo that connected the dots between karst and salmon.

Baichtal and a small team injected tracer dyes into forest streams associated with karst features and caves. Within 24 hours, the dye turned up in several fish streams over a kilometer and a half away. That’s fast. And it meant that surface disturbing activities like logging and road-building could send a whole lot of extra sediment along the same route with the potential to clog spawning channels and change cave environments. Also, without the forest to regulate stream flow, logged areas more often experience high flows. Fast-moving water flowing over a layer of sediment loses out on the full karst treatment, which removes more of water’s natural acidity and offers a leg up for salmon fry and eggs.

The scientific work showed that what we do to the karst forest, we probably do to the salmon. A brute trade-off hung in the air: logs or fish.

Logging communities greeted the news Baichtal presented to state government officials with roughly the same enthusiasm as Clarence Darrow met in the Scopes Monkey Trial. “This is contentious stuff,” says Baichtal. “Because I’m not taking out so many acres of bad timber—I’m taking out the crème de la crème.”

Alaska now has fairly robust karst management practices—largely drawn up by Baichtal, with input from other experts, including Griffiths. The US federal Cave Resources Protection Act also helps. Karst in Alaska is not completely off limits to logging. If a karst system is deemed closed—well protected on the surface and relatively self-contained—then it might be tagged “low vulnerability,” and timber companies might get a green light. That’s where the tension lies. Timber companies aren’t wildly eager to okay dye-tracing studies—they worry about the results.

British Columbia, meanwhile, has limited legislation for karst; it only applies to logging and only in six districts. We’d no doubt pay karst more heed if karst water quenched most communities’ thirst. But, the percentage of drinking water in coastal communities that runs through karst is less than two percent. And since it’s tough to vividly conjure images of drought in the damp Pacific Northwest during another record February of rainfall, Griffiths has long understood that if you’re going to play the water card here, you have to play it differently.

While working for the logging company in Gold River back in the 1980s, Griffiths marched into his boss’s office with an idea: the company might make more money by not logging. Instead, he suggested, exploit the karst springs below, the way a little company called Perrier does. The future karstologist soon found himself talking to a Perrier executive in Paris. Griffiths’s timing was good. The company was near maxed out in its bottling operation near Montpellier, France, and was looking to North America. “You would not believe the springs we have on Vancouver Island,” Griffiths said. He framed up the marketing strategy: protect the forest, protect the water. In the end, Perrier decided instead to buy Calistoga Springs, a water bottling business based in California’s Napa Valley. The company had tapped the zeitgeist in the estimation of the Perrier guy. “They’re flavoring the water,” he explained, “and that’s what people want.”

Griffiths’s endless creativity in his quest to save karst has saved only a bit of the ecosystem on the island. In a quiet moment after returning to Campbell River from the Devil’s Bath, Ramsey and Griffiths allow a little frustration to bubble up.

“I keep excruciatingly detailed records of how long I spend in the field—of my data, of my mileage,” Ramsey says. And she’s harbored a secret dream of sending the government a symbolic invoice that would tally what she’s spent monitoring the resource for the past five years. “It probably runs well over half a million dollars,” she says.

From Griffiths’s perspective, the battle to preserve the karst has felt increasingly like a rigged game. Since 1982, when Griffiths persuaded the government to at least create a karst inventory in one area, the rules have continually changed. More recently, the government has put cave and karst protection in the hands of the timber companies themselves. So following the voluntary standards and best practices for karst laid out in the unofficial playbooks written by Griffiths and a few others and released by government in 2003—is something they ought to do, are encouraged to do, but aren’t actually required to do. And so they very often don’t.

Griffiths and Ramsey became karstologists thinking it would give them added pull to assess, and ultimately protect, the karst. But by current convention, pretty much anyone can call themselves a karst expert. Professional certification as a geologist seems to seal the deal regardless of karst qualifications. And, if they do have qualifications, it’s often through a three-day course Griffiths helped design in 2001.

In the mid-2000s, Ramsey was reviewing a draft protection order for karst and called up a government official.

“I assure you, we’ve had karst experts look it over,” she was told.

“With respect,” Ramsey replied, “could you please tell me the names of those karst experts?”

The return email was bracing.

“Keep asking questions like that and you will never get work in this field again.”

This summer, on August 11, lightning strikes ignited a tinder-dry forest on northern Vancouver Island, and soon wildfires were encroaching on the Alice Lake Loop. Fire threatened other nearby karst areas, including Raging River, Tahsish River, and Artlish River, which together constitute much of the island’s remaining old-growth forest. Griffiths pulled up a photographic time series of those regions and matched them against the burning fires. Recently logged areas seemed to be acting as fuses, spreading the fires from one area to the next.

It’s easy to imagine a future where British Columbia’s remaining coastal karst is unencumbered by old-growth forest cover and all trees are fully employed as logs. The land would resemble a feature in Ireland called the Burren—an expanse of rundkarren produced by overgrazing and logging, marked by fissures that hint at the fathomless void beneath. Ironically, today it is the Burren and Cliffs of Moher UNESCO Global Geopark. Travelers hike the ancient trails and perhaps inspect the alvars—plant communities unique to exposed limestone—viewing the rundkarren as a beautiful landscape deserving of preservation.

Like the Europeans, we will recalibrate to what’s left.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Have You Heard?

Have You Heard?

Aging Essays Featured Psychology Science

The old and the young hear an entirely different world. And that’s becoming a problem.

From EIGHTEEN BRIDGES MAGAZINE, Summer 2018     Robert Carter illustration

In 2005, the owner of a convenience store in the tiny Welch town of Barry had just about had it with loitering teenagers driving away customers. So he installed a prototype gadget lent to him by an inventor friend. He booted it up. The kids scattered. “It was as if someone had used anti-teenage spray around the entrance,” one reporter observed.

The device, called the Mosquito MK4, burped out a loud, rhythmic chirping the kids couldn’t stand. But customers over the age of 25 came and went as before. Most of them didn’t hear a thing. That’s because its sonic pulses are in the 17 kilohertz range — well beyond the reach of people suffering even mild forms of age-related hearing loss, called presbycusis. This affliction, which the World Health Organization estimates will affect half a billion people worldwide by 2025, gradually shaves off the higher end of the aural spectrum. Presbycusis is one of the obvious physical signs of aging. The Mosquito MK4 is a Boomer’s revenge fantasy: the greybeards turning the young’s own faculties against them.

What happened next you can guess. A group of young coders took the Mosquito signal and worked it into the customized phone app Teen Buzz. High school students started using it to send text messages in class, under the noses of their oblivious teachers and supervisors.

The elders returned serve. There are now numerous apps that spit out high-pitched squeals with no purpose but to annoy young people. Some of these apps have been built by young people themselves. (The profit motive will usually trump tribal affiliation.)

This whole saga, while funny, is troubling. The wondrous human sense of hearing, weaponized for intergenerational warfare? If anything hearing ought to bind us together, not drive us apart. We have to hear to listen, after all. And hearing is the most social of the senses.

“When you lose your vision, you sever your connection to things. When you lose your hearing, you sever your connection to people,” Helen Keller said. That quote meant little to me when I first encountered it in high school. But stored in the dark potato bin of memory, it put out shoots not long ago when my own hearing began to fail.

The first signs were the mishearings.

“What’ll you be doing on your Quebec exchange?” I asked my daughter over breakfast.

Well, it’s the Winter Carnival,” she said. “We’re going to visit the Plains of Abraham and pee on them.”

That’s very disrespectful,” I said.

What she actually said: We’re going to visit the Plains of Abraham and ski on them.”

Likewise, my weary wife, Jen, who is a teacher, did not reply when I recently questioned her weekend plans to “return to the grave.”

What she actually said: “Return my grades.”

The top end of the sound spectrum is where consonants live. As we age, it becomes hard to distinguish a “v” from a “d.” So in every sentence there’s at least one word that’s a flat-out guess. Without context you guess wrong a lot. But that’s not even the most irksome thing about presbycusis – as Jen would no doubt attest.

One day the dog got into the bird feeder, which held half a pint of seed and suet. That night she whined every hour or so to be let out. Or so I was told. I heard nothing. Jen kept getting up, while I lay in bed wondering, What else am I not hearing? It was – how else to put it?—an emasculating thought. Men who can’t hear, can’t help. We are firefighters with no alarm, sleeping peacefully while the town burns. Not much later, after some prodding, I got checked out. Two hearing tests confirmed everyone’s suspicions. Full-on presbycusis. My hearing through the top third of the normal aural range was basically shot.

Now, if its consequences were limited to annoying family members by passing them a fork instead of the corn, presbycusis could be ignored as a minor irritant. Eventually, though, hearing loss becomes a mental health issue. It’s correlated with depression, born of that creeping sense of isolation. Losing your hearing is like sitting on an airplane in coach. You’re aware of the boozy hubbub coming from the other side of the first-class curtain. There’s a party going on and you weren’t invited.

But the news gets worse. Mild hearing loss, as the Johns Hopkins researcher Frank Lin discovered, doubles your chance of developing dementia. Moderate hearing loss triples it. No one knows precisely why, but there are two main theories.

The first is behavioral. Cut off from the world, people with hearing loss withdraw even further, thereby starving off the experiential input the brain needs to grow. The main stimulus to brain health is interaction with others.

The second theory involves the physics of the brain. Call it the cognitive overload theory. Your mind is working so hard to understand that it’s sucking resources from other regions, including the hippocampus, where memories are consolidated. It’s as if you’re spending every cognitive dollar trying to hear, and putting nothing in the memory bank. When memories aren’t stored, they can’t be retrieved.

Whatever the cause of the correlation, doing nothing about hearing loss is a bad idea, because we are also learning that once our hearing degrades beyond a certain point, no hearing aid can fully bring it back. Not because the machinery of our inner ear is toast (though dying hair cells are part of the story), but because the brain has changed, and can no longer accurately decode the incoming signal.

That’s the gist of the work coming out of Bruce Schneider’s Human Communication Laboratory at the University of Toronto. Schneider, a professor of psychology, leads a multi-university research group investigating sensory and cognitive aging. That includes the social implications of a dialed-down world.

“Hearing loss is a wedge between the old and the young,” Schneider told me during a recent tour of his lab, at the U of T’s Mississauga campus. A starting place for repairing the disconnection, Schneider finds, is to help people experience what it’s like on the other side.

In his undergrad class, Schneider plays an audio clip of a man talking. But the clip has been adjusted. The high-end frequencies in the signal have been dampened by as much as 70 decibels. So the students hear the clip the way an 85-year-old with significant hearing loss would. They can still hear the speaker. But no one can understand him. The consonants are anybody’s guess.

Then Schneider starts to add back the higher frequencies. “Raise your hand when you start to understand,” Schneider says. A few outliers do, followed by the rest of the class at once: the faux-elderly recovering their youth.

Not long ago, a student came to see Schneider after class. He said the exercise had brought him closer to his grandfather.

Later that morning, Schneider ran me through a couple of the same hearing tests he gives his older experimental subjects.

I took a seat in a soundproof room, between two speakers. This is the dreaded auditory interference test. If you’ve ever tried to listen to two conversations at the same time, you know how hard it is. And this task gets tougher as we age. That’s because “it takes a second or two to segregate the voices,” Schneider said.Whereas in younger people it happens almost instantaneously – within 100-200 milliseconds.” The brains of older people are always playing catch-up. Presbycusis makes things worse. You feel like you’re constantly a beat out of step, like a guy in a football crowd standing to do the wave, hot dog overhead, after everybody else just sat down.

Schneider told me I would hear two stories: a “target” story and a “mask” story. But in this diabolical trial, both would be told by the same person and would issue from the same speaker. My job was to listen to the target and ignore the mask.

Within thirty seconds I was in the weeds. I got sucked into the mask story about Mark Twain. Afterward, given a test on the target story, I failed. The whole thing left me exhausted—the way you feel at the end of a day trying to navigate in a foreign city.

Schneider is sympathetic. At 77, he suffers from the hearing loss he investigates. He knows what it feels like to be on the wrong side of that social divide.

“I was at a cocktail party a few years ago, just circulating around,” he told me, “and I thought I heard somebody say, ‘Joseph Fourier changed Canadian Society.’ I thought, Oh, I know him!’” Fourier, the French mathematician who discovered the Greenhouse Effect, also did pioneering work on harmonics. “I thought, ‘This’ll be an interesting conversation to join.’ It took me awhile to realize they weren’t talking about Joseph Fourier; they were talking about Wilfred Laurier. I got two or three minutes into the conversation. Nobody said anything to me. They must have been thinking one of two things: Either Schneider is so obsessed with signal processing that he can’t talk about anything else, or he’s going demented.”

I laughed with him at the conclusion of this story, but its implications are profound. Consider the stakes for an older person going in for a psychological assessment. Many such tests includes verbal instruction. You think exam-taking was stressful in college? Here your performance may determine where you’re going to spend the rest of your life. You’re ushered into a curtainless room with a hard floor — a reverberation chamber. You miss a couple of consonants at the beginning of words, which leaves you fishing for the meaning of whole sentences. You fail the test. A hearing issue has been mistaken for a thinking issue. And your story just acquired a new ending.

One of the strangest and most disturbing things about the early stages of hearing loss is there are times it seems your hearing is perfectly fine. In a quiet room, looking directly at my wife, I cam make out every syllable she says. Crystal clarity, ample volume.

The senses help each other out. Visual cues are vital to accurate hearing. Watching someone speak yields a fourfold improvement in comprehension. Indeed, looking into a speaker’s face is so important to perception that it can trick us into actually “hearing” a different sound than we think the lips are making. This is known as the McGurk Effect.

But get us hard-of-hearing into a crowded restaurant and even visual cues can’t save us. It’s the ambient noise – the chaos of acoustic interference — that does us in.

And interference is the new normal. The open-plan architecture our culture has decided is the most visually appealing creates a sonic environment only a whale could love. Sound pinballs around. At a recent work lunch at a Thai restaurant in downtown Vancouver, I was reduced to cupping my hands behind my ears like Mr. Magoo. I could hear my young colleagues well enough, I just couldn’t tell what they were saying.

There is a reason commercial spaces like restaurants and bars are so loud: it works. Loud works. A 2008 French study found that when bar owners turned the music up, customers drained an equal measure of beer almost 20 percent faster. The retail environment ups the ante. Hip retail chains oxygenate the air with tunes. Some of the loudest stores in the United States are Urban Outfitters, and Virgin, Katherine Bouton reported in her book Shouting Won’t Help.“Adults come out reeling, she wrote. “Kids, the target market, pull out their credit cards.”

The electronic soundscape of modern life—a chorus of the pings and whooshes of handheld devices—is optimized to the hearing of the young. “Someone who’s 80 and someone who’s 12 are going to have different responses to a sound,” Oberlin music theory professor Will Mason said recently. (Google, on this score, is more ageist than Facebook: it has higher-pitched UI sounds.)

All this ambient noise has a side effect. It doesn’t only make it hard for older people to hear, it clouds their memory. Schneider runs his test subjects through a “paired associations” test. Older people “aren’t as able to store unrelated items in memory while there’s noise,” he says. By tailoring built environments to the young, designers are handicapping the old, unwittingly or not. And so the divide widens. One could argue that the biggest architectural change in recent times is the move from physical to online communication. We no longer see who we’re talking to. Which means the McGurk Effect, the Boomers’ ace in the hole, is out of play.

A few months ago, with a heavy sigh, I signed the paperwork for a brand new set of Oticon Opn 3s, made in Denmark. They are so expensive I’m paying for them in monthly installments, like a car.

Back at home, I popped in their tiny batteries and slid the devices behind my ears. And just like that, the aural bridge between the world of the old and the world of the young was magically restored. Although not so gracefully.

Ka-runnnnnch! Whoa. Did I just run over something? No, that was my wife in the passenger seat biting into an apple. We took the kids to the multiplex to watch A Wrinkle in Time. It was hard to tell if the film was any good. All I heard was a riot of rustling Twizzlers bags and snarky comments from the teenagers two rows back.

Home life has become chockablock with the kinds of sounds foley artists insert into movies post-production. Open the freezer door and something’s crackling in there. I can hear the “ultra-quiet” new Blomberg dishwasher from the next room. I can hear body sounds I should not be able to. The dog basically gurgles nonstop. It occurs to me how annoying my casual whistling must be to everyone else.

The Bee Gees have returned to the grocery store. I’d stopped hearing them five years ago. Now here they are again, with their unconscionable falsettos. For once, I feel an affinity for rocker Ted Nugent, who offered to buy Muzak for $10 million, so he could shut it down.

The hearing aids have been, at best, a mixed blessing. I’m coming to appreciate the high-tech listening devices I already owned. They’re called ears. They pair well with that other high-tech listening device, the brain. Even the best hearing aids aren’t nearly as good at filtering what you don’t want to hear. Like the whine of bicycle brakes. The menacing grind of escalators. Your spouse filing her nails. By boosting the signal, hearing aids introduce distortion. Things sound tinny. Your own voice sounds miked. It’s like Dylan going electric in your head.

On the positive side, I’m more alert. Booting up hearing aids in the morning is like guzzling a cup of coffee. The London-based experimental artist Caroline Hobkinson found something similar when she started playing with different tones. “Staccato sounds,” she concluded, “make you much more aware and much more appreciative.” The aging brain is lulled into a kind of stupor as the senses diminish. Restoring the top third of the aural spectrum is like throwing open the blind to sunshine. The stimulated brain suddenly has more to do.

Unexpectedly, since getting the hearing aids, I’ve also lost a bit of weight. Maybe a co-incidence. But maybe not, suggested the Oxford experimental psychologist Charles Spence, when I reached him via Skype.

Spence is best known for his crisps study. When test subjects ate stale potato chips, paired with the sound of a lusty crunch as they bit down, the chips tasted fresh. It turns out bland or bitter foods taste sweeter and better when you accompany them with high-pitched sounds. He calls the phenomenon “sonic seasoning,” and it has implications for design soundscapes from restaurants to elder-care facilities.

When you pump music into a coffee shop, and boost the signal in the upper register, customers put less sugar in their coffee, Spence found. I told him of my weight-loss-following-hearing-aids theory. Could be true, he said. On the other hand, one might also expect the opposite: restoring full-spectrum hearing makes eating fun, a crunchy, slurpy, multi-sensory party. So you might eat more.

Oh yes. Those mis-hearings? Gone. But strangely, I kind of miss them. The world is now a little dis-enchanted. No more “pepperoni tree” in the neighbour’s yard. My daughter’s feet are no longer hot in her boots on account of her “flammable socks.” And that tailback for the Raiders I’d heard a broadcaster call “Buffalo Wildwings”? No mention of him lately. Maybe he retired.

I’d been quite enjoying the Snow Falling on Cedars soundtrack of my pre-hearing-aid life. It seemed a benediction: nature’s way of granting the middle-aged some earned peace and quiet. In the accreting stillness of wisdom, the little true voice inside you – the “target story,” not the “mask” story — emerges. And maybe that’s something you really don’t want to fix. I began entertaining the notion that I’d spent almost five grand I didn’t have to make my life worse.

“How are the hearing aids working, Dad?” asked my 13-year-old daughter one day.

“A little too well,” I said. “I hear things I wish I didn’t.”

“Welcome to our world,” she said.

Thus far, scientists’ efforts to find a cure for hearing loss – from hair-cell regeneration to hormone pills – haven’t yielded much. But that could change. “Hearing loss is becoming more prevalent,” says the North Vancouver registered audiologist Katie Daroogheh. “The next generation is going to start experiencing hearing loss in their 30s and 40s.” That’s because aging isn’t the only culprit. Environmental noise is, too. As a species, we might be at peak noisiness right now. The electric machine revolution that will, many believe, make life quieter, is likely decades away from its full expression.

If the young start needing hearing aids en masse, innovation will surge. And so will marketing. “When enough people wear hearing aids it’ll probably become something like eyeglasses,” says the Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer. Perhaps teams of marketing creatives are assembling already, charged with making hearing aids not just less uncool but actually cool. Not “nearly invisible,” as high-end units like my Oticons are pitched now, but fashionably obvious. Even sexy.

I’d like to be listening through the wall on that ad campaign:

Who’s hard of hearing? Every peacekeeper in a war zone, every cowboy on a cattle drive, every member of your favourite rock band. Being hard of hearing means you have lived. You didn’t run from the lion. You stuck your head in its mouth as it roared.


People are either a story or an argument

People are either a story or an argument

Blog Entry Uncategorized

“There are two types of people – those who think you can divide the world into two types of people and those who don’t.”

Oldest joke in the book.

But you’ve gotta admit: even most of us who claim to be above a facile “Mars or Venus” sorting of the entire human race still privately do it. You’re a cat person or a dog person. An ally or a foe. A thinker or a doer.

Some of these A-versus-B constructions are dumb clichés.

But some are more interesting. For example:

You’re either, figuratively speaking, French or German. That is, you’re deeply superficial or superficially deep.

Or you’re either a Prophet or a Wizard. That is, you believe our species’s only hope for survival is to play massive defense (though we’re probably doomed); or you believe that we can science our way out of this mess.

Or you’re either a Hedgehog or a Fox – committed to one grand theory or grazing at the buffet of human knowledge.

Or you’re either a Splitter or a Lumper — you look for distinctions or you look for commonalities.

Or you’re a Weaver or a Ripper — bringing people together or tearing them apart.

Or you’re a Bird or a Frog — surveying the breadth of things from a great height or the fine grain from mud-level.

Or you believe in stones or kisses — the world is made up of solid things or transitory events.

Let me add my own. You can decide whether it’s a dumb cliché or worth chewing on.

People are other a story or an argument.

If you’re a story, you crave questions, mystery, competing possibilities.

But if you’re an argument, you want resolution, answers, rhetorical victory. You treat 51 vs 49 like it’s 100 vs. 0. You fear grey.

The novelist Irish Murdoch was working that seam when she divided the world into philosophers vs. artists. One seeks to clarify the world and make it concrete, the other seeks to mystify the world and expand it.

While I was working on my second book, U-Turn, the story vs. argument paradigm seemed to explain a lot of cases of midlife dissatisfaction. Story people found themselves caught in argument jobs — like lawyer, or economist. Or in argument religions (which is to say, any religion with a rigid dogma). Or in argument families. And they finally couldn’t take it any more.

Argument people say, if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t count. Things that can’t easily be measured – like cultural influences, stories, ethics – are discounted by argument people, if not outright dismissed.

Are scientists argument people? Some are. Maybe most. But occasionally one crosses the floor.

For years Michael Shermer penned the “Skeptic” column for Scientific American magazine. His brief was to debunk paranormal claims. To expose as fraudulent all stories not backed up by physical proof.

That all changed on June 25, 2014. His wedding day.

A couple months earlier his new wife, Jennifer Graf, had shipped some belongings to Shermer’s house. One was a 1978 Philips 070 transistor radio that had belonged to her beloved grandfather, Walter, who was the lone male figure in her life and who died when she was sixteen. The radio didn’t work. Nothing they could do – from replacing the batteries to opening the thing up to see if there were any loose connections to solder – would bring it back from “decades of muteness.” They gave up and stored it in the back of a desk drawer in the bedroom.

On the wedding day the couple returned from the courthouse with their marriage certificates to be feted by friends and family at the house. They said their vows and exchanged rings. Jennifer wished her grandfather were there to give her away.

Then they both how to order tramadol from mexico heard it: music. Coming from the back room. Where just minutes earlier, before the ceremony, all was silent. Michael and Jennifer opened the desk drawer and pulled out Walter’s radio, “out of which a romantic love song wafted.”

The next day the radio stopped working, and it never worked again.

What does this mean?” Shermer asked, in his column. “Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation—with billions of people having billions of experiences every day, there’s bound to be a handful of extremely unlikely events that stand out in their timing and meaning. In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.

“Jennifer is as skeptical as I am when it comes to paranormal and supernatural phenomena. Yet the eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave her the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation.”

(This rings off something writer Frank Herbert once said: “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve but a reality to experience.”)

If we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious,” Shermer concluded.

On his wedding day, Michael Shermer became a story as well as as an argument.I don’t think he loses his cred as a skeptic by retelling this anecdote the way he does. I think he gains cred as a human being.

In his book Cents and Sensibility: What Economists can learn from the Humanities, Morton Schapiro recounts his involvement with a team doing research for the World Bank back in the 1980s. One of the things they studied was the treatment in Africa of a deadly parasitic disease called onchocerciasis, or “river blindness.” The disease had been robbing millions of people of their eyesight up until the mid-1970s, That was when seven West African nations got together to fight it. They created the Onchocerciasis Control Program, overseen by the WHO. Hundreds of thousands of people were saved from blindness. But the program was almost scrapped. Why? Because the people who were being helped were so poor “that the benefit of saving their eyesight didn’t have much monetary impact.” So when economists involved deployed the only tool in their kid – a cost-benefit analysis” the results were inconclusive.A traditional cost-benefit analysis could easily have led to the discontinuation of a project widely viewed as being among the most successful health interventions in African history,” Schapiro notes.

Economics is a cold and actuarial and inhuman profession. Also, the neoclassical economics I studied is based on the faulty assumption that people will act rationally to “maximize their utility” — which we now know is patently untrue.

But here’s why I really bailed on economics: It was an argument profession. It didn’t understand story.

John Lanchester is a writer who, like me, started off in economics. While a part of him kind of admires the honesty of the money guys – the amoral code – they’re like mafia bosses – another part of him is done with it, for good.

“The project of reducing behavior to laws and the project of attending to human beings in all their complexity and specifics are diametrically opposed.

“I think that if I committed any further to economics I would have had to give up writing fiction.”




Aging Essays Featured


from NEW TRAIL magazine, July 2018. Illustrations by Hugh Syme

In June 2015, Megan Strickfaden and her grad student Nicole Gaudet arrived at a little village on the outskirts of Amsterdam with a Harry Potter-ish name: De Hogeweyk. An octogenarian gentleman was visibly thrilled to see them.

This called for wine.

He took Strickfaden by the arm and squired her into the village grocery store, she recalls. He found a nice red and brought it to the till. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and paid for the wine with it. The clerk accepted the payment, bagged up the wine and gave the man back his handkerchief as change.

To its residents, De Hogeweyk — a dead-ringer simulation of a traditional Amsterdam village — isn’t a cutting-edge experiment at the frontier of humane dementia care. It is simply home. They cruise on tandem “cosy cycles” down the cobblestone streets. They munch pastries in the café, catch films at the cinema. They wander among gardens so cunningly designed as to appear limitless. They return to family-sized living spaces that closely match the tenor of the household they grew up in, whether country-cosy or artsy-cultural, full of music and light. Trained geriatric nurses and caregivers form a kind of stealth army of invisible support. They’re dressed not as authority figures but as shopkeepers, neighbours, friends, perhaps relatives.

De Hogeweyk’s reputation rests on what its residents don’t do, says Strickfaden. Based on her observations over two extended visits to the village, residents don’t fall as much or night-wander as much or take anti-psychotics nearly as much as comparable populations elsewhere.

“The place itself is medicine,” she says.

The discovery that environmental “nudges” can boost psychological well-being is one of the triumphs of the last quarter-century of social science. (One of its founders, Richard Thaler, won the Nobel Prize in 2017 for contributions to behavioural economics.) And design elements are psychological levers. By manipulating colours, furnishings, acoustics or the layout itself, architects can send the human mind back in reflection or forward in aspiration. They can slow a frightened heart or stoke curiosity or foster human connection.

Dementia is a syndrome, a deterioration in the ability to process thought beyond what might be expected from normal aging. It affects memory, thinking, language, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday activities.

Source: World Health Organization

People with dementia, it turns out, are especially good candidates for such interventions. “A person with dementia is suggestible,” Strickfaden says. “You work with that.”

Elements similar to the De Hogeweykian approach are being introduced in care facilities around the world. One of these is Canterbury Lane, the dementia wing of the Canterbury complex in west Edmonton. Strickfaden, a design anthropology professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences, has been hired to consult on the multimillion-dollar revamp. It will include features such as a garden that allows residents access to the outdoors without having to be escorted. Hallways that don’t dead-end, but loop back into the heart of the action. Little designated spaces for purposeful activity, such as folding laundry. And a cottage system of living spaces divided by theme or feel, matched to the residents’ upbringings.

The renovations will take close to four years. Unfortunately, the resident in one room is unlikely to live to see it completed. That’s just my guess, knowing that resident quite well.

She is my mother.


More than 50 million people worldwide are afflicted with dementia right now. And since the human lifespan is increasing more quickly than medical science seems to be closing in on a cure (which is to say, not quickly at all), dementia will be part of all our stories: your story or the story of someone you love very much. “Its shadow lies over us all,” writes Jay Ingram in his book The End of Memory.

So what to do — beyond saying a prayer and giving power of attorney to your most trustworthy blood relative? As recently as 20 years ago, people living with dementia who could no longer manage in their homes were simply institutionalized. In that setting, doctors were authority figures and patients were the passive recipients of meds, directives — and very little in the way of treatment.

But another paradigm is emerging. Dementia treatment is coalescing around the idea of patient-centred care.

In an analysis of dementia care studies published in 2015 in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, researcher Hannah O’Rourke, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Nursing, found four things are of central importance in working with people with dementia. A sense of place. Connection to others. A sense of purpose. And shoring up those three poles of the tent supports the fourth, which is linked to physical well-being: a sense of wellness.

So, while scientists continue their search for ways to prevent and treat the disease (See The Elusive Cure), caregivers are doubling down on tactics that promise benefits right now. Call it the “3 Ws” model of dementia care: focusing on the Where, the Who and the Why of the subjective experience of this devastating syndrome.

Our questions are everybody’s questions: what must it be like to be her? And what can we do to help make this a little more bearable — for everyone?

To family members, the hardest part to fathom about dementia is the staggering difference between Good Days and Bad Days. Good Days make you second-guess your decision to move your loved one out of their own home into extended care. Bad Days grimly confirm it.

On a recent visit, my mom positively lit up when I walked through her door. We spent a great day together, at the end of which I promised I’d be back tomorrow. Ten-kilowatt smile. But when I walked through her door the next day, she greeted me with a face that looked as if a bad fish needed taking out. “What are you doing here?” she snarled.

Mom was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when she failed the “mini-mental” exam 10 years ago, at age 84. Though in truth, we noticed her slipping as early as her late 70s, one “W” after another. The “where” seemed to go first. On an Alaskan cruise, to celebrate her “80th year,” she struggled to find her way back to our cabin and had not cracked the nut even by our last day at sea.

Then the “when” became wobbly. On a visit to the West Coast, she became deeply concerned that we’d miss our flight if we didn’t leave right now. So I raced us to the airport, only to hear upon our arrival: “Why the heck are we here so early?”

Social filters fell away. Mom started making derogatory comments about people standing right next to her. She began repeating herself every 30 seconds. Sometimes she noticed herself slipping. “I feel like … I’m … not right in the head!” she’d say and she could barely contain her terror.

The changes in her reflected the brutally quixotic nature of the disease. Like a tornado through a trailer park, it destroys some faculties while leaving others bizarrely intact. On a recent visit, I told Mom it was our dog’s birthday — we were having a couple of the neighbourhood pooches over to celebrate.

“Penny,” she said, remembering the name of an animal she’d never met. “How old is she, again?”

“She’s four.”

“So, our 28,” Mom said instantly.

Sometimes my sisters and I leave the facility feeling gut-punched, yearning for the sweetness we know is in Mom to surface more often. And our questions are everybody’s questions: what must it be like to be her? And what can we do to help make this a little more bearable — for everyone?


Are We Our Memories?

Who are we without our memories? For people with dementia, recovering even some of the experience they have banked is a crucial part of feeling, well, like themselves again.

One theory of dementia-related memory loss is that it’s a retrieval issue, rather than a data-loss issue. In other words, the memories are still in there, only their tags have fallen off. In recent years, researchers have experimented with using sensory triggers to call some of those memories up.

In Scotland, aging soccer fans living with Alzheimer’s are exposed to reconstructions of big games. In North America, people with dementia are supplied with iPods loaded with personalized playlists. Out of Sweden comes an ingenious invention called the BikeAround: a stationary bicycle attached to a wrap-around movie screen onto which a moving landscape is projected. Plug in the client’s childhood-home address on Google Street View and suddenly there they are, back in the old ’hood, cruising down streets they probably haven’t since they were a kid on a Schwinn.

Reminiscence therapy, this kind of intervention is sometimes called — and preliminary research suggests it can not only boost happiness levels but improve cognitive function. This year, the Canterbury Lane staff tried a simple version of it in the run-up to Mother’s Day with a scrapbooking activity. Family members were asked to contribute photos of mom or dad through the years, surrounded, if possible, by the people they have loved the most. “You’re really trying to get them to live in those moments,” activities supervisor Mbalia Kamara told me. “And then to really validate the feelings that emerge.”

For Mom, it was pretty profound. As she turned to a snapshot of her and Dad circa 1980, both of them tanned and smiling in Hawaiian sunshine, she began to cry. A staff member allowed her to sit with that sadness for a few moments, and then steered her toward the light. “He must have been a great guy,” she said. “Tell me about your wedding day.”

The tonic here, as much as the memory work, is the attention. People with dementia often lose their voice as the disease progresses. The world stops listening. “People used to think that because there was cognitive impairment there wasn’t insight — but that’s not true,” says nursing professor and researcher Hannah O’Rourke. “People with dementia still know what they like and don’t like.” To pull that insight out is not that difficult, she says. “You ask. You just ask.”

A couple of years ago, Elly Park, a post-doctoral fellow in the U of A Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, undertook a project with researchers from Simon Fraser University and the University of Toronto on digital storytelling. Facilitators helped people with dementia create a digital story with photos, music and narration by the participant. “Storytelling is a tool,” writer Ursula K. Le Guin put it, “for knowing who we are and what we want.” People with dementia are no different from the rest of us in this way. Park’s research found that encouraging participants to think about and share meaningful stories enhanced relationships with caregivers, increased communication and interaction, and gave participants a sense of accomplishment. “In several cases, participants said they surprised themselves with the stories they were able to remember,” says Park.

With Mom, I have found that if I press her too much for family history, she often clams up. For her, the fact-finding is stressful. This is not uncommon. That’s why University of Wisconsin theatre professor Anne Basting received a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called a genius grant, for her invention called TimeSlips. It replaces “the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine,” as she puts it. TimeSlips is like a book club where no one has read the book, except in this case it’s a photograph. Each photograph is striking and mysterious. It looks as if it has a story to tell, so everyone makes one up. There’s no way to be wrong, which seems to loosen tongues. “The absolute key to the entire process,” Basting says in a video about TimeSlips, “is that we validate everything they say.” This sounds like — it is like — improv theatre.

Something a little magical happens when we start telling stories to each other, whether they’re true or not. Neuroscience has shown that it boosts the sense of connection between the teller and the listener. As the story unspools, the brains of teller and listener sync up — a phenomenon psychologists call “linguistic alignment.” Another bonus: for people who can no longer have out-there-in-the-world adventures, storytelling is an excellent proxy. It stimulates many of the same parts of the brain that light up when we are actually experiencing things — just as reading does.

For the scrapbooking exercise at Canterbury, not all the families contributed photos. So those residents instead received pages of their scrapbooks with stock photos of a random family. Which sounds a little sad but turns out to be a perfectly serviceable alternative. “Just the idea of family can get people talking about their own,” says Kamara.

For some reason, my own earliest memories of Mom are all tagged to scents: the cinnamon-y Bee Bell Bakery, the chlorine of the Y swimming pool, the baseball-mitt smell of Jack and Jill Shoes. We’d march into these places hand-in-hand and, invariably, she’d spot someone she knew and tractor-beam them in with her smile. She’d let go of my hand — she needed both of hers to talk — and that would be it. I waited beside her as ice ages came and went. Eventually she’d track me down in some corner of the facility. I could smell her coming.

But wait: how many of these details are true? “Every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination,” the neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote. We’re all unreliable narrators. That doesn’t mean we all have neurodegenerative disease; dementia in its various forms is a syndrome with specific physiological signatures. But it does mean that people with dementia cannot be dismissed as Other. Every time we call our kid by the dog’s name or drive off with our coffee cup on the roof, the difference between the two worlds, practically speaking, grows moot. And somewhere a busker plays There but for Fortune.

Our Purpose, Our Selves

“If the residents here were able to describe their biggest frustration, what would they say?” I asked Wendy King, executive director of the Canterbury Foundation, not long ago. “I think maybe they would say, ‘You don’t understand me,’ ” she replied.

Hence, a recent trend in dementia care toward what you might call deep client profiling. In the old days, staff received an incoming resident’s medical charts, some basic biographical data and not much else. Now, families are often asked to flesh out the story of mom or dad. The more data, the greater the likelihood a resident ends up where they belong, doing things that pluck the strings of their hidden enthusiasms.

A “sense of purpose,” as O’Rourke discovered in her analysis of dementia studies, can involve many things: the feeling of contributing to others; a belief in a higher power; some control over how your day unfolds. From a caregiver’s perspective, restoring a sense of purpose is about reconnecting people with who they used to be — placing them back in the vicinity of that intersection where, as American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner put it, their deep desire meets the world’s deep need.

Strickfaden recalls one man at De Hogeweyk who was restless and searching, and a bit aggressive and hard to approach. Staff went back into his file and discovered he’d once been a farmer. “So one day they hid a bunch of eggs all around the courtyard. And they said, ‘We need you to go collect the eggs in the morning.’ And he’d do that. And then he’d be wonderful for the rest of the day. It was something that validated who he was.”

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for about 60 to 70 per cent of cases. Dementia can also be caused by stroke, injury or other diseases.

Source: World Health Organization

At Canterbury, one resident used to be a millwright, so he’s routinely given things to tinker with. Another was a homemaker who raised a big family. She struggles to find words and can get frustrated and withdrawn, but she positively melts when handed lifelike “Baby Sophia.” She dresses the doll in tiny clothes warm from the dryer, whispering and cooing to her and, after a while, “she’s more open to the activities the rest of us are doing,” says Kamara.

But there’s purpose and then there is purpose — something closer to what the Japanese call ikigai. Roughly: the sense that life is worth living because we are needed here. Japanese research has found that people with ikigai live longer. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2012 found that people with Alzheimer’s who are animated by purpose staved off cognitive decline longer. No one knows quite why it matters to feel as if we matter — only that it does.

“Feeling you matter is at the core of being a person,” British dementia consultant David Sheard often says. “Knowing you matter is at the heart of being alive.” Sheard is the founder of Dementia Care Matters, better known as the “butterfly” model of dementia care. I could see its principles in action the day I visited Copper Sky Lodge, in Spruce Grove, Alta., Canada’s first butterfly facility. Copper Sky’s CEO is Phil Gaudet, well-known in Alberta as the former head of the Good Samaritan Society, a long-running non-profit care provider. But the lodge is mostly run these days by his daughter, Nicole Gaudet. The same Gaudet who, with her thesis advisor Strickfaden, was embedded at De Hogeweyk.

As dementia advances and individuals turn inward, they’re less able to seek out the multi-sensory stimulation they may need. So the stimulation must come to them — as butterflies come to flowers. “Even things like this soft sweater I have on are part of it,” Gaudet says of the fuzzy sweater she’s wearing. “I’ve been getting lots of hugs today.”

At the centre of the butterfly model is emotion. The theory: people will forget what you say, and even what you do, but they will never forget how you made them feel. That’s because feeling is processed in a more primitive part of the brain; it’s protected, in a sense, from the damage to the neocortex that dementia causes. And so the staff at Copper Sky are trained to circulate, alighting here and there, touching, affirming, offering a cup of tea or a taste of mint, introducing short activities. “Ultimately, we are all feeling beings,” says Gaudet. “So if you can connect to what somebody is already feeling, you’re four steps ahead.”

But there’s research and then there’s practice. Changing how we care for people with dementia isn’t easy. After their experience at De Hogeweyk, Strickfaden and Gaudet were gung-ho to update legislation around dementia care in Canada. They soon discovered they were facing frustrating headwinds, some of which were cultural.

A country’s dementia care can reveal a lot about its values. China, for instance, is a culture of service, notes Strickfaden. “But that can actually get in the way of good elder care. People are literally served to death.” The Netherlands is big on personal liberties. How far you want to push your limits is up to you, within reason. Quality of life reigns supreme.

Canada has made a different choice. Here a dementia-care facility gets accredited or not based in part on how safe it’s deemed to be, says King, head of Edmonton’s Canterbury Lane. So De Hogewykian elements like cobblestones, public fountains, accessible barbecues and knives, unfenced kitchens are red flags. In Canada, safety trumps freedom. So does efficiency. Funding here is task-based. “Staff have a task list and a limited amount of time to do it,” says King. “So if a resident puts up resistance, it creates stress — because the staff person knows, ‘I’ve got to go to Mrs. Jones next.’ ”

The task-based funding model is, predictably, frustrating for more progressive voices in dementia care. “You’re regulating to the point of strangulation,” says Gaudet.

After Copper Sky received a poor grade in its first effort to become a certified butterfly facility three years ago, Gaudet spearheaded massive staff retraining. The first thing she impressed on caregivers is that human connection comes first. You are not going to be fired if you don’t get this task and this task and this task done, she told staff. Even though by some measures the extra TLC means more work for them, there’s evidence that such an approach leads to lower burnout, since it puts caretakers’ actions more in line with the reasons they got into this work in the first place.

“I would abolish long-term care in Canada and start over,” says Gaudet, “because I think we’ve got it wrong. We need to be given the freedom to deliver new kinds of care in inspiring environments.”

O’Rourke is cautiously optimistic about the future of dementia care in Canada. “If we — clinicians, researchers, community members, society — can set aside our own fears, assumptions and stigmas about the disease, there is hope. People with dementia have identified many ways to achieve a good quality of life. We just need to listen.”

one recent wednesday afternoon at Canterbury Lane, residents sat drowsing in easy chairs in front of an old Jimmy Stewart movie on the big-screen TV. My mother wasn’t among them. She likes the privacy of her room and to pick her own shows — and to crank up the volume.

On this visit, I had a plan. Having steeped myself in the Alzheimer’s literature and the best ideas of countless experts in multiple domains, I was eager to try a few things. I wanted to help Mom grasp where she is, who she is and why she is. I’d brought an artifact: a tennis racket. Not one of the fancy big ones people wield now but a vintage wooden one. This is what you used in the era when Mom learned to play, gliding around the shale courts of Garneau tennis club, not long after she and my dad met. People can see it on the wall and ask Mom about tennis. And maybe some of those locked-up memories — a serve tossed into the sun, the fitz of a new tin of balls, my dad so gentlemanly out there that he actually cheated against himself — will come rushing back.

Not long ago my sister Lynn noticed Mom paging through a magazine that had a big splash about the Royal Family. Mom pointed to a gentleman in a waistcoat. “That is the man I’m going to marry,” she said. A few years ago Lynn might have laughed or corrected her. But we have learned that it’s not our job to pull Mom back into this world. Our job is to meet her in hers. Lynn raised her eyebrows in enthusiasm, nodded and asked for details about the wedding.

These days Mom’s eyes reveal a lot. There’s not much reminiscing going on. Nor is there planning. The headlights reach to the next bend in the road and that’s it. But this is what people with dementia have, most profoundly, to teach us. They are champions at living in the now. The question, for all of us, is how can we make the now better?

I believe the answer is to just be there. Or in the case of my own too-infrequent visits, make sure I’m therewhen I’m there.

So Mom and I go for silent wheelchair tours to check out the action over in the nearby manor — past the kitchen, down the long, carpeted hallways. Little bios outside each resident’s door tell of their unique strengths. That’s right out of the David Sheard playbook: “Search for the treasure in each individual.”

“I’ve learned that if I attach too much to whether she remembers my visit, I’m going to be bitter,” Lynn told me on the phone recently. So you shift the bar. A cup of coffee, a stab at a cribbage game, a trip to the atrium to hear the piano player plink out Moon River: that is a win. We are not our memories.

Even though it sometimes feels that way.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A More Beautiful Question

A More Beautiful Question

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The Dalai Lama came to Vancouver some years ago to speak. Victor Chan, the head of the Dalai Lama Centre here, brought him in.

During one of Victor’s visits with His Holiness, he noticed the Dalai Lama starting to yawn. The Dalai Lama ordered an aide to bring him some coffee.

When the coffee arrived, Victor reached to pour it for the Dalai Lama, but was stopped. No, no, His Holiness clarified. “The coffee is not for me. It’s for you. So you’ll ask better questions.”

Ask. Better. Questions.

That should be a bumper sticker on the year 2018.

We live in a culture that overvalues answers, and so undervalues questions that asking good ones has become kind of a lost art.

Look at our media. Dick Cavett and Charlie Rose have left the building. The probing interview is dead. Now it’s all dueling answers: mine against yours, the Left’s against the Right’s.

In the Google era, answers are cheap and everywhere. There’s not much we don’t know — or at least, not much we can’t know in about two seconds. Boom, the collected wisdom of humanity right at our fingertips.

But Google, the great and powerful Oz, isn’t what it seems. Google is just a thin beam of light in the darkness. What’s revealed depends on where we point it. And mostly we just point it where other people have pointed it. So we all keep going over the same ground. We don’t know what we’re missing, because we don’t know what we don’t know.

That’s why it matters what questions you ask. Skillful questioning is a tool to help us organize our thinking around our own ignorance, as writer Warren Berger points out in his book A More Beautiful Question. It’s like a navigation App. It helps us see in the dark.

So what is a beautiful question? Often it’s the kind of question a kid would ask, if you dropped him into the middle of a dinner party of experts who thought they knew everything there was to know about their field. The kid, knowing nothing, goes right to the overlooked heart of things.

“Why is it,” a high school student in Tanzania named Erasto Mpemba asked his science teacher one day, “that when I put hot water and cold water in the freezer together, the hot water freezes first?”

This sounded so stupid that some of the students laughed. Even the teacher was pretty sure that wasn’t what happened when you put hot and cold water in the freezer. But he decided to run a test, just to be sure he was right. Lo and behold, he wasn’t right. The kid was right. So the teacher and the student published a paper on it together. The phenomenon — warm things freeze faster than cool things — was not unknown. But this student got his name attached to it. It’s now known as the Mpemba Effect. Because Erasto Mpemba was the one who asked the more beautiful question.

The world’s best questioners may be four-year-old girls. They ask, on average, 390 questions a day. “Why” upon “Why” upon “Why,” until you reach the atomic level of existence. Being a parent of a four-year-old girl is internationally recognized as the same as having a Ph.D in philosophy. It’ll drive you crazy following those turtles all the way down.

(It’s a mixed blessing that my two girls are no longer in the “Why” stage The questions have stopped. They’re no longer interested in our answers. So it’s a lot easier now. But kind of sadder.)

It turns out that the questioning drops off sharply starting the very next year . That’s because those kids are now in the school system. And now they can’t just blurt out everything you’re wondering. They have to sit on their questions until they’re called on. A lot of those questions die on the vine. And the wondering itself tapers off.

By adulthood, out in the real workaday world, people don’t ask questions much at all. Because questions are inefficient. They put the brakes on getting stuff doneWe’d rather be charging off and doing things, even if we’re doing them wrong, rather than stopping to ask questions to figure out what we’re doing.

“A Nobel Prize -winning physicist was asked, ‘Is there a difference between the way you were raised that enabled you to win a Nobel Prize?” Cal Fussman, the virtuoso interviewer, told this story on a podcast recently

“The scientist thought about this. ‘I think so,’ he said. ‘When I was a kid going to school, the other kids would come home and their parents would ask them, ‘What’d you learn in school today?’

‘Nuthin,’ those kids would say. End of conversation.

But when I got home, my parents asked me, ‘What good question did you ask in school today?’”

So just by changing the question, you can change somebody’s life,” Fussman said. “Because now the kid’s gotta be thinking when he goes to school, what is my question of the day?”

There are lots of reasons to try to rekindle that spirit of promiscuous questioning we all had when we were four. But here’s one I hadn’t thought of till I heard Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly bring it up

Come the robot uprising, it’s our questions that will save us.

See, machines are already better than us at generating answers. They can crunch patterns and come up with brilliant solutions. We can’t really compete with them.

But they’re lousy at questions. Because asking great questions takes wisdom, which is different from intelligence. Wisdom isn’t about brute mental horsepower. It’s about judgment.

That’s our speciality. And our advantage. We’re experts at saying, “I wonder if” or “How might we…?” These are questions born of hunches. And hunches come from being alive in the world, just kicking the can down the road.


Yes, Ageism is Bad For Your Health

Yes, Ageism is Bad For Your Health

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from ZOOMER magazine, June 18, 2018

One of Facebook’s core values, according to its founder Mark Zuckerberg, is to promote “better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others.”

Not long ago, a group of psychologists from four American universities decided to test this lofty adage. They conducted the first-ever study of age stereotypes in social networks.

The psychologists looked for Facebook groups about older people — the kind of lily pads that seniors might land on as they surf social media. But the researchers were interested a particular kind of group: about older people, but not by older people. They found 84. These sites were created and managed by people mostly in their 20s. They presented a young person’s-eye-view of what it’s like to be old. A fairly jaundiced eye.

Three quarters of the individual posts “excoriated” older individuals. One quarter “infantilized” them. Nearly 40 per cent of the young posters thought older people should be banned from public activities like shopping.

Some thought older folks should just hurry up and die already. Of unnatural causes if necessary: “Anyone over the age of 69 should immediately face a firing squad.”

Lead researcher Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale, had readied herself for some vitriol on these sites. “But I didn’t expect it to be this bad.”

Facebook says it does not tolerate hate speech. “It is a serious violation of our terms to single out individuals based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease,” reads its Community Standards policy.

Levy noticed age wasn’t on the list. Ageism didn’t make the cut on a social platform used by two billion people. Even after the Yale study was published, Facebook didn’t bother to correct the oversight. Last time Levy checked, eight of the most offensive sites were still up and running.

So this was appalling but illuminating. The Internet is the great magnifier of the human id. Ugly truths waft out under cover of anonymity. This study revealed a few: Ageism is everywhere. And social media is a convenient platform for young people to denigrate older people. Some young people don’t like old people very much — or maybe they just don’t like the idea of growing old.

But there is a bomb in the results. Prejudice, Levy has found, tends to boomerang back on the prejudiced.

Studies show most people’s views of aging are a mix of positive and negative and neutral. But people who are too negative — or have assimilated more negative age stereotypes from their culture — pay for that bias on a physical level. Whether we think of aging is an opportunity for growth or a ticket to frailty and incompetence — our bodies register that impression and deliver it as a wish, return-to-sender.

In an irony worthy of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, ageism makes people age more quickly.

Levy has built a distinguished career proving it.

Her most famous study leveraged data collected in the mid-’70s from the town of Oxford Ohio. Residents over age 50 were asked yes-or-no questions about their thoughts on aging. For example: “As you get older, you are less useful,” or “As I get older, things are (better, worse, or the same) as I thought they would be.”

Twenty-three years later, Levy entered the picture. First she checked to see how many of those participants were still alive. Then she matched the mortality data with the survey answers. She made a startling discovery. The subjects with the most negative views of aging died, on average, 7.6 years sooner than those with the most positive views. Being ageist influenced lifespan more than gender. Or socioeconomic status. Or loneliness. Or exercise.

Because it was a correlational study, there was no obvious explanation for the huge effect. But Levy knew the number one killer of people over fifty is cardiovascular disease. She wondered: what if ageism stresses the heart? She decided to test that theory with a double-barreled technique that has become her trademark.

Levy is both an experimental social psychologist and an epidemiologist, which makes her uniquely qualified to see both the fine grain and the big picture of social science. She goes back and forth. “I like to observe things in a controlled setting, and then see if that applies in a real world setting over time.”

In her lab at Yale, Levy had a number of test subjects, all over 65, take math and verbal tests under tight time pressure. But before they did, the subjects were “primed” with either positive or negative aging stereotypes. Essentially, a rosy or gloomy view of aging was planted in the test-takers’ minds before the starting gun sounded.

The negative-stereotype primed group tightened right up. Their heart rate and blood pressure soared. The test — which involved talking about a stressful experience—was hairy for both groups. But the negative stereotypes stressed the participants out further, while the positive stereotypes calmed them down.

“So then we wondered how that might operate in the community over time,” Levy says.

The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, started in 1958, tracked health data of around 1500 volunteer subjects in total, aged 17 to 49, over the course of six decades. Handily, the researchers also asked those subjects what they thought about aging and older people.

It turned out, subjects who had bought into the negative stereotypes of aging suffered twice as many heart events — from mini-strokes to congestive heart failure  — as those who had absorbed more positive stereotypes. Levy had controlled for every factor she could think of, from diet to smoking to family-history to depression. The only difference was the subjects’ thoughts about aging.

“Young, healthy people who hold ageist attitudes may put themselves at risk of heart disease up to 40 years later,” Levy concluded in the study, published in Psychological Science in March of 2009.

Ageism is a utility knife of wicked versatility. It affects even things you wouldn’t expect to have a psychological dimension. Things such as balance, handwriting, memory. Even hearing loss.

In one study, Levy asked septuagenarian test subjects to think of words that described older people. Those who came up with words like “frail” more than words like “wise” saw their hearing degrade more quickly. Three years later, this group’s hearing was significantly worse than the group that had held more positive views of aging.

Just a few weeks ago, Levy, in collaboration with the scientific director of the National Institute on Aging, published perhaps her most audacious study yet — and her most personal. Levy had a beloved grandfather who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Could the course of that kind of affliction, too, be steered by our thoughts?

Levy had already produced one blockbuster study suggesting the answer is yes. In a 2016, she and colleagues compared the ageism scores from that Baltimore Longitudinal study to the autopsied brains of the study subjects who had died. The brains of subjects who had held the most negative age stereotypes bloomed with tangles of amyloid plaques, and showed significant hippocampal shrinkage.

In the new study, within a different data set of older subjects, Levy zeroed in on a particular type of dementia candidate. People who carry the ε4 variant on the APOE gene are more likely to develop early-onset Alzheimer’s and other dementias. The chance is around 50 percent.

““So half of this is environmental,” says Levy. “We thought the positive beliefs might be one of the environmental factors that explain why some people with APOE4 develop dementia and others do not.”

Around a quarter of the subjects carried APOE4—as revealed by genetic testing at the beginning of the study. All the subjects were dementia-free at that point. Levy compared the attitude data to the health outcomes. Turned out, the APOE4 carriers who held rosier views of aging were less than half as likely to show signs of dementia four years later.

So what is actually going on here? What might explain the dramatic physiological effects of something as ineffable as mere “thoughts”?

For one thing, our attitudes, conscious or not, drive our behavior. This was likely a factor in Levy’s studies of stereotypes and long-term heart-health. “If people hold more negative views of aging, they may be less likely to walk the extra block or engage in healthy behaviors as they get older,” Levy said. “Because they tend to think of poor health as inevitable later in life.”

But a more potent factor — in some ways the elephant in the room in all aging stereotype studies — is this: there’s often a disconnect between young people and their future selves.

“People under forty don’t think of themselves as eventually getting older,” says the Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, whose pioneering work on age primes paved the way for Levy’s. That disconnect is a problem. It prevents young people from, for instance, developing habits that would profit their older selves down the line. (Like saving for retirement, as the behavioral economist Dan Ariely has shown.) Just thinking about growing old is heart-constrictingly stressful – if, that is, you expect older age to be a time of pain and loneliness and confinement, rather than a time of leisure and discount travel and free play with tow-headed grandkids.

Ageism, at root, is about fear.

Robert Butler, the psychiatrist who coined the term “ageism,” thought ageism and elder abuse stem from “deeply human concerns and fears about the vulnerability inherent in the later years of life.” The idea of shuffling inexorably toward the grave scares the hell out of us. So we hold the shufflers at a contemptible distance – even as we ourselves, bit by invisible bit, become them.

“One time I picked up my father at the airport,” recalls Langer, “and I said ‘Dad, how was the flight?’” He said, ‘It was fine but there were all these old people on the plane.’ My father was in his eighties. Ageism is rampant among older people.”

This curious, common phenomenon of prejudice against one’s own group makes ageism different from the other ‘ism’s that Facebook actually cares about, like sexism and racism. People don’t typically diss their own gender or race. If others diss our gender or race, well, we can develop antibodies against those attacks from an early age, and ward off those poisonous judgments. Age is different. To the young, “old people” can seem almost like a different species—crotchety and frail and out to lunch. Until one day the young actually are old, and find themselves undefended against the very stereotypes they so deeply absorbed. And they sink to their low estimation of themselves.

This is all bad news for those ageist 20-something Facebook posters. They don’t know what flight plan they just filed.

But here’s the rub. Levy believes it’s possible to change that flight plan.

In fact, almost all her studies can be flipped to reveal not the destructive effects of negative aging stereotypes but the healthful effects of positive ones. Her whole  body of work, in a way, is a call for a public-health campaign against ageism.

“We know that children as young as three or four have taken in those negative stereotypes of our culture, and we know that those stereotypes are reinforced in young adulthood and middle age,” she says. “So by the time individuals reach older age the stereotypes can be pretty engrained.

“But we also have research that suggests that thoughts are malleable. If you prompt them, most people can come up with positive images. Some of those strategies we can learn. People can be taught to question negative beliefs.

“Because we know this starts at a young age, the earlier the interventions happen, the better. For example, You can make curriculum changes” in schools. “There are programs where older individuals come into classrooms and become resources.”

Langer’s work carries a similar message.

Many of her age-priming studies are about tricking the old to remember what it was like to be young — the better to tap the youthfulness that is still in them. (In her famous  Counterclockwise study, from 1979, older subjects were dropped into an elaborate re-creation of the ‘50s and emerged, one week later, measurably more spry. It has inspired the re-design of some seniors facilities and the re-thinking of elder care.)

But the rest of them are about nudging the young to think about what it’ll be like to be old.

“Let me tell you something I wanted to do years ago but couldn’t get funding,” Langer says. “I wanted to create a building that simulated life at age 70. As you get older, your body changes. You feel temperatures more intensely. Your field of vision narrows. By having a 40-year-old live in such a place — and I don’t think it’d take more than about three weeks — they’d probably develop the skill to be able to overcome, or at least adapt to, these deficits.”

For the Internet hate-mongers, it would be a powerful intervention. It might just keep them alive.


From the archives: Swimming the Salmon Home

From the archives: Swimming the Salmon Home

Featured Published Stories Archive

from the NEW YORK TIMES, Sept 26, 2003

ON an overcast afternoon, eight snorkel divers and two guides — all of us encased in snug, full-body wet suits — gathered under a logging bridge on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and waded into the fast-rushing Campbell River. We took a few moments to acclimatize in the shallows, hyperventilating a little as the glacier-born river flooded our suits.
The women had removed their earrings; trout passing through the river tend to strike at anything shiny, whatever flesh it may be attached to. After a bit of low comedy involving the cumbersome fins and the current, I pushed out into the main flow, looked down and swallowed my breath again. A few feet in front of me was a salmon the size of a dancer’s leg. Tail forked, flanks rust-red, it tracked laterally across the river, whip-cracking the muscle of its body. This tyee was probably five or six years old and at least 35 pounds. The size was to some extent an illusion; but even allowing for the double magnification of the water and the mask, it was one big fish. And it wasn’t alone. Looming out of the shadows now were others, kings and cohos and the odd straggling pink, each salmon churning upstream, a flash of biological imperative in my peripheral vision.
It’s a strange way to see a game fish: not on a dinner plate or at the end of a fishing line, but alive and free and in your face.
The annual salmon spawn really is one of those mysterious, natural spectacles worthy of the build up. Almost half a million Pacific salmon return to the Campbell each year from the ocean, inching back to their natal streams, to the precise football-size patch of riverbed where, for them, the whole plot began.
They come in succession: the humpbacked pinks, the silver-sided coho and eventually the fiercely hooked-nosed chum. But most impressive of all is the tyee, the coastal Indians’ word for chief, a title Chinook salmon earn when they hit 30 pounds. These are the fish that have given the Campbell a reputation for almost unmatched salmon fishing — at least until recently.
Beginning in the early 1990’s, loss of habitat, overfishing and, perhaps, climate change turned the slow depletion in Pacific salmon stocks into a crisis gravely, recalling what happened to the cod stocks of the East Coast. Strict fishing regulations were imposed on most salmon rivers in the Pacific Northwest and southern British Columbia.
Almost all salmon fishing in the Campbell, therefore, is now catch-and-release. But an alternative has grown in its place. If you can’t take salmon out of the river, nothing says you can’t climb in there with them.
The Pacific salmon in this stretch of the Campbell River would all be dead within a month. Unlike their Atlantic cousins, returning Pacific salmon die after just one reproductive season. Once they hit fresh water, the fuse is ignited. They stop eating; the only fuel available to them is their own bodies, which they quickly deplete. Battered by rocks and snacked on in passing by lazy seals, they’re soon marked with open wounds. Fungus grows in the wounds. And the once gleaming silver flanks begin to fuzz over with gray. The fish start to leave bits of themselves in the water, to mix with the milt and the roe. In few other places in nature do sex and death so explicitly commingle.
The number of coho in the river on this day last October was surprising; they don’t generally spawn in deep water. But because there had been so little rain, they weren’t moving into the tributaries, Catherine Temple, founder of Paradise Found Adventure Tours, explained about the near-drought conditions on this late-season day. Typically, rainwater in the river is a signal to the fish that it’s time to move out into the spawning beds.
Ms. Temple’s six-year-old company bills itself as the only one in North America that offers snorkeling-with-salmon tours. (And a search of the Internet seems to support that claim.) Which isn’t to say that individuals around here hadn’t thought of trying it earlier. The first probably was the Canadian outdoorsman and writer Roderick Haig-Brown, who in the 1950’s donned a mask and snorkel to observe the effects of a new dam on the behavior of the fish and, not incidentally, to see where they were hiding (he was a fisherman, first and foremost). In the 1970’s and 80’s, locals started getting into the act. Only the unusual clarity of the river makes this sport possible: on some days, in bright sunshine, fish can be seen finning 30 feet away.
On this day, the big pink run was largely over and the chum run had yet to begin. Next to the tyee, the chum are the most arresting fish in the Campbell, with their lantern jaws and guard-dog teeth, which nature starts to manufacture the moment the fish enters fresh water, a signal that it will soon be needing weaponry if it is to have a chance in the territorial skirmishes.
”The chum won’t move in till the chinook are gone because they’re in direct competition for the beds,” Ms. Temple said. ”And the coho didn’t come till the pinks were gone. Apparently they don’t like their smell.”
At one point, to better appreciate what the salmon were up against, I spun around and kicked back against the current, hard, until my legs burned. I still lost ground. But I noticed, for the first time, some salmon drifting downriver with me. And the Sisyphean nature of their task sank in: a spawning salmon cannot rest without backsliding at an alarming rate; and yet, it has to rest. So its labor becomes two strokes forward, a stroke and a half back, for days, weeks, months.

A guide, Jamie Turko, grew up on Vancouver Island. As a boy, he and his pals would float like torpedoes down the whole navigable length of the river, a 45-minute run. Back then, the fish were so plentiful they would routinely collide with him. Not so now. ”I’ve only had two bump into me so far this year,” he said.

Fish stocks have recovered somewhat in the last three years but are only about 60 percent of the levels they were a decade ago. And though the tyee are still big enough to set the eyes of most visiting fishermen spinning, they’re not nearly as big as they used to be. It was not uncommon, Mr. Turko said, to have 200-pound salmon 500 or 600 years ago. (The modern record is 122 pounds.) If you belonged to the local Tyee club in the early 1950’s, you would routinely bag fish in the 65-pound range; now the biggest are pushing 50. Because no limits were traditionally imposed on how large a fish you could take from the river — only how small — the biggest tyee were removed from the gene pool. Only in the last few years have maximum limits been imposed as well as minimums. But it’s too late: the really big fish are probably gone forever.

One way to approach snorkeling with the salmon of the Campbell is to think of it as a metaphor for an ancient relationship. People in these parts have relied on salmon as a food source for as long as there have been people in these parts. Salmon rivers determined settlement patterns. To the Indians of the region, salmon were and remain sacred. (The Haida people believed the Pacific salmon were actually a race of subterranean humans who took the form of fish when they rose out of the ground and into the oceans.) ”Much of their behavior remains cloaked in mystery still,” Mr. Haig-Brown wrote of the salmon in the Campbell. ”Where exactly in the ocean do they go, when they leave the streams where they were born? How do they find their way home? What is the immediate purpose of this schooling in the canyon pool at what must be almost the end of their journey?”

Floating down the river, elbow to elbow with others, like part of an advancing line of rugby players, the snorkel diver is struck by an inevitable question: Can this activity be good for the fish?

The wager all eco-tour operators make is that whatever impact their visitors have on nature is more than offset by the impact nature makes on them, that a renewed respect for the chain of life and a diminished desire to interfere with natural processes is absorbed and passed on. It’s not clear if or how humans in the river affect salmon. There is some evidence that the fish can at least smell large mammals in the water and that they are sensitive to electromagnetic changes of the sort a human might generate.

”The main concern, however, is that the added stress of people’s floating down the river will cause the fish to die of exhaustion too soon, before they reach their spawning beds,” Ms. Temple said. ”But the fish don’t seem to be affected.”

Dave Ewart, manager of the Quinsam River Hatchery, which has been doing fish counts for more than 20 years, gives Ms. Temple the benefit of the doubt. ”I’m sure, just as with killer-whale watching, there will come a time when it’s just too much, that there will be a breaking point,” he said. ”But my experience is that when it rains and the river comes up and it’s time to spawn, nothing stops these fish. They’ll go wherever they have to go.”


Level-3 Thinking (Or, how not to be ageist)

Level-3 Thinking (Or, how not to be ageist)

Blog Entry

Not long ago, an American rocket engineer named Destin Sandlin hopped on a bicycle in a public square in Amsterdam. It looked like he might be zipping off to do an errand. But something was wrong. When he tried to pedal away he couldn’t balance. For twenty minutes he tried and failed. He just couldn’t keep the bike upright for more than half a second. It got a little embarrassing. People watching thought he had some sort of disability. How else to explain why a healthy-looking guy can’t ride a bicycle?

Turns out, Destin Sandlin can ride a bicycle. Or at least he could. Sandlin learned to ride a bike when he was three years old – way earlier than most of us. But recently he’d tried a radical experiment: he painstakingly unlearned how to ride a bike. (The full version of the story is brilliantly told here. The short of it is, Sandlin taught himself to ride a specially designed “reverse” bike — which turns right when you steer it left and vice-versa — thereby effectively re-wiring his brain.)

And now, here in this Dutch square, he was trying to unlearn that unlearning. Trying to resurrect a skill that was second-nature for so long before he monkeyed with it.

“You think I’m kidding, don’t you?” Sandlin told one bemused onlooker who figured this display of ineptitude must be a put-on. “I’m not.”

This is a funny way to start a story about ageism. But stay with me, it’ll make sense.

Those Dutch bystanders weren’t quite seeing what they thought they were seeing. The thirtysomething cyclist they were watching botch this kindergarten-level skill seemed a step behind most everyone else. But in fact he was a step ahead. Sandlin had long passed through let’s call it “level 1” learning about bicycle riding. Then, after eight months of practice, he learned to ride the reverse bicycle, which took him to level 2. Unlearning that learning, which he finally managed after 20 minutes of furious concentration, took him to Level 3. Which looked to all the world like Level 1, but secretly contained layers of effort and experience — of bodily wisdom, if you like.

Sandlin’s experiment popped to mind recently as I was catching up with my friend Ellen Langer, the Harvard psychologist. Ellen has a theory about stages of growth and the judgments we make about them.

“Think about people who read the New Yorker (magazine), she says. “Level 1 is people who don’t read the New Yorker — never have. Level 2 is people who do read it. Level 3 is people who used to read it but for whatever reason” — maybe their life is so chockablock interesting that they don’t have time; or maybe cheap tramadol by cod they are novelists trying to distance themselves from other literary voices till they finish writing their book — “they’ve stopped.” Level 3 looks just like Level 1. To the folks on the subway with their noses buried in the New Yorker, the Level 3s look a step behind. But in fact they’re a step ahead.

Langer says she sees this particular attribution error all the time.

The four-year-old kid has no answers, just questions: Why why why? Likewise, the 80-year-old Tibetan monk has no answers, just questions. The m.o of these two individuals is the same. The difference is, they are on opposite sides of level 2 — where the rest of us are stuck, blurting out answers all the livelong day.

The thought-check “Could I be making an attribution error here?” is a worthwhile habit to cultivate before you rush to judgment of every display of apparent incompetence you see. Is this person actually a step behind, or maybe a step ahead?

Think of three caregivers. Caregiver A fails to come to the aid of a little kid or a senior who’s struggling with some problem; she’s operating at Level 1. Caregiver B notices the struggle and swans in to help; she’s at Level 2. Caregiver C also notices but refrains from helping because she knows it’s better for the person to do it him- or herself. Caregiver C’s at Level 3. Informed neglect, let’s call it. “It looks the same as level 1,” Langer says, “but it’s got more wisdom.”

Ageism happens when young people mistake Level 3 for Level 1.

Consider an 18-year-old in a Camaro, caught on the freeway behind a grey-haired woman in a Nissan Leaf. The Leaf-driver’s going pretty slow. In the head of the teenage driver all sorts of negative stereotypes bloom: This woman’s inept. Her eyesight is poor. Her reflexes are shot. “But the truth is, you can get killed behind the wheel — so it’s actually a smart thing to drive carefully,” Langer says. The tailgater muttering under his breath about this out-to-lunch driver “is assuming Level 1 but he’s actually looking at Level 3.” The kid will understand when he crashes. Or when he gets soaked paying his larcenously high auto insurance. Or when he realizes the Camaro is not actually all that cool. The senior seemed a step behind. But she was actually a step ahead.

“Some of the things that we disparage in older people are in fact things that we should admire and learn from,” Langer says.

Older people have figured a lot of things out. The solutions tend to be simple, analog, elegant, boring. A sage can look like a fool to someone who is only halfway through the trip.


Ride the Nearest Bone-Rattler

Ride the Nearest Bone-Rattler


Sometimes we all need a good shakeup.

You might argue that life itself does that job quite well on a regular basis, thanks very much. So let’s try that again. Sometimes what we need is a controlled shake-up – one we know is coming, can prepare for, and be certain the whole deal will be over by tomorrow. Think of it as a reboot, the better to return to work Monday morning feeling like you just got unplugged and plugged back in. And, in this case, to get primed for the fast-approaching Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The Whistler Sliding Centre, home of the toboggan-y events at the 2010 Olympics, is the fastest bobsled track in the world. Officials actually tried to make it slower after Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritsashvili tragically flew off, at 144 kpm, and struck a steel beam during a practice run. But it’s still plenty fast.

I can tell you that first-hand.

That’s because the Centre, a mecca for national-team training and international competitions, lets paying customers take a spin down the track. This is a bit like duffers getting to knock a tennis ball around at Wimbledon, but a fair bit scarier. To try bobsledding at WSC, you sit in the back with an experienced driver up front: nothing required of you but to hang on for dear life.

But skeleton, man. Skeleton is another animal.

Skeleton is like luge but for one small detail: you go head-first. And because it’s a solo event, there is some training involved, as I would discover after my first — and let’s be honest, my last — Big Skeleton Day.


9 am

The newbies muster in a room at the Centre. First order of business: acquire the mindset of an Olympian. This means banishing all notions that this is not a serious sport, that it’s some sort of beer-league goof, even for Olympic champions. That it’s just glorified sledding.

In fact, sledding is to skeleton what baseball is to ballistics. In sledding you don’t hit speeds that, if you were caught doing them on the TransCanada Highway, would net you a $135 ticket.

We will spend the morning learning the basics. Blitzing through the core curriculum.

History: skeleton began as a macho race through the iced-over streets of St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Physics: “You will be pulling several g’s and that will have a different effect on the body,” says Skye, one of the instructors. (Wait, several g’s? That sounds … astronautical. How many g’s are we talking here? Professionals starting from the top pull around five, which is actually more than a space-shuttle launch. Starting from curve 10, we beginners might pull two.)

Question in the back: Are we likely to get hurt? Nah, says Graham, the other instructor. Occasionally a slider can bash an elbow, but that’s rare. If it’s going to happen, it’ll probably happen on Curve 11, called “Shiver.” Most of the curves have names. Curves 12 through 15, known as Gold Rush Trail, are the make-or-break part of the course. Curve 13 is known as 50/50, because Night Train captain Stephen Holcolm said that’s your chances of crashing there. Curve 16 is where the Georgian luger flew off. And then the tough stuff’s over. The last straight bit is actually uphill, to bleed speed before you stop and count buy viagra boots your bones.



We practice positioning ourselves on the sled. It’s as simple as lying there, and it isn’t. The trick is to be soft. To sink into the sled like a bag of sand. The pros actually steer by tiny shifts of their shoulders, or even just by turning their head. But we aren’t to try any of that. “The best thing you can do,” says Graham, “is exhale and just slump.”



After a light lunch, we gear up. There’s the option to wear a “speed suit” — one of those sausage-skin full-body coverings, complete with hoodie, that reduce drag. In competition this shaves precious fractions of a second, which could be the difference between a podium finish and a Greyhound ticket home. But few of us can be bothered to girdle-squeeze into the thing. We go with our ski jackets. Old school, baby. The main thing that needs protecting is the noodle, so everyone wears a motorcycle-style helmet with full chin covering.


It’s like doubling the weight of your head. Holding my head up is actually going to be an issue, I realize, as I belly onto the sled and ease into the start position, staring down the half-barrel of the track.

The ice is six inches from my face. It’s pebbled like a curling rink, for maximum speed. You really don’t want to put your head directly on that at highway speed. “Think of trying to grasp a pencil with the back of your neck,” was Skye’s worthwhile advice. A gentleman named Wiley holds me in position by my shins. This is what it must feel like if, having failed to pay your gambling debts, you get escorted to the edge of a bridge.

A traffic light shows red. Red. Red. Then green.


What the next thirty seconds feels like is tricky to sum up. It’s like clinging to the undercarriage of a freight train, facing down. The overall impression isn’t so much speed as vibration and pressure. You don’t see the curves. They announce themselves, with filling-loosening g-forces.


The weirdest thing is the position of your arms, straight back behind. That’s not where they should be at these speeds. The world’s most experienced diver would be spooked by having to plunge from the 10-metre platform with her hands by her side — yet that’s the deal here. You feel unbelievably exposed.


Actual Olympic skeleton competitors are too busy concentrating to be scared. Make a mistake early and it’s reflected in every subsequent turn; the off-kilterness of your line is magnified. (Another way that skeleton is like life.) It’s scarier for us newbies because it’s simpler. Exhale and slump.


On the other hand, who can’t benefit from feeling more intensely? We spend too much time in our heads. On your first skeleton ride, I guarantee you – and this may be the prime benefit of the whole venture — that for 30 seconds you won’t be worried about your credit rating, or the gaffe you made at work, or the scoundrel your daughter is dating, or anything else. This is pure animal in-the-moment aliveness.


I hit 94 kilometres an hour in the final straightaway. Not Olympic speed, but decent.

It took halfway through the drive home to realize I wasn’t shaking any more.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Long Read: This Doctor Might Have the Answer to the Fentanyl Crisis

Long Read: This Doctor Might Have the Answer to the Fentanyl Crisis

Essays Featured Science

From VANCOUVER MAGAZINE, November 14, 2017

Pooya Nabei photo

“I’m going to be the least compelling speaker you’ll hear tonight,” Dr. Evan Wood tells me as we pull up in front of the Anvil Centre auditorium in New Westminster. People are already trickling in for tonight’s event, Recovery Speaks, featuring inspiring personal tales of sobriety on the other side of hellish addiction.

Wood holds a fistful of titles—including professor of medicine at UBC, Canada Research Chair in Inner-City Medicine and head of the province’s newly established response to the opioid crisis, the British Columbia Centre for Substance Use (BCCSU). He’s giving the keynote address tonight—and he’s going to have to thread the needle.

Many of the attendees here are part of the “recovery community”—their journeys involve getting clean largely via the 12 steps. The path involves fierce personal reckoning and surrender to a higher power until the demon slowly loosens its grip and you get your life back, though with eternal vigilance and abstinence as part of the deal.

“Twelve-step facilitation therapy,” hatched some 80 years ago by the American Bill Wilson (or simply Bill W., as he’s known in AA circles) and Dr. Robert Smith, is still the prevailing model for treating addiction, both in the U.S. and in Canada. It’s traditionally a cold-turkey approach: just you and your god and the dark night (with your support group on call). Wood’s own view is that there’s a less torturous and more effective strategy. Reduced to a bumper sticker, it might read: Get off drugs with drugs.

It sounds like pretzel logic: drink your way to sobriety. Use to get clean. Yet this is the chatter on the frontier of addiction medicine—an emerging field promoting evidence-based strategies to treat addiction instead of the entrenched old ways, no matter how beloved they might be.

Abstinence, the evidence increasingly suggests, doesn’t work for many people. More than 80 percent of those who try it will relapse, some studies show.

The rising death toll in the fentanyl epidemic means it’s never been more urgent to come up with something that works more reliably—and to quickly clear a legislative path for it.

The new thinking, Wood’s thinking, is that, far from being a kind of defect of the psyche, addiction may in fact be an evolutionary inheritance—a deeply human trait that turns out to be ill fitted in some ways to the modern era. Wood is exploring pharmaceutical treatments for addiction, pioneering an approach where abstinence isn’t necessarily the end goal, and even using common street drugs to temper its expression.

All of this would seem to cast him as a fox in the henhouse here. And yet Wood is given a warm setup by the man who invited him here tonight, Marshall Smith, a former top B.C. government bureaucrat whose own lost-now-found story is as dramatic as they come.

Ten years clean after a brutal cocaine addiction that left him unemployed and living in a shipping container, Smith is now in full reboot. He runs a non-profit recovery centre on Vancouver Island, coordinates these speaking events and serves as a senior advisor at the BCCSU, a $10-million provincially funded network aimed at developing an evidence-based framework for addiction treatment. Part of the mandate is to tap the “lived experience” of users to develop effective new strategies, which is where Smith comes in. Wood hired him after he realized Smith’s credibility and charisma could help shape the evolving narrative of addiction treatment in B.C.

It was nuts, both men realized, to present themselves as adversaries—penning opposing op-eds in newspapers, pitting harm reduction against abstinence-based recovery—when all that did was make the entire addiction-medicine space radioactive to politicians and potential funders. “We clearly came from different perspectives, we clearly came from different personal experiences and we clearly represented different constituencies of substance-using people,” Smith says. “But…we were in absolute agreement that the system we have now is failing people at best and killing people at worst.”

Wood steps up to the lectern without notes. Bespectacled and self-contained, he has the air of an uncle about to give a toast at Thanksgiving dinner. He tiptoes through a decent joke before quickly establishing a sensitive, commiserating tone that finds common ground with Smith. “The system of addiction treatment in British Columbia isn’t broken,” he says. “There. Is. No. System.” Sufferers are left alone to figure out their options amid a Wild West climate of murky regulations and an absurd circumstance where opioids are prescribed to people who don’t need them and withheld from those who do, one in which rehabbing users are discharged from detox with a handshake and directions to the bus stop, and where wait-lists for rehab facilities can be months long. Every story he’s hearing, in this room and out there in the world, Wood says, every scrap of data he’s gathering, will go into the batter of this new thing they’re cooking at the BCCSU.

He gets a standing O.

In the Giant’s Shadow

I first met Wood, 43, in his upstairs office at St. Paul’s Hospital, tucked away from the emergency room, where fatal opioid overdoses have become an almost daily occurrence.

His eyes were red behind his spectacles: too many short nights in a row. He was wearing a crisply cut suit in banker’s blue—the better to convene high-level meetings with senior staff of health agencies, convey gravitas in media interviews and beat the bushes for funding. That suit, and his quiet, squeaky-clean intensity, evokes Eliot Ness, the famous Prohibition-era Chicago crime fighter. Only their missions are exactly backwards. Wood is at war against the War on Drugs and all it has wrought—from rampant gang violence to a lethally toxic drug supply. He’s less interested in bringing drug criminals to justice than he is in restoring justice by decriminalizing drugs.

But politics are not his official brief. As head of the BCCSU, Wood’s loftiest goal is to change the way we think about addiction. To make us understand it as a kind of contagion—albeit a social rather than viral one. The best strategy to suppress an outbreak? Deploy massive resources at multiple levels all at once. Toss a blanket over the fire so that it sends out no sparks.

Wood’s job one is to wrangle those resources and channel them toward an effective treatment model. That means training doctors and nurses who work with addiction sufferers on which drugs work best to curb cravings and ease withdrawal, when to use them, and how to wean folks off them where appropriate. It means laying out clear options for users who want to get clean and making sure they have access to them. Right now, it means hosting lots and lots of meetings with addicts and their families, the people whose voices most need to be heard.

Wood’s current position is an evolution of his career at the forefront of public health and epidemiology, but he began by tackling a different scourge.

He grew up in West Vancouver, raised by his social-worker mother. His father was an inventor who designed marine navigation systems and who separated from his mother when Wood was two.

Wood approached the medical-health field in a gradually tightening circle. In an undergrad geography degree at UBC, he did a term project that involved mapping the spread of HIV, which nudged him to pursue medical geography—a subfield that looks at airborne and vector-borne illness. He applied for a summer job at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, where he quickly distinguished himself as a protégé of Dr. Julio Montaner. Hired as a junior research assistant, the young Wood churned out a provocative paper so quickly that Montaner read about it in the newspaper he opened on a flight later that same summer. After Wood knocked off a PhD in epidemiology in 2003, he began publishing at a furious rate. He and Montaner would go on to co-author dozens of influential papers, including two humdingers—one published in The Lancet that helped shape the conversation around AIDS treatment in Africa and another on anti-viral drug strategy, published in The British Medical Journal, that was dubbed Science magazine’s 2011 scientific breakthrough of the year.

In 2005, Wood and his colleague Thomas Kerr—an epidemiologist and now co-director of the BCCSU—found themselves almost single-handedly trying to save InSite, Canada’s first supervised drug-injection site, from a court challenge by the Harper government, which vehemently viewed drug use as a criminal matter. The battle went all the way to the Supreme Court, with Wood and Kerr arguing evidence should trump morality when it came to reducing the risk of disease transmission and overdose.

In the end, their efforts ensured one of the world’s most high-profile experiments in harm reduction, one that has since become a global model in public health, was spared the knife.

In the mid-aughts, Wood interrupted his progress in HIV/AIDS research to go to med school, thinking he would have more impact as a physician. He blitzed through the University of Calgary’s compressed curriculum, putting himself in the comically intense position of being a professor at UBC while a med student in Calgary. He completed his MD in two years and nine months.

Upon returning to Vancouver, however, Wood discovered the fire he was now doubly armed to fight was nearly contained. The death rate from AIDS was down 80 percent, as was the number of new HIV cases. Wood pivoted to apply his harm-reduction strategies to another issue affecting the same at-risk communities he’d come to know through his work with Montaner. He emerged as a leader in addiction medicine around 2010, just as a drug called fentanyl began to show up on city streets, igniting yet another public health crisis and thrusting the issue of addiction into the spotlight. 

What Humans Do

In the lobby of the Anvil Centre, during intermission at the Recovery Speaks event, a woman named Lynn buttonholes Wood. Her 23-year-old son is in treatment, battling a heroin addiction. He’s been in an abstinence-based treatment facility for several months and is due home soon.

Wood listens silently, rabbinically. (Privately, he is a little worried about this young man, who is about to be sprung loose, his tolerance low, onto a landscape mined with fentanyl and carfentanil. “Anyone in that position is just a sitting duck for a fatal overdose,” he tells me later.)

Wood allows that some people do manage to get clean all at once just because they decided to, overriding primitive instructions from a brain that has actually been rewired, by trauma or stress or crushing circumstances, to crave solace. But it’s clear which side he believes the science tips toward. The data doesn’t support abstinence as Plan A.

Lynn tells Wood she has discovered a book touting a pharmaceutical “cure” for alcoholism. You simply take a drug—an alcohol antagonist—an hour before you plan to imbibe, and it whisks the reward off the table. So a drink is just a drink, not a ticket anywhere, and you stop at one or two. Eventually the thrill is gone. You can drink socially without fear of drinking to excess—then taper down to complete sobriety, or not. There’s evidence the drug works for opioids too.

This approach would clearly not be embraced by most of the people in this auditorium. But Wood believes the data shows that you can manage addiction without trying to hold it at bay through brute abstinence. It may even be the more humane tack.

“The vast majority of people who have what we would now call substance-use disorder are working, they have families, they’re going about their life, but they have this compulsion to use,” Wood elaborates later. “They may wish to cut down but have difficulty doing so. They might get withdrawal if they stop. But they’re getting along with their lives pretty well.” In the new landscape of addiction treatment that he envisions, “if people come to a health-care provider, we could offer things to help them cut down, or quit, or reduce their cravings.

“This is really part of the human condition. The oldest written records show people using things like alcohol. We could have coffees in front of us. We could be having a glass of wine tonight. I mean, this is what humans do.”

And here is where Wood and Smith—not to mention the people who have shared their heartbreaking but hopeful personal stories tonight—really do have a common cause. They deeply believe that people with substance-abuse issues ought not to be vilified for being a little more demonstrably human than everybody else.

In a sense, people prone to addiction—and “about 50 percent of the burden of substance use is genetic,” Wood says—are simply exquisitely attuned to the promise of rewards. For most of human history that was a good thing. “Being a good reward appreciator,” as the addiction psychologist Anna Rose Childress put it, would have made an individual more, not less, evolutionarily fit.

Only in the last 75 years, when consumer culture began producing a glut of irresistible temptations, did that trait stop delivering benefits and start creating problems. Now that same quester who was once first to try a new food, a new route, a new mate, is now first to fall hard for the shiny poisoned bauble.

Not long ago, certain variants of a gene called OPRM1 were found to be linked to impulsivity and risk-taking behaviour—and a predisposition for drug addiction.

But, Wood explains, OPRM1 is really an attachment gene. “In rhesus macaque monkeys, having the gene correlates to how upset the babies get when they’re separated from their mother.” The gene is thought to work in a similar way in humans.

“So here you have this attachment gene that makes great sense for survival, so you don’t go wandering off a cliff,” Wood says. “But that same gene, if you get prescribed Oxycontin by your doctor—and Oxycontin is extremely rewarding—it can just grab hold of you.”

Wood works the room. He is adept at saying the right things and leaving out the right things. He chats with the private donor who quietly gave $1 million to his centre and with mothers who have watched their children slip through their fingers—grieving moms have become the face of the fentanyl crisis. Wood’s own kids, aged 4 and 9, are still too little to worry about in this respect.

There’s something almost epidemiological about the way he circulates, each point of contact meaningful in some hard-to-measure way. If the root of all addiction is dislocation, as a recovery-community adage has it, then an antidote for addiction is connection. This is a second belief that both camps share. Indeed, you could say that the secret sauce of supervised injection sites like InSite is not that they prevent substance users from overdosing to death right now (though they indeed do that) but that they bring users into contact with potential social lifelines—health professionals whom they can trust to help them get their lives back on track.

Wood has been welcomed here. The kumbaya factor is high. But there remains one major, lingering disconnect: the God thing.

Another Path to Transcendence

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung advised Bill W. that without a spiritual dimension to AA, it would never work—the roots of addiction run too deep. Many in the recovery movement hold fast to that theory, but the required belief in a higher power also prevents many seeking recovery from buying into the program.

Wood believes there may be a way to square the circle here—to bring God into the picture without losing one’s evidence-based bona fides.

The last five or so years have seen a resurgence of clinical interest in psychedelics—the old hippie drugs that can open what Johns Hopkins psychologist Roland Griffiths calls a “spiritual window” through which deep insight might flow.

“The neuroimaging work that’s being done around this, particularly in the U.K., is really fascinating,” Wood says. One way to look at addiction is as a communication failure on a neural level. The most primitive part of the brain—the instinctive, reptilian part that drives compulsive behaviour—“doesn’t typically talk to the frontal lobe that’s really wanting to make changes,” Wood says. “But on psilocybin, those two brain regions are talking like crazy.” In preliminary experimental trials, the deep emotions that hallucinogenic trips unlock seem to help users reach a profound level of insight into their self and their predicament—which can prove a powerful weapon against hard-to-resist cravings.

Indeed, Bill W. himself experimented with LSD after he became sober, and found it to be such an effective spiritual assist he considered making it a standard part of AA meetings. “So the science is showing that we can probably bring about a spiritual awakening for people at a much higher rate this way than our traditional motivational techniques can,” Wood says.

This spring, the BCCSU announced plans to fast-track hallucinogenic experiments. Drugs such as psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” LSD and/or MDMA (ecstasy) will be administered in a controlled setting—a dedicated, soundproof room in the BCCSU’s headquarters on Powell Street. (Right now the room is bare and clinical; it’s definitely going to need some groovy-ing up—and a bathroom.)

“It’s just a question now of the clinical protocols and then getting them through ethics,” Wood says. “And then getting these medications made by pharmaceutical labs, storing them and then doing the trials” with trained psychotherapists. “But we hope to be doing them in the next year.”

This isn’t something the BCCSU is trying to sneak past the public. The initiative is openly displayed on the website, along with other research such as “Intentional cannabis use to reduce crack cocaine use in a Canadian setting: a longitudinal analysis.”

The message? The road from “sick” to “well” is not a straight shot. For many, the endgame is total sobriety, but for some it will never be. While working at the heroin prescription clinic on the Downtown Eastside, Wood always asked his clients about their long-term goals. In some cases it was as straightforward as “Hey, if you want to see your kids again, this cocaine thing is going to be an issue.” But for others, say, an alcoholic who just wants to be able to drink socially, “recovery” has a different meaning and requires another protocol altogether. A system that can handle both has yet to be developed.

The endgame, which Wood sees as inevitable, is the decriminalization of all drugs along the lines of what Portugal has undertaken. The fentanyl crisis may eventually seal the fate of the disastrous, larcenously expensive century-old War on Drugs, Wood believes, but we’re not there yet.

“If you look at the situation in the States, the opioid crisis is the biggest issue that’s being debated around health-care reform. The Republican base of middle-class white conservative Americans, they’re being hit hard. And this thing hasn’t peaked yet.

“I think fentanyl is going to lead to pretty dramatic changes in Canada, for sure. I think we’re going to see prescription heroin. Investments in things like therapeutic communities”—long-term, professionally staffed rehab facilities—“on the other end.

“Unfortunately, before that happens, there are going to be thousands more dead people than there should be.”


Watts in the Water

Watts in the Water

Energy Featured


Our oceans contain enough energy to power the planet — if we could just get our hands on it.

from HAKAI MAGAZINE, June 28, 2017

Edinburgh isn’t known as a hotbed of industrial espionage. But one cool and quiet spring night in the Scottish city, a high-stakes burglary was underway. Down at the old port district of Leith, thieves breached a perimeter fence and broke into the offices of a company called Pelamis Wave Power. They homed in on four laptop computers and walked right past much more expensive equipment. Pelamis, at the time (March of 2011), was riding a wave of good fortune. Company engineers had produced the first commercial-scale machine for extracting energy from waves, vaulting Pelamis to top-dog status in the marine-energy industry. Already there was interest from several European utility companies, and a Portuguese company had placed an order. So promising was the technology that just two months earlier, a delegation of 60 Chinese officials had paid a visit, with a juicy investment deal presumably in the balance. The world was getting excited about wave power. The visitors donned white hard hats and Pelamis founder and director Richard Yemm led Li Keqiang, the vice premier of China (now premier), and his charges across the factory floor during a key phase of production. Yemm was likely thinking only of the dizzying future on the other side of so much hard work, so many stillborn dreams. Protecting his company’s valuable intellectual property was not top of mind.

Yemm’s optimism was justified. At some point in 2013, the world’s energy scales tipped: for the first time, more new energy was produced by renewables than by fossil fuels. The shift is officially on. North Sea oil rigs are being dismantled. The run of coal as energy champion of Europe is over, and plans for hundreds of new coal plants across Asia have been shelved. The business case for solar is solid. One hundred percent of Dutch trains run on wind. Google just announced that its server farms and offices will be powered entirely by renewables—mostly wind and solar—by the end of 2017.

And ocean power?

Close to 200 trillion watts of kinetic energy lurk in the seas: more than enough to power the planet, if we could somehow extract it all.

It’s there in many forms, inviting different approaches. We can exploit temperature and salt gradients, harness tides and currents, and tap waves—the method that intrigued the Chinese government enough to jet a delegation to Scotland. Of course, not all of that theoretical marine energy is practically available. The European Commission, which manages the day-to-day affairs of the European Union (EU), has set a goal to have 10 percent of Europe’s energy supplied by the sea by 2050. The EU has a big head start on the rest of the world—the United Kingdom alone has as many marine-energy projects on the go as the rest of the world combined—so a reasonable target elsewhere will no doubt be lower. But we’re still talking about a nontrivial part of the energy conversation—if the regulatory stars align for this brand-new industry. That’s a big if.

“The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea,” wrote Danish author Isak Dinesen, who wasn’t thinking about knocking down carbon emissions. But she did seem to intuit that pain is the midwife of all saltwater cures. That was certainly the case for the team members at Pelamis, who, failing to secure any investment money from the Chinese delegation, were left with a nagging worry about their stolen intellectual property. And it is the case for dozens of marine-energy developers racing to produce viable, commercial-scale technology. So far, the primary thing they’ve extracted is an insight: this isn’t going to be easy.

I. Wave Energy

Neil Kermode stands atop a cliff on Mainland, one of Scotland’s Orkney Islands, watching surfable rollers pound themselves into salt mist on the craggy shore. The windswept archipelago makes more renewable energy than it will ever need. It is an ancient place that provides a glimpse of the world’s energy future.

“Wave energy is basically old wind energy,” says Kermode, head of the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) and director of the world’s only test site for wave-energy technology, here near the town of Stromness. “The wind starts waves moving, and the waves keep coming even after the wind stops.” The notion that waves are a kind of wind battery, retaining the energy, is the magic at the heart of wave power.

The world’s ocean waves are thought to contain around three terawatts of harvestable juice—enough to meet the world’s electricity demands at a given moment—if someone could make the technological leap to harvest it efficiently. Indeed, that was Pelamis’s goal when it launched in 1998, and EMEC’s goal when it set up the test site in 2004. For a while, the site crackled with high hopes. Entrepreneurs arrived with their comically named prototype devices, anchored them offshore, and plugged them into power cords that sent electricity to a substation on the beach. As recently as two years ago, four devices chugged away. Today there is one. In a cautious investment climate, wave-energy development has collapsed from a torrent to a trickle, forcing most of the players—including Pelamis—into administration (court-assisted relief).

To understand the ebb and flow of interest in wave energy, you need to go back to 1973, when the Arab petroleum embargo, and the sudden quadrupling of the price of oil in its wake, prompted frightened governments to start mulling alternatives.

The UK department of energy issued a Manhattan Project-level challenge to engineers: come up with a two-gigawatt power station that runs on ocean energy. It was “like somebody in 1905 asking for an Airbus A380,” says Stephen Salter, now a professor emeritus in engineering design at the University of Edinburgh.

But back then, Salter was a young engineer too green to be discouraged. He put his head down. And what he came up with was a duck.

Inspired by the float in a toilet cistern, Salter’s “duck”—imagine a tobacco pouch the size of a cottage—would bob in rough seas, generating electricity as waves bowled it off plumb. Each duck could produce, Salter reckoned, around two megawatts of energy, so he’d need a lot of them. Early tank tests showed Salter’s duck could absorb wave energy with great efficiency, leaving flat water behind it. And a mightier duck still lay in the offing, Salter forecast. If a small computer could one day ride inside the contraption, making continual adjustments to the hydraulics, the duck would bag 90 percent of the wave energy beneath it. “A bit of weather judo,” as Kermode describes the principle. “You use the wave’s energy against itself.”

The duck made Salter a little bit famous. “He was the first to capture the public imagination with the idea that waves and energy fit naturally together,” says Kermode, who remembers watching him on TV as a youth.

But something happened on the way to a renewables renaissance.

In 1983, the government pulled the plug on wave research, and Salter’s Edinburgh duck, along with all its rivals, was dead in the water. Oil prices had come down and the need for a federally sponsored renewable-energy moonshot was over. At least that was the official explanation. Salter doesn’t believe it for a second. By his estimation, the government killed it because it was a little too promising and so represented a threat to its private crush—nuclear energy. They submitted head-scratching reports that vastly overinflated Salter’s capital costs. “They adjusted all the numbers to make it look like it was going to be terribly unreliable,” he says. A later investigation would reveal that the government had overstated the cost of Salter’s duck by at least a factor of 10.

Even today, Salter’s duck remains the most efficient wave-energy device ever designed. And that game-changing, on-board computer he dreamed of? The technology now exists. It costs about £2 (US $2.50).

Not all the expertise from that era died on the vine, however.

Salter’s doctoral student Richard Yemm went on to found Pelamis and create the promising wave-energy converter that grabbed China’s attention.

Dubbed “the sea snake,” Yemm’s device was segmented like a broken crayon, with energy ginned up at the hinge points. It was the first wave device to take the helter-skelter motion of open seawater and turn it into electrical current smooth enough for the grid. Yemm had proven that his device worked, but not that it could be profitable, and in 2014, he reluctantly declared Pelamis insolvent and bailed out into a consultancy job. In the three years following the burglary, Pelamis’s technology had failed to materialize on the renewables scene. The trail of the thieves from that March night in 2011 was cold. After Pelamis folded, Wave Energy Scotland, a newly created government research body, bought some of the company’s assets, including all intellectual property, to protect it and keep it in Britain. Just in case.

Hope for wave energy lingers in the United Kingdom. British multimillionaire Adam Norris—perhaps the closest thing marine power has to an Elon Musk—has sunk at least £50-million (US $64-million) into Wavepower, a company he launched, and last year started mustering top British engineering talent to fancy offices in Glastonbury*. But the lost years mean that wave energy lags behind every other technology in the renewables race. Meanwhile, the action in the marine-energy sector has moved to a different space: one that is deeper, darker, and more pressure packed.

II. Tidal Power

In a 45-minute window of quiet water as the tide turned one day last November, a tug towed a barge out into the Bay of Fundy off Canada’s east coast. It reached its designated berth at the Fundy Ocean Research Center for Energy (FORCE), Canada’s chief proving ground for marine-energy research. A crane lowered a 1,000-tonne turbine that looked like a jet engine, and eased it into the sea, where it settled into the rocky seabed. Then everyone waited, a little on edge.

They’d seen this movie before: humans intervening in the Bay of Fundy to generate energy. The returns had never lived up to the hype.

Capturing the tides is one of humanity’s oldest energy ideas: the ancient Romans may have used tide mills to grind grain. It is a classic barrage scheme with gates closing behind the flood tide and trapping the sea, which is then released through turbines to do work or make energy. Barrage schemes on La Rance, a river in Brittany, France, and at Annapolis Royal near Digby, Nova Scotia, have been providing a trickle of electricity to those communities since 1966 and 1980 respectively. In 2011, South Korea jumped in with the only modern tidal barrage, near Suwon. But like many dams, barrage schemes are unkind to sea animals and coastlines. Indeed, it’s environmental concerns that have held up a huge tidal-lagoon play in Swansea, Wales, for more than a year. So engineers have played around with ever-inventive designs to capture the energy of moving water without corralling the water itself: a mechanical fin that wags like a shark’s tail; a raft that floats downstream, unspooling a cable from a drum/generator onshore; a device with no moving parts at all that exploits the pressure difference in the water flow. All are being tested right now. It’s like watching evolution unfold in real time: wildly different organisms competing to see which is the fittest.

But out of the design chaos, a pattern is emerging. The consensus—though it’s not unanimous—is that the most efficient way to get electricity out of the ocean, with the least harm to the environment, is to put a windmill in the water. In other words, we’re now thinking vertical, not horizontal. Where tidal-range (barrage) schemes leverage the difference between high and low tides, tidal stream projects plug into a tidal current as it flows through a turbine stapled to the seabed, like wind moving through a pinwheel. It was a tidal-stream turbine that OpenHydro, an energy company from Dublin, Ireland, was placing in the Bay of Fundy’s Minas Passage last November. The effort was a do-over of a failed try seven years earlier at the same site, which is arguably the fiercest tidal-energy hotspot in the world.

Twice a day, 14 billion tonnes of water move through the narrows between two steep headlands, Cape Split and Cape Sharp: that’s more than the combined flow of all the rivers on Earth. On the ocean floor, enormous boulders roll with every ebb and flow tide. When the Minas Basin fills, the weight of the water causes the surrounding land to measurably dip. At full flood, the passage is a riot of gyres and standing waves. The churned silt makes the water look like your latte, if your latte moved at five meters per second.

In that first instance, OpenHydro had deployed a CAN $10-million prototype in the passage. Company engineers had tested the turbine in the stiff tides of the Orkneys and it had borne up. But in Fundy, it was as useless as windshield wipers during a car wash. Within 20 days, all 12 of the turbine’s rotor blades were damaged or destroyed. OpenHydro had made this second version much more skookum. Still, nobody could be sure it could stand up to the fearsome Fundy current.


Recent estimates put the amount of raw kinetic energy in the Minas Passage at over seven gigawatts—more than enough to meet Atlantic Canada’s energy needs if all of it was extracted (which can’t be done for reasons of physics as we’ll see in a moment). Nova Scotia has decided that tidal energy is key to future prosperity, and taxpayers are now subsidizing the bet to the tune of $36-million. The OpenHydro turbine alone is projected, as a fossil-fuel replacement, to prevent as much as 3,000 tonnes of carbon from entering the atmosphere. And the plan is to sink a second turbine nearby as early as this fall. Much of the power will likely leave Canada’s Atlantic provinces. Right now, transmission cables are being laid to the south, to ship electricity to New York and Boston.

A potential devil’s bargain looms here. Get too greedy and you put not just sea life, but coastal dwellers at risk. As you pull energy out of a water flow, you reduce that flow. It’s unwise to just cover the seabed with turbines like you’re planting corn, because the turbines start interfering with each other. And the water level rises. Coastal modeling has killed any thoughts of a vast array of turbines in the Bay of Fundy. Not long ago, scientists at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, calculated that of the seven gigawatts of energy coursing through the Minas Channel, turbines could skim off perhaps a third. Any more and you start messing with tides in New England. In one model, a barrage raised high tide in Boston Harbor by 23 centimeters. “Even the possibility of such an impact,” an analyst’s report noted, “was seen as sufficient to draw lawsuits from every property owner with a flooded basement from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod.”

Tidal is the new frontier of clean power. Or it’s too green to bet on.

That paradox was lost on no one at the International Tidal Energy Summit in London, England last October. At one point, Tim Cornelius, CEO of Atlantis Resources, strode to the podium with a chip on his shoulder, frustrated by pessimists thwarting progress. Atlantis owns the MeyGen AK1000, the monstrous tidal turbine that had been grabbing all the headlines. In 2010, Atlantis got clearance to build the world’s largest tidal-energy plant off Caithness, at the northern tip of Scotland. Four turbines are in place there now, with eight-meter blades pushed by some of the fastest tidal currents in the United Kingdom. The plan is to step up to an eventual 269-turbine array that would cover over 10 square kilometers, generate enough power to run 175,000 homes, and provide work for hundreds of laid-off nuclear workers from the retired Dounreay nuclear plant.

Everyone is excited about this except investors.

The promise of tidal-stream energy has failed to seduce venture capitalists: it’s too risky, too costly, too pie in the sky. A moonshot. Which is precisely what’s great about it, Cornelius suggested to the crowd of a couple hundred. “When you explain tidal power, the average punter loves the idea,” he said. He’s right. There is poetry in the idea of harnessing the moon’s gravitational pull. Because water is almost 900 times as dense as air, a tidal turbine a third the size of an offshore wind turbine can deliver the same output. And turbines are sunk out of sight, so can be set close to shore with nary a grumble from property owners (and big savings in cabling costs).

Alas, troubling practical concerns keep getting in the way of the magic. As a medium for commercial enterprise, the sea is as hostile as deep space.

“Hats off to anyone who can put something mechanical in salt water and make it work,” says Keith Collins, executive director of sustainable and renewable energy for the Nova Scotia Department of Energy. If a wind turbine breaks, you send a guy up a ladder with a toolbox. It’s quite another thing to have to dispatch divers—or worse, to have to hire a big ship to schlep your turbine to the garage.

“The vast majority of faults are very minor,” says Peter Fraenkel, inventor of the first commercially successful tidal-stream turbine, SeaGen, which was commissioned in 2008 for action off the Northern Ireland coast. “It’s usually a small electrical component or some silly little thing. If you have to replace a $20 component by spending $20,000, that’s a bit of a downer.”

And a deal-breaker for investors.

So there is another approach to tidal turbine design, one many industry insiders consider the most promising way forward: make a device that floats.

One day last October, at the EMEC tidal test site in the Scottish Orkneys, a yellow submarine bobbed on the chop, snugged to its anchor lines. This is the Scotrenewables SR2000, the world’s most powerful tidal turbine. From below the surface, with its twin rotors deployed, it looks like a Klingon Bird-of-Prey. The design lends itself to on-site repair but if it’s a more serious fix, you just pull up its twin one-megawatt turbines and tow the whole megillah to sheltered waters. The company is focusing on markets in the United Kingdom, France, and Canada, although they’re also looking into opportunities in Asia. The portability brings the whole world into play, including choice sites where the water’s far too deep to put a turbine on the seafloor.

Piggybacking on the offshore wind industry’s great leaps in engineering efficiency, companies like Scotrenewables are making the dream of a world powered solely by renewables seem less far-fetched by the day.

But that dream gives grid managers nightmares. They need to know that an electron will be available at the exact moment it’s needed—not a guarantee renewables can offer. There’s often too much or too little going on at once: too much wind or sunshine when the grid is already full; breathless calm or cloud cover when you could really use some juice. Here is where tidal has an advantage. The moon has yet to miss a shift. Twice a day it pushes water and twice a day it pulls, and we know exactly when and how much. That predictability changes the math around how affordable tidal energy actually is. The trouble is, tidal still can’t provide “always there” baseline energy—until some storage solution is perfected. Whoever cracks the nut of cheap baseline power in the renewables age will author the biggest disruption story since the internet.

But if tidal stream can’t provide that coveted baseline energy right now, there is a kind of ocean energy that can.


III. Currents from Currents

Ocean-current energy is thought to be a 100-gigawatt global resource—about the same size as tidal stream, and with the same problem of converting that power to useable energy, yet still theoretically exciting. Currents like the Gulf Stream and the Kuroshio—the Japan current that plies the western edge of the Pacific—circulate lazily around the world, swinging by many major population centers.

“The whole Asian sphere is full of moving ocean,” says Martin Edlund, CEO of a marine-energy company called Minesto, based in Gothenburg, Sweden. Not long ago, Edlund sat down with Taiwan’s energy minister to discuss how to conquer “the black current,” as the Kuroshio is sometimes called. “If we take the numbers that they themselves pull together,” he says, “we’re looking at a 50-percent contribution to the energy mix of Taiwan.”

The Zen-like steady progress of the world’s currents—no hurry, no pause—makes them potential catnip to grid operators. The hitch is the “no hurry” part. Those tens of billions of gallons of water per minute move at a speed not much quicker than the walking pace of a human late for work. Since the kinetic energy is proportional to water speed cubed, that doesn’t amount to much juice in any given spot. Which means an awful lot of turbines, or very big turbines. Or something completely different.

That’s where Edlund comes in.

“We’ve stumbled upon a unique principle,” he says. “What we do is, we fly a kite underwater.”

Think of a whole fleet of remote-controlled kites. Pushed by the current, they turn perpetual figure-eight patterns, their flight paths continually tweaked by a computer on the surface. “So in the same way that you can sail faster than the wind, you get a flow going past the wing that’s much higher than the speed the ocean is actually moving,” Edlund says.

Minesto has deeper pockets than most marine-energy companies—its principal owners are a Swedish private-equity firm and the Saudi Arabian billionaire Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi—which arguably gives it more leash for maverick explorations. It has tested its control systems in Sweden and floated its hardware in Northern Ireland. A commercial-scale project is getting going—the world’s first low-flow ocean-energy harvesting—in Wales.

Not everyone is sold. “The idea that there’s some clever way of taking a lot of energy out of low flows is, to my mind, misleading,” says Fraenkel. “If the energy’s not there, it’s not there to be taken.” Fraenkel remains a believer in ocean-current energy, just not in any sexy way to extract it. His former company, Marine Current Turbines, holds a patent for a six-rotor machine to operate in the Gulf Stream or the Kuroshio; you can imagine an array of them slowly grinding away, just under the surface where the water flows fastest, like nodding donkeys on the Texas plain.

But at the International Tidal Energy Summit awards in London, Edlund received the endorsement of his peers. After apologizing for standing between the diners and their pudding, he accepted the award for most promising turbine design. In this field, that’s not a Miss Congeniality award—it’s the real deal. Because at this stage of the industry’s development, promise is still pretty much all there is, despite grand plans and sometimes juicy incentives.

IV. A Medley of Marine Solutions

Nine years ago, the government of Scotland announced the creation of the Saltire Prize—a kind of XPRIZE of the sea. The competition promised £10-million (US $12.6-million) to the first company to create a viable marine-energy system and demonstrate it in Scottish waters. (Viable meaning at least 100 gigawatt hours of power over a two-year period.) There was a lot of hype. Then-prime minister Alex Salmond hailed Scotland as “the Saudi Arabia of tidal power” and claimed it has the potential to match the wealth created by North Sea oil.

At the time, Fraenkel ran the numbers at Marine Current Turbines. “We tried to figure out if there was any way we could win it, and we decided there wasn’t,” he says. “To build the size of project you’d need to win the Saltire Prize, you’d probably have to spend £80- to £100-million. In which case £10-million is a drop in the bucket.” It’s now clear that nobody is going to win it, at least not as originally conceived. The Saltire Prize’s website now admits that “the path to commercialization is taking longer and proving more difficult than anyone initially expected.”

You could argue that there’s just not enough chicken on this bone, period. The technology is so inefficient, the costs so high, the risks so prohibitive, that marine energy just isn’t worth it.

Of the vast potential energy of the ocean, only a very small fraction is practically extractable, says Vaclav Smil, an environmental scientist at the University of Manitoba and author of the book Energy Transitions. Tidal energy, for example, is a three-terawatt resource, yet only about 60 gigawatts’ worth lies within a transmission cable’s reach of shore. That amounts to one-third of one percent of global primary energy—“hardly a notable contribution,” says Smil. “Installing triple-glazed windows and universal use of LEDs would save vastly more energy than will ever be extracted from the ocean,” he added in an email.

So if that Eeyore-ish estimate is even in the ballpark, the question is, why do this? If the sea is so reluctant to give up its treasure, why should we even bother with it?

Here’s one answer: because we have to think of energy differently now. The low-hanging fruit will soon be gone. All the other options are going to be more challenging. What will make or break the case for each of them is not so much what they are as where they are.

“Until storage gets exceedingly cheap, or social license is such that you can build wind turbines and giant hydro dams everywhere—and I don’t see that happening—you need a suite of all these different technologies,” says Bryson Robertson, a mechanical engineer at the University of Victoria-affiliated West Coast Wave Initiative in British Columbia. Blanketing the Sahara with solar panels may be the cheapest way to do renewable energy right now, but it’ll never be the answer in a temperate rainforest. Where there’s a mountain, you tap the streams spilling down it with run-of-river projects. Where there’s a pinch point in the coastal landscape, you steal energy from the tide. You buy what the Earth is selling, where it’s selling it. Indeed, to try to choose the best among renewable energy sources is as ridiculous as going all in with a single vitamin in your diet, says Stephen Salter. What’s needed is a bit of fusion cooking.

Off the coast of Argentina, a company called SeatechEnergy is making fuel from seaweed. Grown in vast farms in high-productivity zones, the seaweed is digested into natural gas, which is convertible to electricity, with no solid waste.

Off Belgium, plans are in the works for 10 to 12 manufactured protective atolls, which would guard the coast from erosion as the sea rises. The idea is that the ocean, as it sluices in and out of the lagoons, runs through tidal turbines of the same sort already built into dikes in the Netherlands. This may be marine energy’s biggest advantage over other renewables in the coming century: it naturally piggybacks on the defense barriers that every coastal community is going to need as global warming bites in.

Gunter Pauli, the “ecopreneur” who has been called the Bill Gates of sustainable energy, initiated the first idea—those manufactured islands—and is kicking the tires on seaweed power as a natural adjunct to it. This is Pauli’s so-called “blue economy”—an interdependent network of energy choices driven by carefully integrated local supply chains and meeting local needs. Cluster technologies and suddenly you have not just green solutions—that might help revive the biodiversity of coastal zones, for instance—but a solid business model. “If you do tidal plus seaweed—a strange combination to most people, because it’s not solar plus wind—you have very interesting opportunities to supply a mix of local power,” Pauli says. “That is where the future lies. It’s not, ‘Oh, we’ve got the golden egg of this new energy source.’”

Another promising turn, in a way, is suspiciously familiar. Last fall, a wave-energy converter called the Hailong (Dragon) 1 appeared at a test facility in China. It is nearly identical to the Pelamis sea snake, right down to the paint color. The Guardian newspaper pressed the Chinese government for details about the origins of Hailong 1, but received no reply. Some former Pelamis employees privately worry that Pelamis might have done an awful lot of wave-energy and development work that the Chinese are now poised to make commercially viable.

Sad for the original creators, but perhaps good for everyone?

Marine energy will never be the new coal or oil—two fossil fuels that revolutionized the world. Where it could well shine, however, is in delivering power to the 40 percent of the world that has no reliable power now. Plus, marine energy could be combined with fertilizer, feed, and food—addressing global food-security issues, Pauli notes. Even the most eccentric schemes may have value so long as they are perfectly matched to their geography and put energy decisions into local hands.

On my last day in Orkney, I woke before dawn to pack for home. As I turned on the coffee maker in the hotel room, something occurred to me. A few kilometers away at the EMEC test site, a small OpenHydro tidal turbine was quietly supplying a trickle of energy to the island.

Since the machines in Fundy and Caithness were briefly offline, and I was up before just about everybody in France, I was enjoying a staggeringly exclusive experience. With perhaps a handful of Koreans, I was one of the only people in the world drinking coffee made from the power of the sea.

It tasted quite good.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Ed and Earl Show: a Tortoise-and-Hare Tale for our time

The Ed and Earl Show: a Tortoise-and-Hare Tale for our time

Aging Essays Featured


from THE GLOBE AND MAIL, May 6, 2017

Ed Whitlock, a quiet gentleman of wry British wit, an iron will and a body seemingly purpose-built to run marathons, held 36 age-group world records. He was the oldest person ever to run a marathon in under four hours, and the only person aged 70 or over ever to run a marathon in under three hours. “Ed was really my hero,” said Earl Fee, two days after attending Ed’s funeral in Milton, Ont., just west of Toronto. On March 13, Ed succumbed to a cancer only his close friends and family knew he was battling. He was 86.

Earl, who turned 88 in March, is similarly decorated in his own, shorter-distance events. He holds 15 World Masters Athletics world records. At age 66, in Buffalo, he ran 800 metres in 2:14, so demolishing the world record that officials drug-tested him twice. He is one of so few runners his age who still does hurdles that at the world championships in Costa Rica three years ago, there was no one for him to run against. So race organizers ended up pitting him against world-champion sprinter Christa Bortignon from West Vancouver, then 77. (Earl led for the entire 200-metre race, but Christa pipped him at the post. She leaned in.)

Ed and Earl, Earl and Ed. Two white guys of similar vintage and background – both loners; coincidentally, both engineers – who ran their way into sports history at an age when most of us are comparison-shopping for walkers, if we’re lucky . The two friends present a kind of natural experiment. For beyond these base traits that throw them in the same sample hopper, they are a study in contrasts – and the differences may be telling.

Earl is a devotee of HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training. He hardly ever works out for more than 20 minutes at a time, but he makes those 20 minutes count. He goes for it, typically in a series of sprint bursts – between short breaks – that leave him gasping for air. He is fastidious in his training habits – timing his intervals, salting in weight-lifting and cross-training, tweaking his regimen according to the evolving sports science. What’s more, he gets fairly frequent medical consults, eats half a pound of steamed vegetables with dinner, and takes six supplements.

Ed had long followed a program of LSD – Long Slow Distance running. He tallied endless training laps under Evergreen Cemetery’s tree canopy, patiently building a “race base” – “drudgery,” he called it, but all that mileage was money in the bank which he could draw on round about mile 22, when other guys were crashing. In 2004, in the run-up to the Toronto marathon, Ed put in three-hour training runs, more days than not, for months. Then he duly turned in what was arguably the greatest marathon ever run – 2:54:48, in Toronto, at age 73. Decidedly unfastidious in his training habits, he sometimes stretched on race day, and had seen his family doctor for a check-up exactly once since Trudeau came to office – Pierre Elliott Trudeau. His diet? Ed ate “whatever they’re serving,” he once told me. At meets, he sometimes seemed to subsist on coffee and grilled-cheese sandwiches.

Ed and Earl, Earl and Ed. They were, in a sense, the hare and the tortoise. And their approach to fitness may hold lessons for the rest of us mere mortals – who aren’t aiming to topple world records, just trying to stay young – whether our working definition of that is hanging on to our muscles or our marbles or our sex drive, or even, potentially, keeping cancer at bay.


Youthfulness, Part 1: In their only laboratory matchup, Ed takes the lead

Certainly Ed looked older than Earl – at least off the track. But when the starting gun cracked and he broke into a run, he became almost supernaturally youthful, gliding so gracefully, so gossamer-lightly, he looked as if he could run through freshly poured cement without leaving a mark. Earl is all power on the track, but no less “youthful” for that. On appearances alone, you could call it a wash.

But was Ed younger on the inside? Or was Earl? To get a bead on that, it won’t do to look from the outside in. You have to look from the inside out.

In 2012, Tanja Taivassalo and Russell Hepple, then kinesiology professors at McGill (both are now at the University of Florida) did just that. As part of what has become known as the McGill Masters Study, involving more than two dozen participants, aged 75 to 93, they invited Ed and Earl separately into their lab. This allowed for a rare head-to-head comparison of the two athletes, who along with their fellow subjects were submitted to a battery of tests that assessed everything from cardiovascular health to muscle composition, flexibility to brain density.

Unsurprisingly, both men crushed it. More surprising, given the differences in the way they lived and trained, was that their “numbers” were often pretty similar. Both had roughly twice the mitochondria in their muscle cells as did the sedentary controls. That means twice the ability to suck in fuels such as glucose and fat, to make energy – and twice the anti-inflammatory protection against chronic disease in the bargain.

Both men also had NASCAR engines in their chests. Ed’s heart showed no signs of the hypertrophy (dangerously enlarged left ventricle) or arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) that ultra-distance runners are often heir to. His blood pressure was a little high, but that was no surprise to him. “My own theory is that my heart is a bit too strong,” Ed once told me – the pushing power maybe exceeded the width of the plumbing in there, he ventured. “Or it could just be all the salt in my diet.” (Indeed, it is Earl, not Ed, who has inexplicably developed a heart hiccup in latter years. He has tachycardia, a scary condition that can cause the heart to rev for no apparent reason. The times that happens, he says, are the only times he feels his age.)

At one point in the McGill testing, Ed and Earl were ushered into a hospital room, and a scientist brandished a gleaming instrument that looked a bit like a wine corker. He extracted a little plug of muscle from each man’s thigh. (Earl, particularly, had some trouble recovering from that procedure. Back in Toronto, he visited the storied sports-medicine doctor Anthony Galea, who fashioned a little artificial divot out of Earl’s own blood plasma, and plugged the hole with it, to speed healing.) Earl, it turned out, had somewhat more “fast-twitch” fibres in his leg – which provide explosive power, but fatigue faster – than Ed. That’s understandable, since he’s a sprinter and Ed was a distance man. Fast-twitch muscle ratio could be considered a metric of youthfulness: We are young, one might argue, to the degree that we can really bring it on when we need to – even if that just means sprinting for the bus. Then again, endurance may also signal “fitness,” at least in the Darwinian sense: Back on the veldt, it may have been the most important attribute of all.

The biggest difference was their VO2 max scores. That’s a measure of the highest rate that the body can take up and use oxygen. Earl’s score was high. But Ed’s score was literally off the charts – the highest ever recorded for someone his age. VO2 max scores correlate not just with longevity but with basic health – youthfulness, if you like. So much so that a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last month suggested that one’s VO2 max score should be considered a vital sign, as basic as blood pressure or pulse.

Score a point for Ed.


Youthfulness, Part 2: Earl catches up

Not so fast, says HIIT devotee Earl: “I believe that to stay young, intensity of exercise is more important than volume.”

Until recently, evidence for that has been circumstantial at best. But last month, data emerged to give Earl’s assertion some real teeth. In a study published in the journal Cell Biology, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., looked at how different kinds of exercise affect aging muscles at the cellular level. In one trial, three groups of older test subjects – 65 years and up – were randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups.

The first group trained like Ed – long, lower-intensity sessions with no breaks. The second trained like Earl – pulses of shorter, harder effort. (The third group did weight training alone.) Biopsies revealed that both kinds of running changed those aging muscle cells – rejuvenating them, in effect – by producing more (and better quality) mitochondria while buy modafinil provigil uk dialling up the activity levels in certain genes.

But the interval training rejuvenated those cells more than the long, slow aerobics did. The intensity seemed to be a tonic that undid some of the cellular damage that naturally occurs when we age.

Score a point for Earl.

The brain: Ed surges ahead

One hallmark of how well we’re aging is what’s happening to us between the ears. How well are we managing practical things, such as recalling names at parties and remembering that we just put a full cup of coffee on the roof of the car? In our brain, that’s largely the job of the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped region in the centre that helps us make and consolidate memories.

We know that exercise beefs up the hippocampus. But recently, researchers from the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland wondered whether any particular kind of exercise is better at building this part of the brain. In a study on rats published last February in The Journal of Physiology, they tested the effect of long, steady-state running (the Ed protocol) vs. interval training (the Earl protocol) vs. resistance training: weight-lifting. (The rats, if you’re wondering, pulled a weight up a ramp.)

The result? Both kinds of running grew new neurons in the rats’ hippocampus. But the Ed workout grew a lot more of them. The joggers’ hippocampus positively teemed with new neurons. The greater the distance the marathon rats travelled, the more neurons they grew. (Weight training alone, by the way, didn’t spark any neurogenesis at all.)

One point for Ed.

Wear and tear: Earl pulls up to the side

What about plain old wear and tear on the body, surely another sign of how well we’re staving off the ravages of time? Turns out, intense interval training – the Earl Protocol – does create greater “impact forces”: sudden compression that puts strain on joints and tendons.

But there’s a coda. “If you’re working out for less time in total, maybe the cumulative loading on the joints is reduced,” says Martin Gibala, head of the kinesiology department at McMaster University in Hamilton, and author of The One Minute Workout. In other words, when you work out like Earl, your moving parts get a rest and your joints are spared the sort of relentless pummelling that keeps orthopedic surgeons in Caribbean vacations.

The data are not unanimous on this, but they tip Earl’s way. Ed, says the science, was an outlier. He could do what he did because he was Ed: a 107-pound package of awesome mechanics. (He dropped to 105 in November, but generally hovered around 110.) And even Ed felt the strain – he had chronic arthritis in his knees. And the main reason he ran his training runs (relatively) slowly, he once told me, was that “my Achilles hurts if I go faster.”

Point for Earl.

Life expectancy: It’s a tie

Running is good. On average, every hour you run lengthens your life by around seven hours, a recent meta-analysis found. Aerobic exercise stresses the body, mostly in a good way. True, it does goose the production of “free radicals” – highly reactive molecules that damage our DNA (and whose accumulation is, according to one theory , the most potent driver of human aging.) But exercise is both the snakebite and the antidote: Exercise itself is an anti-oxidant, mopping up the free radicals it creates, and then some. Almost always, the medicine trumps the venom.

Almost always. Could it be that there’s some tipping point at which aerobic exercise becomes so exhaustive that it stops being protective, and hastens aging more than it slows it? Could it be that all the “oxidative stress” that Ed was subjecting himself to, with all that mileage, was aging him faster than Earl’s 20-minutes-and-done workouts are aging him?

Again, the data are murky. “The idea that oxidative stress is bad, that’s a very challenging thing to sort out,” says Dr Hepple, of the McGill Masters Study. Some studies say it is. But when McGill biologist Siegfried Hekimi increased oxidative stress in his lab mice by letting them run and run and run on a wheel, he found the opposite: They aged more slowly. “If there is a tipping point” where exercise stops rejuvenating us and starts aging us, says Dr. Hepple, “we don’t know where it is.”

Ed and Earl each score a point.


The cancer factor: No clear winner

Ed’s cancer diagnosis didn’t just surprise the grieving running community; it surprised Ed.

It wasn’t until last fall, around the time he was casually smashing the 15-kilometre world record for his age at a race in upstate New York, that Ed suspected something might be up. He was having trouble keeping weight on. Then, his shoulder hurt so much that he finally saw a doctor. The diagnosis: prostate cancer that, an MRI revealed, had moved into his spine and bones. “After that, things moved very quickly,” says his son Neil.

In a man with longevity in his family (his Uncle Arthur was actually Britain’s oldest man when he died at 108 in 2000), Ed’s death raises questions about the way he lived his life. Could there possibly be a link between the cancer and the training?

David Agus, a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of California, and a noted cancer specialist, is doubtful. “We know that there’s an association between some cancers and inflammation, but there’s no association we know of between strenuous exercise and prostate cancer,” he says. “Mutations happen. About half of the DNA changes in cancer just happen.”

In a 2008 study on potential links between exercise and cancer, scientists at Duke University in North Carolina found that prostate cancer grew twice as fast in mice that ran to their heart’s content as it did in sedentary mice. Exercise seemed to feed their tumours, perhaps by supplying more blood to them.

But that study comes with a very important caveat. “Those were human tumours that we planted in the mice,” notes Lee Jones, the clinical-exercise physiologist who headed that study. “The only way you can get a human tumour to grow in a mouse is if the mouse doesn’t have an immune system.” Exercise boosts the immune system, but it can’t work its magic if there’s no immune system to boost.

In a subsequent study, in which Dr. Jones’s team planted mouse breast-cancer tumours in mice – thus allowing the mice to keep their immune systems – the running rats showed the opposite result: Their tumours grew more slowly.

“If you life long enough as a man, you’re going to get prostate cancer,” Dr. Jones says. “Eighty per cent of men who are age 80 have prostate cancer. Seventy per cent of 70-year-old men have prostate cancer. The fact that Ed was 86, he probably had prostate cancer for years. But because he was in such a trained state, his body was very likely able to keep that cancer from spreading as long as it did.”

Quality of later life: Once again, a draw

We make a fetish of longer and longer life. But “lifespan” is not the most meaningful metric, argues Stephen Harridge, a respected physiologist at King’s College London. “Healthspan” is.

Actual time above ground means little if much of your Third Act takes place in the ICU. Something happens to our bodies around the eighth decade of life. Most of us tend to just start coming apart like a clock; afflictions compound, slowly choking off quality of life.

But for masters athletes, their slow, linear performance suddenly takes a discouragingly exponential plunge. Ed didn’t have “co-morbidity” issues. One single thing crept up on him right at the end. Like track-and-field legend Olga Kotelko, who died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage in the summer of 2015, just weeks after setting a passel of new world records at age 95, Ed was world-beatingly fit and feted – and then suddenly gone.

“Both of these folks” – Ed and Olga – “compressed their morbidity into a tiny, tiny fraction of their time on Earth,” says Dr. Hepple. And that might be the best definition of successful aging that we have. “Ever since Ed died,” adds Earl, “I’ve been thinking, it’s kind of a gift, what we do.”

In his heroically researched, 664-page book 100 Years Young the Natural Way he presents a kind of template for people to hit the century mark, following a protocol of exercise, stress reduction and strategic eating. Since the book came out in 2011, Earl has tweaked his diet a bit. He has almost entirely cut out fish and chicken, convinced by the data that vegetarians probably live longer. He avoids processed foods that create inflammation. He tends to his gut flora with foods such as sauerkraut and yogurt (although, he acknowledges, “some of that fermented food is not too tasty.”)

Will he justify his book’s title? He hopes so. “I’m still aiming for 100,” he says. “But life can be more fragile than you think.”

One Memorable Day, Once a Month

One Memorable Day, Once a Month

Essays Featured


From PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, Jan. 2017  For a lot of us, a typical day is so full of compromises, distractions, and interruptions that it ends up being neither productive (if it’s a work day) nor relaxing (if it’s a play day). We’re half-on/half-off much of the time, checking emails and running errands, chasing little stuff as if it were big stuff, and losing track of the difference. Days like that end up being, if not exactly wasted, at least forgettable. They run through our fingers and they’re buy cheap tramadol overnight delivery gone. They never make it onto the scoreboard because they were about … nothing.

So for the last year I’ve been trying an experiment: Once a month, I take a day and wrap it in a mission. I give it over to one achingly neglected bit of business. I clear the decks in advance. Unplug the phone. Farm out the kids. Put an “Away” message on my emails. And then, on the appointed morning, dive in.

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The Opposite of Envy

The Opposite of Envy

Blog Entry


There’s an old African saying: When the water hole shrinks, the animals start looking at each other funny.

As a metaphor it certainly describes my own profession of journalism. The water hole is shrinking fast. The animals are uneasy.

See, nobody wants to pay for stories anymore. Because everything’s free on the Internet. So newspapers and magazine are folding in droves. It’s desperate times for people who make their living from the written word.

I was at a party recently and a lot of my old writer pals were there, people I hadn’t seen in many years. There was a lot of commiserating about how things have changed, and how a lot of us are hanging on by our fingernails. But not all of us. A couple of us have scored. One signed a million-dollar deal for his first novel, the other has become a sought-after keynote speaker after his book nonfiction plucked the strings of the zeitgeist; he couldn’t be here tonight because he was in Florida at a lucrative gig. These two gentlemen weren’t here at the water hole because they’re not thirsty anymore. They’re set for life.

So, as these two success stories made the rounds, an emotion sort of crept up on everybody. No one needed to name it but everybody felt it. It was complicated, because these are very good guys – talented, hard-working, standup humans; nobody would say they hadn’t earned their good fortune. But still, the fact was, they had made it and the rest of us were still struggling. And the emotion we all felt was … envy.

Envy is toxic. It’s toxic but it’s understandable. Our culture offgasses it.

We say we want other people to succeed, but do we really mean it? Because when they do, it makes us feel crappy about ourselves. The lovable loser in our life stops being so lovable when he succeeds. Now we’re the loser, right? Somebody has to be. He just handed us that script.

But I’m here to tell you, there is an antidote to envy. And this antidote has a name:


It’s a Sanskrit word that has no direct English translation. People sometimes define it by what it isn’t. Mudita is the opposite of envy.

If envy means, “When you win, I lose,” and schadenfreude means, When you lose, I win,”

mudita means, “When you win, I win.”

Buddhists sometimes define mudita as “sympathetic joy.” It’s one of the highest emotional states order propecia uk anyone can aspire to. It says: We’re all in this together. When you rise, I rise. Your happiness is my happiness.

Anyone who’s a parent has experienced mudita. The small triumphs of your children spark sympathetic joy inside your own heart. (Although it’s also not unheard of for parents to be jealous of their own kids.)

But a Buddhist might say, that’s kindergarten class. It’s easy to feel mudita for your own flesh and blood. The real test is, can you cultivate mudita for everybody else? Can you enlarge the circle of mudita until not a single living person is omitted? That’s the endgame for a truly enlightened human.

I’ve never met anybody like that; surely she exists somewhere. The question is, is this a skill that the rest of us, in our warty imperfection, can get a little better at? I believe so. Here’s a very practical way I just learned about. A simple exercise. It works like this:

Start by thinking of some thing that is really flourishing. Not some person, some thing. Say, a bush in your yard that’s in flower. Or the healthy pine tree next to it. You can’t be envious of a pine tree — it’s just … a pine tree. But it makes us feel good, right? The pine tree in my yard is alive, all’s right with the world. So feel that feeling, sympathetic joy for the pine tree.

Now, very gently, take that feeling and transfer it on to a friend. Someone you like but don’t love. Except now you kind of do love them, because you’ve ginned up a little mudita. Their win is your win. Their success if your joy.

Here comes the bigger leap. The Ropes Course. Take that mudita and, very carefully, transfer it to someone you don’t like very much at all.

This could take awhile. To feel mudita for, say, Donald Trump might be a life’s work.

But one way to approach the task — and this was suggested recently by the great Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg — is to think about this person not in terms of their recent success but rather their ongoing vulnerability. They are fragile and fighting a great battle, just as you are. Their days are numbered, just as yours are.

There you go. Feel it. In their world, and in your world now, the stump of misery just put out a radiant sprig.

And that is cause for celebration.


How Could You?

How Could You?

Featured Parenting

From THE WALRUS, Dec. 2016



Colette Anderson and her five-year-old son were approaching the checkout line at a Save-On-Foods in North Vancouver when she realized they’d left her shopping list at the sushi place in the mall. A hundred metres away, just out of sight. “Would you mind going and grabbing it while I pay for these groceries?” she asked the tow-headed boy. Off he went.

Two minutes later, she spotted her son coming toward her. A middle-aged man was escorting him, his hand on the child’s shoulder. The boy disengaged himself and trotted over to his mother.

“I found him alone in the mall,” the man said.

“Uh-huh,” Anderson said.

“I can’t understand how you could just let him run off.”

“He didn’t ‘run off,’” Colette replied. “I sent him on an errand.”

“How old is he?”

“He’s five.”

“Anything could have happened to your child—anything,” he said. “That’s bad parenting.”

The man was talking loudly. Other shoppers had stopped what they were doing to tune in. Anderson could feel anger rising in her but made an effort to contain it.

“Thank you, but my son didn’t need you to rescue him,” she said. “He’s quite capable of running an errand on his own. That’s how kids grow up.”

The man stalked off. Anderson reassured the rattled boy that all was fine now. But a couple of minutes later, the stranger appeared again. “I just can’t let this go,” he said. “I can’t believe you’d be that irresponsible.”

One aspect of the interaction with her confronter stays with Anderson the most: his rage. In 2010, Anthony Daniels, a former Birmingham prison physician who writes under the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple, described the kind of snap judgment that causes a stranger to publicly dress down a parent as part of a “toxic cult of sentimentality.” The phenomenon has become so widespread that a whole category of viral videos has emerged featuring mothers who return to their cars after running short errands and find themselves furiously upbraided by strangers for having left their children unattended. According to Daniels’s argument, such bystanders love kids so much their feelings curdle into a “sentimental wrath”—or a self-righteous hatred—turning them from protectors into vigilantes. In such cases, scolding an offender produces a moral high.

A study published in August seems to bear out this analysis. Researchers at the University of California presented 1,328 participants—split roughly evenly between men and women, between those with children and those without—with vignettes involving kids who had been left alone by their parents for less than an hour. The explanations for this act ranged from the selfless (parent volunteering for charity) to the selfish (parent popping out to meet a lover). The study found that the perceived peril faced by each child escalated according to the moral transgression the parents were judged to have committed. The result was a “feedback loop”: the bigger the affront, the greater the threat; the greater the threat, the louder the outrage. In other words, talk of risk was used to rationalize moral disapproval.

Humans are terrible at assessing risk. Social scientists describe an “availability” heuristic that causes us to inflate the likelihood of events that can be easily brought to mind—the dramatic, the sensationalistic, the recently seen on the news. But how likely is it that children will become victims of the kinds of snatchings that put photos on milk cartons? Of the 41,342 kids reported missing in Canada in 2013, twenty-nine were “abducted by strangers.” But “stranger” in this case just means “not a parent.” In a 2003 study, investigators looked at ninety cases of stranger abductions collected from the previous two years. After eliminating the cases in which the abductor had been known to the family, they arrived at a new number: two. Two kids. Indeed, if you left your child on the corner in hopes of having him abducted, you’d have to wait—by one calculation—200,000 years for it to happen.

This climate of fearmongering changes parental risk-calculus—it’s now driven by fear, not logic. Two years ago, Chad Brown, a Vancouver software developer, entered a hackathon sponsored by the City of Vancouver. He used government crash data, geolocated by intersection, to develop an app to help kids walking to school pick a route that avoided dangerous intersections. After Brown’s team won the competition, he learned why: they had stumbled on one of the city council’s top priorities at the time—to encourage parents to walk with their kids, or to let them walk by themselves. Since the 1970s, the percentage of Canadian children allowed to walk to school has fallen from around 50 percent to about 15. One of the reasons: fear of abduction. Studies routinely show, however, that kids are at a higher risk of getting hurt when they’re driven to school. Indeed, car crashes are among the leading causes of child death in Canada. But the spectre of an abduction—which is highly improbable—is more psychologically “available” than the more likely, if mundane, possibility of an accident.

Anderson allows that her day could have gone more sideways had the man opted to call the police. In April, officers were summoned to a Squamish, British Columbia, house after a neighbour reported that the family’s two children—a four-year-old boy and his six-year-old brother—were playing by themselves in the driveway. One year later, another complaint sent a Child and Family Services investigator to the door of a Winnipeg mom whose three children were playing alone in the fenced-in yard. (She was in the house.)

Many jurisdictions in the United States have experienced an increase in 911 calls because concerned citizens are phoning in reports of children walking, playing, or sitting somewhere alone. “I’ve had investigators testify in hearings that you can’t leave a child in a car for even sixty seconds,” says Diane Redleaf, legal director of the Family Defense Center, a Chicago-based non-profit that advocates on behalf of families in danger of losing their children to foster care. Over the past decade, the number of families who’ve turned to the fdc for help after being charged with inadequate supervision has tripled—“This is now the largest category of cases we see,” she notes. (In the US, parents who have merely been investigated for inadequate supervision can end up on a registry that can be accessed by potential employers. Canadian provinces maintain similar registries, but if you haven’t been convicted, no one can see your file.)

John-Paul Boyd is the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family at the University of Calgary. He sees parents as being stuck in a social moment where they can’t win. “As a society, we give parents a really large degree of discretion while we hover in the background, waiting for them to lapse and demonstrate parenting standards that fail the norms we’ve established.”

If these norms had been in place when we were kids, almost all our parents would have been targets of suspicion. (Remember “Don’t come home till sundown”? That wasn’t a suggestion; it was a directive.) “We spend so much time looking at sensationalistic news about children who are at risk,” says Boyd. “Maybe we need to reset our comfort level.”


YooHoo — anybody out there?

YooHoo — anybody out there?

Blog Entry Essays


There’s a famous American clown named Moshe Cohen, who goes by the stage name Mr. YooHoo. In his heyday he travelled widely, plying his shtick before children and adults alike. One time Mr. YooHoo was performing before a big crowd in Chiapas, Mexico. The show seemed to be going well. At the end of it, he announced. “And now for my last trick, I’m going to make you all disappear.” And with that, he took off his glasses.

The gag had always got a laugh. But not this time. Crickets. What was going on?

Mr. YooHoo put his glasses back on and looked out at the audience. And then he understood. No one was wearing glasses. Not a single person. They were too poor to wear glasses. So they didn’t get the joke.

The acting teacher Bernie Glassman tells that story in his book The Dude and the Zen Master (Glassman had himself been a clown, and Mr. YooHoo was his mentor), and when I read it I thought: teachable moment. The lesson is, I guess, know your audience. Make sure you’re not working blue for a Christian crowd, not leaning on pop-culture references for a group of seniors, and so on.

But it occurs to me there’s a deeper way to think about the moral of this story – not as “market research,” but as an exercise in empathy. Think of the people sitting out there. Better yet, actually go out there and sit where they’re sitting. Who are they? What private battles are they fighting? Answering that will help you answer this: What can you give them?


I recently exchanged emails with Derek Sivers, an entrepreneur and writer who now earns his beans on the speaking circuit. He often tells the story of how he overcame his stage fright with one simple intervention.

Derek had worked for a dozen years as a circus emcee (that’s him in the picture). In the beginning, buy ambien online with mastercard he’d wanted to put his own stamp on the role. He tried to be all hip and ironic and Letterman-esque. It never quite clicked. He amused himself, but he never really connected with the audience. This wasn’t the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow — this was a traditional circus in the Midwest.

So one day he tried something different. He decided to be the very thing he was hired to be, a circus barker — nothing less and a little bit more. He played that role and dialed it up. People loved it.

When he returned backstage the owner of the circus took him by the shoulders. “There you go!” she said. “You’ve figured it out. That’s why people go to the circus. You gave them what they wanted.”

And that’s when it clicked for Derek. He thought, ‘It’s not about me.’ What the audience wants is to receive something of value that they can take away and maybe share with their family over dinner tonight. They want their pain salved, just for a few moments, with a pleasant distraction. Memo to self, Derek thought: Just give them what they were hoping to get when they showed up here today. But to do that means at least trying to grok, at a fairly deep level, who these people are.

That’s the step that Mr. YooHoo missed. For all his experience, he failed to understand that he couldn’t just deploy a joke that worked somewhere else and have it work here, in front of these people whose needs and whose circumstances he hadn’t really considered.

Derek’s stage fright vanished the moment he realized what his actual job was: “My role is to just be kind of invisible and deliver, like a great butler.”

Mr. YooHoo had it backwards. The trick isn’t to make your audience disappear. It’s to make yourself disappear.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The man who changed the way people talk

The man who changed the way people talk

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Americans knew they were in for a hell of a speech that November day in 1863.

The place: a cemetery in Virginia. The occasion: twenty-five thousand soldiers, killed in a single day in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, buried right there beneath the ground where the podium had been set up. So horrible was the event that people had no words to make sense of it. They needed a great speaker to give them those words.

And up stepped Edward Everett, a popular statesman, to ease their pain, to deliver the speech of his life. He’d prepared mightily and memorized the whole thing. He spoke for two hours.

What did he say? Nobody remembers. Because the guy who came up after him on that day stole the show.

The guy who came up after him spoke for two minutes. He did in two minutes what Edward Everett couldn’t do in two hours: he captured that historic moment and put it under glass forever. The second guy’s speech didn’t blow the first guy’s speech away in spite of its brevity. It blew the first guy’s speech away because of its brevity.

The second guy was Abraham Lincoln. And his two-minute speech was the Gettysburg Address.


Historians have made a lot of this juxtaposition of speakers, the crazy vaudeville act of these two gentlemen who couldn’t have been more different. Their speeches, too, couldn’t have been more different.

Unlike Edward Everett, Lincoln didn’t drop a lot of allusions to the ancient Greeks. He didn’t broadcast his knowledge of every detail of the battle. He didn’t name-drop every historic figure from Adam who might have had a hand in bringing the United States to that moment in time.

He just … exhaled. Two hundred seventy words. Everett’s first sentence was fifty-three words.

Historians credit Lincoln, in that speech, with summing up not just the meaning of the war but the meaning of the country. But he did more than that. He changed the way people talk. (1)

Lincoln used simple language (short words with Anglo-Saxon and Norman roots), and in so doing, he gave people who have deliver a speech even today permission to speak … like themselves.

Since that day in Gettysburg, the way we communicate has increasingly been about hacking away the ornament that Edward Everett trowelled on so liberally. Getting rid of pretention. Finding the cleanest line between your heart and the heart you’re trying to reach.

We gas on because we think we have to. The bigger the occasion, the more we think we need to say.

But speaking isn’t about telling people all you know. It’s about telling people all they need to know. And these days, most folks don’t need to know much — at least not from you or me. They can’t manage a big stemwinder. They’re busy. They don’t have the attention. They don’t have the RAM. They can handle one big idea, a little sketch portrait done while they wait. That’s it.

To me that’s the genius of the five-to-seven minute speech format of Toastmasters — a club I think everyone who has to talk in public could benefit from. At Toastmasters, the clock starts the moment you open your mouth. A traffic-light gizmo sitting on the table lights up green, then orange, then red as you approach your time limit.

At five minutes, you’d better be putting the landing gear down. At six minutes you’re preparing your close. Beyond seven minutes you’ve gone on too long, and even a polite club will “clap you down.”

Even if you fancy yourself an aspiring keynote speaker – Hey, I need to learn how to give a long speech without notes, just as Edward Everett did — the real skill is in shaving your message to its nut. A fifty-minute keynote speech is really just a bunch of five-to-seven minutes speeches strung together.

Edward Everett would have been clapped down at Gettysburg before he’d even finished clearing his throat.


1) Ted Widmer, “The Other Gettysburg Address,” New York Times, Nov. 19, 2013Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail



Blog Entry

The other day I was on a stationary bike at the gym — part of the noontime spin crowd, all of us sweating it out. The guy next to me was really bearing down. He inspired me to give the tension knob another half-turn. By the end I was knackered.

I got off the bike, patted down with a towel, put on my glasses and took a few steps.

Whoa. This did not feel right.

The room was pitching and heaving. I had trouble getting my bearings. I thought: something’s seriously wrong. A stroke? If you can put your arms overhead — all I could remember from the checklist of red flags — you can rule out a stroke, and I could put my arms overhead. My perception was wonky, so maybe a brain injury. Possibly a tumour on the visual cortex. If that’s what it was, it occurred to me, then at my age the prognosis is not that good.

Then I realized:

I had put on the glasses of the guy on the next bike.

We got it straightened out before he put on mine. (Although it would have been interesting to see if he lapsed into the same desperate Woody Allen routine.)

Two takeaways from this:

Number one: Don’t reach for a complicated explanation when there might be a simpler one.

Number two: Don’t catastrophize. It only creates anxiety and there’s absolutely no upside, because if turns out you’re wrong, you’ve been tormenting yourself needlessly, and if it turns out you’re right, you’ve been extending the suffering unnecessarily.

Feels good to be back from the brink. Near-sighted, absent-minded, but still among the quick.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Have Dog, Will Travel

Have Dog, Will Travel

Essays Featured


from WESTERN LIVING, July/August 2016

photos by Jennifer Williams


1. Sooke dreams

As the Mazda eases through the highway curves near Cassidy, B.C. — not ten minutes into the trip — a curdly tang fills the air.

“Oh gross – Penny just barfed!” Madeline hollers from the back seat. “Lila’s cleaning it up! She’s the one who fed her cheese!”

Penny is our one-year-old golden retriever, and the reason we’re on this kind of family holiday — rural, car-based, close to home,  — rather than the more exotic kind involving air travel, big cities, high culture and people dressed in expensive black slacks.

Dogs are of course awesome, as I don’t need to tell you dog people. But a puppy can disrupt a little family in the following way: you can’t leave her alone — not in the car, not on the ferry, not outside a store. She barks, you see. So, just when you thought the ‘hot-bunking sailors’ stage of married life was over, here it is again.

“Kind of like having a toddler,” a friend suggests.

“Except toddlers grow up.”

Now, you can leave your dog at a kennel come vacation time (don’t try this with a toddler). But the cheapest option, in some ways the easiest option, and certainly the only no-tears option, is to just bring her along.

We’d planned a circle route around lower Vancouver Island — down the east coast, around the horn, back up the west coast and across the interior — but forest fires had closed that final cut-through. So our journey would more closely resemble a smile that we traced and traced again.

Front-loading the indulgence, we booked the first night at the exquisite Sooke Harbour House — a destination more befitting honeymooners, foodies, and mindfulness-meditators than a roustabout family with a big sheddy mutt. You’d normally have to sneak a dog into such a place. But they love dogs at SHH. “We often prefer dogs to kids, actually,” one of the chambermaids told me, sotto voce, as we brought our bags from the car.

Penny must have missed the Cesar Milan episode where the dog waits in the hallway while the owners spread their scent throughout the hotel room: she trots right in. Waiting for her is her own little doggie bed, plus a welcome basket with towels and treats. Outside the French doors, the grounds beckon. The two-and-a-half acres of lovingly tended gardens are locovore heaven. “Eat what you can see” is the mantra here. Penny seems to understand this a little too well; we keep a close eye on her, lest she take a chomp out of one of the driftwood sculptures.


2. The best damn swimming hole in Canada

The Sooke Potholes are a series of pools carved into the rock by the cascading waters of the Sooke River. They’re one of the great swimming holes in B.C. But to a dog, they must seem even more magical: like a great big toilet you can drink out of.

A bike trail called the Galloping Goose takes you right there from the city, following the gentle grade of the freight-rail line it used to be. All in all a perfect way for a family with a dog to spend a summer day. Once you get on the Goose, you’re golden. It’s finding the Goose in the first place that’s the trick.

On rented bicycles, we white-knuckle it along the skinny shoulder of the highway as five-axle traffic blasts past. I’m trying to steer with one hand and wrangle Penny on a leash with the other. You see people gaily do this in TV commercials for life insurance, but running shotgun is actually a skill the dog has to learn. Penny either wants to pull me into cars, or she wants to stop and sniff. Whenever we leave the highway and try to thread our way through the suburbs, we keep hitting dead ends. It’s not clear where the heck we are.

“Did you know that commercial jets are off-course ninety percent of the time?” I offer, buoyantly. “The whole trip is about making corrections!” Silence. The girls are wondering about the chain of command on this vacation. Even the dog is getting fed up.

But the Potholes, when we find them, are as lovely as promised — the water bracing and ferric — and the Mad and Lila wade in to their chests. Penny decides the water’s too cold and stays on shore.

It’s trendy to talk about domestic dogs as if they were wolves – wired to hunt and roam and jockey for position in the pack. There isn’t a lot of wolf in Penny. Evolutionarily, she’s probably closer to a kitchen appliance. She knows where her dinner’s coming from: a big bag, not her own predatory instincts. This makes things easier in wilderness areas. We don’t really have to worry about her hare-ing off somewhere. Eventually she grows bored, picks up one of Lila’s shoes and drops it in the river.

3. The Big Wild
Luxury digs receding in the rear-view mirror, we complete the lazy drive north, through the Sooke Hills, arriving at dusk to pitch our tent at China Beach.

Dogs are welcome here in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park — as they are, albeit leashed, in all BC parks. This makes camping a pretty good way to go if you’re travelling with the hund. (Camping, when you think about it, is actually more suitable for dogs than for humans: sleeping on the ground in close quarters in a portable den.) The girls take turns blowing into the air mattress while Penny cases the joint. Her nose twitches. A curious expression comes over her face — a cross between approval and admiration. You guys must be more important than I thought, it says. They gave you the best site in the campground – right next to the outhouse.

The big attraction in these parts lies a short drive north of here, near Port Renfrew. And Botanical Beach is indeed high-grade West Coast wild. We hike the loop trail, an easy 4km. We didn’t get the tides right, so much of the big, rich canvas of intertidal life is underwater. But the trees are amazing — not because they’re so big, but because, weirdly, they aren’t. The ancient Sitka spruce are bonsai-tiny. “In a protected area,” an interpretative sign explains, “many of these trees would be fifty metres high.” But because they’re so exposed to the punishing weather, they don’t grow. The hardship stunts them. I half-expect the girls to pick up on this. We too are a bit undersized for their age, they will claim, because of the hardship you and mom inflict on us. Lift the restrictions on screen time and candy and watch us bloom.

4. The Big Smoke

 Penny is starting to smell. In that smell are traces of the trip thus far — top notes of beach goo, the Rottie she wrestled at Whiffen Spit, whatever she rolled in on that farm in Metchosin. The car, meanwhile, is starting to smell like Penny.

But there’s a place in Sooke called Suds ‘n Pups that solves both issues in one go. We first take care of the Mazda with a pressure hose, and then usher a dubious Penny around the corner and give her the business. I can’t say she’s happy about it, but she does take a certain satisfaction from shaking herself dry on us. She has to be presentable, we tell her, for the next stop on the itinerary: a trip to the city.

Not long ago, a team of researchers produced “smellscapes” of a number of European capitals. You can use them to plot walking tours tailored to your olfactory wishes — like Lonely Planet guides, if they were written and published by dogs. Nobody has mapped Victoria yet, but I’ll bet it’ll turn out to smell like salt, tea bags, fish-and-chips and marine diesel. Whatever’s going down here, Penny seems to be thinking as we find a parking spot and disgorge into the tourist hordes on Government Street, she’s all-in.

A sax-playing busker stops her in her tracks. Some sort of mating call, is this? (Actually, yes: it’s John Coltrane.) The lunch-hour crowd eddies around us.

Which raises another issue. We can’t bring Penny into a restaurant: it’s against the Canadian health code. (Even a restaurant in Duncan called The Dog House does not actually welcome dogs, we discovered, after they marched us all right back outside again.) But we can’t leave her in the hot car. At Pagliacci’s, the sympathetic staff pushes two patio tables together on the sidewalk and the waiters serve us out there, in the midday sun. Penny takes refuge underneath while we eat.

And then, for her, the day takes a really great turn. In Chinatown, she follows her nose down Dragon Alley and pulls us right into a tiny shop. The owner, Clayton Ealey, shakes his head. “No, no” he says.

“No dogs in here?” I say, preparing to leave.

“No leashes,” Clayton says.

Penny’s eyes brighten. What is this place? No less than a bakery … for dogs.


In a display case up front sit rows of jewel-like treats, many of them at nose height. There’s no glass.  Penny stares at them from six inches away. It’s a cosmic test of character. “Usually, they won’t shoplift till your back is turned,” Clayton says. There are blueberry and salmon cookies wrapped in beef jerky,  “meaty muffins” with cheddar and honey and apple. “That’s peanut butter and honey with yoghurt icing,” Clayton says of the cupcake I’m appraising. “More people than dogs eat that one.” I scarf it down when his back is turned. He swings around. “Oh you actually ate it!?” he says, looking horrified. “Just kidding.”

Penny is starting to get used to sauntering right in to stores, Parisienne-style. Could be a rude shock for her to wake from this dream and return home to North Van, where dogs are expected to know their place.

5. Wally World

 Penny prefers to rise around 5am, like Donald Trump. This becomes an issue in a campground — such as this quiet one at Englishman River Falls, near Parksville, where we’ve spent our final night.

She climbs over four sleeping bags and whines to go out. She then sits sentry in front of the tent in the pre-dawn. I can’t leave her out there alone. But it’s too early to start breakfast – we’d wake the other campers. There’s nothing to be done but curl up in a blanket beside her. A light rain falls on the both of us for a couple of hours.

“So this is our last day, girls,” I put it to Madeline and Lila at the picnic table as they chow down on camp cereal. “Now you’re in a position to know: Which is better – holidaying with the dog or without her?”

Madeline ponders this. “Well, you can go more places without a dog,” she says, marshaling eleven-year-old logic. “But a dog makes it all more … enthusiastic.”

There remains one last piece of business. Penny can smell, through the cracked back window, the tidal musk of the best beach on the whole east coast of Vancouver Island. But as we pile out of the car at Rathtrevor, and make a beeline for the surf, a sign catches us up. No pets allowed. Seriously?

There is a saying within the canine resistance: ‘A good dog must not obey the law too well.’

Soon Penny is out there rolling on her back. The kids are doing that game where you strand yourself on little islands created by the incoming tide. Bliss.

Then Madeline points. Two uniformed figures in the distance, screeching to a stop in their Club Car. And now the park rangers walking briskly toward us over the sand-flats.

You know what? It was so worth it, whatever it is we’re in for.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

That reminds me of a story…

That reminds me of a story…

Blog Entry


After my dad died, and we were sorting through his things, I found in his office a small filing cabinet. It was jammed full of index cards. And on each index card was a story — or at least an anecdote or an extended joke. He must have been collecting them for many years. Some were good, some corny, and some seemed designed to be deployed in very specific circumstances.

Dad, apparently, was developing an arsenal of stories for all occasions. He wanted, ideally, to be able to answer a question, any question, with a story. This strikes me now as pure parenting genius. It’s a surefire way to dispense wisdom lightly. You can impart a lesson without being preachy, be directive without inviting pushback. Because, hey, you’re just telling a story.

The funny thing is, I don’t remember my dad being particularly good at this skill of dialing up a story on demand. He was a surpassingly great guy, but not exactly a spellbinding raconteur. I think it was something he aspired to get good at after he retired and had more time to commit to the effort. Turned out he didn’t live long enough to see the plan through.

But I applaud the idea. I think he was absolutely on to something.  The best answer to any question is a story.

Now, some people are super-adept at this.

The business titans Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger — the Berkshire Hathaway founders and two of the greatest investors who ever lived — are textbook. Buffett was approached by a reporter after the financial meltdown of 2008. “So many people suffered terrible losses, Mr. Buffett, but not you two gentlemen so much. Do you care to comment?”

Buffett replied: “Well, you never know who’s swimming naked till the tide goes out.”

(Okay, that’s not really a story, just an aphorism; but I bet you don’t forget it anytime soon.)

For elected officials, it’s an indispensable skill. Because if your story is entertaining enough, you make everything forget that you didn’t really answer the question. (Abraham Lincoln was the master at this—at least if the movie version of his life is to be believed.)

Who else? Religious leaders. Rabbis, especially. Because answering questions with stories is part of the Jewish oral tradition.

It was a rabbi who, for me, pulled the curtain away on how this is done. So the story goes, there was once a wise old rabbi who seemed to have no end of stories that were right on point. One day a student said:

“Rabbi, I have noticed that you always answer a question with a story. How do you know so many stories? And how do you choose the stories to tell that are so perfect for the subject?”

“Your question,” the rabbi said, “reminds me of a story….

Once, long ago, a nobleman sent his son to the military academy in a nearby village to learn to shoot. Five years later, as the young man was returning home, he passed an old barn with chalk circles drawn all over its side. In the centre of every circle was a bullet hole.

He got off his horse. ‘Who is this marksman who can shoot a hundred perfect bullseyes?’ he said. ‘I must meet him!’

A young boy heard the question. ‘Oh, yes, I know that man,” the boy said. ‘He’s the town fool.’ The boy elaborated. ‘See, you think he shoots bullets in circles. But actually, he shoots first, then he draws the circle.’

“And that’s the way it is for me, the rabbi told his student. “I don’t just happen to have these perfect stories that fit the subject we’re discussing. Instead, when I find a story I  like, I steer the conversation that way so I can then introduce the story.”

That’s pretty canny. I might just give this a shot.

I think my Dad would approve.




Blog Entry

Not long ago I had lunch with my old pal James. It had been awhile.

“So whatcha been up to?” he said.

“Let’s see,” I replied. “Read a couple of books I enjoyed. Got some good runs in. Made a spaghetti sauce I was pleased with. You?”

“Well, this and that. Oh yeah: I climbed El Cap.”

That would be El Capitan.

For those of you who aren’t climbers, let me put this in perspective. El Capitan is a vertical wall of rock. It is 3,000 feet high.

When you think about climbing El Cap,  imagine it as a sequence of steps. You put on a climbing harness. You walk up to the bottom of the thing. You step up onto the rock face. And then, sometime later, you hoist yourself over the top. By sometime, I mean days later.

In James’s case, it was three days. Eighty hours on the cliff face.

I hit him, I’m afraid, with the usual questions:

How do you go to the bathroom? (answer: adult diapers.)

How do you sleep? (answer: you either carry a portable hammock with you that you drive into the rock, or you look for a little ledge, sometimes as small in area as a casket or a toboggan. That’s what James did.

I asked him how hard it was.

He was silent for a moment. “I had prepared myself that it was going to be really, really hard,” he said. “And it was harder. Not so much physically – I’d trained for it. But psychologically. Just spending whole days with nothing underneath you. You wouldn’t think that would be so hard, but it totally gets to you. You feel undermined. I don’t know how you’d train for that except maybe being dangled below an airplane for ten or twelve hours.”

There were many times when he didn’t think he and his climbing partner would make it, he said. They hung in there. They made it.

But that wasn’t even the inspirational part.

They had aimed to finish the morning of the third day, but the climb took longer than expected and they didn’t finish till dusk. The car was parked pretty far away. There was a path. They decided to go for it. Turned out the path didn’t go to the car but snaked over into the next valley. Soon it was dark, and they were lost.

That’s when one turned to the other and said:

“Look at where we are right now. If you just dropped us into these circumstances – lost in the wilderness in a foreign country in the middle of the night, hungry and exhausted, we’d be terrified. But because of what we just accomplished, this is nothing. This is not stressful. The sun’ll be up soon and we’ll get our bearings and we’ll be fine.”

If ever there were a case for making a habit of nosing out of your comfort zone, this is it. The more you do, the more you can do. Whenever you do the more difficult thing instead of the easy thing, you’re making tomorrow more interesting. Make a habit of this and you’re liable to become dangerously impressive, like James.

He and I said goodbye to each other.

And then I went home to make a really dangerous spaghetti sauceFacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail



Featured Published Stories Archive

Flashes of insight can be personally transformative, creatively inspiring, or even spiritually transcendent. Is there a way to manufacture an “aha” moment,” or at least improve the odds of having one?

From PSYCHOLOGY TODAY (cover story), March 2015

Simon Lovell was 31 and a professional con man who had spun the gambling tricks he’d learned from his grandfather into a lucrative if bloody-minded business fleecing strangers. Without hesitation or remorse, he left his marks broken in hotels all over the world.

Nothing suggested that this day in 1988 would be any different. Lovell, in Europe, had spotted his victim in a bar, plied him with drinks, and drawn him into a “cross”—a classic con game in which the victim is made to believe he’s part of a foolproof get-rich scheme. The con went perfectly. “I took him for an extremely large amount of money,” Lovell said later.

Lovell hustled the drunken man out of the hotel room and left him in the hallway for security to deal with. But then something unexpected happened. The mark went to pieces. “I’d never seen a man break down that badly, ever,” Lovell recalled. “He was just sliding down the wall, weeping and wailing.”

What followed was a moment Lovell would look back on as the hinge point of his life. “It was as if a light suddenly went on. I thought: This. Is. Really. Bad. For the first time, I actually felt sorry for someone.”

Lovell’s next move was hard even for him to believe. He returned the guy his money. Then he went back inside the hotel room, sat down, poured a drink, and declared himself done with buy ambien american express this dodge. “There was an absolute epiphany that I just couldn’t do it anymore.” The next day he felt different. Lighter. “I had become,” he said, “a real human being again.” He never ran another con. Continue reading Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Why everyone needs an Old friend

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Show of hands: who has an old friend?


I don’t just mean a friend from middle-school whom you’re still in touch with. I mean an old friend – a friend who’s thirty, forty, fifty years older than you. And who’s not a blood relative.


Not many. And that’s a shame. Because the old have something incredibly rare, and perishable, and irreplaceable to offer: actual, firsthand knowledge of the world.


There’s a gripping memoir I read recently by a gentleman named Harry Bernstein. It’s his first book. He published it at age 96.


But here’s what’s kind of amazing. When the book became a hit, a New York Times reporter asked Bernstein how it came about. This is what he replied:


“If I had not lived until I was ninety, I would not have been able to write this book. It could not have been done even ten years earlier. I wasn’t ready.”

And then he leaned forward and said:

“God knows what potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive till well into their Nineties.”


Now that’s a radical idea. That old people could still have potential. That they’re still, in some sense, ripening. Life experience works like compound interest, delivering a rich back-end payoff in wisdom and insight. That ought to make really old people the most sought-after dinner companions in the world.


But it doesn’t. Maybe in Japan in does, but not here.


Here’s what most people under 25 think about most people over 75: nothing. They have no idea what old people have to offer because they don’t know any old people. Outside grandparents and uncles and aunts – who you have to visit at Christmastime – theirs is a seniors-free world. Old folks aren’t much walking the streets; they aren’t represented in the mass media. They’re ghosts. We warehouse them, out of sight, out of mind.


That’s a really worrisome development on a lot of levels. Not just because all that firsthand knowledge is dying on the vine.


What old people do for us, one of the many things, is they remind us of where we’re headed. Without old people in our lives, there can so easily be a disconnect between our present selves and our future selves. And that affects the way we live, the choices we make. It creates the conditions for ruinously short-term thinking.


Some ingenious studies have revealed how this works. Turns out that if we’re shown photos of ourselves digitally aged, it’s a jolting wake-up call. We change our behavior. We save more for retirement, we eat a healthier diet, we behave less recklessly. The same thing happens if we’re asked to sit down and write a letter to our “future self.” Our mortality snaps into focus. It is a Jacob Marley moment. We go, holy crap, that’s going to be me.


If you visit the Aging Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and you put on the leg braces, and the big cumbersome gloves, and the vision-impairing goggles that simulate glaucoma, you get a hint of what frailty feels like. And it changes you. Now the wall between you and the old guy in line at the grocery store crumbles. You see him differently. That is, you see him. His trembling hand putting a can of beans down on the counter. He looks old to you, but the picture he has of himself, from the inside, is quite different. He’s probably astonished to look in the mirror and see that wrinkled face looking back. He’s thinking: how did this happen? Old age came for him like a thief in the night, and it’s coming for us, too.


Now, I was lucky enough to have a staggeringly great old friend. When we met, Olga Kotelko was enjoying this fantastic, unlikely career as a master’s track-and-field star. She was like Harry Bernstein; she was cashing in the potentials lurking inside of her because something had kept her alive into her Nineties. I didn’t have to write a letter to my future self, because I had Olga. She was what the high road looks like.


But one of the differences between us, I noticed, is that she burned hotter. By which I mean, she knew she had less time. And so she lived differently. She was gorging on life. She knew what things are important and what aren’t, and so she didn’t squander even a minute on stuff that’s merely urgent, or worse, trivial. She used the whole day, and dropped off to sleep every night with gratitude. Olga suffered way more sadness and hardship than I have, which sharpened her appreciation for what was right in front of her. She was alive to a degree that put me to shame.


I started out writing a science book about her –what physiologists are learning from her crazy, age-defying ways. It ended up being about what I have learned from her.


May you all have an Olga in your life.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Behind the Cover Story: Bruce Grierson on Ellen Langer

Behind the Cover Story: Bruce Grierson on Ellen Langer

Aging Essays Featured Psychology



Bruce Grierson wrote this week’s cover story about Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist who has conducted experiments that involve manipulating environments to turn back subjects’ perceptions of their own age. Grierson’s last article for the magazine was about Olga Kotelko, a 91-year-old track star, which became the basis for his book “What Makes Olga Run?”

How did you first hear about Ellen Langer or grow interested in her research?

Ellen must have been hiding in my blind spot. She’s been doing her thing for almost four decades, but I didn’t stumble across her until I was researching my book, What Makes Olga Run? A chapter of that book deals with human limits and the role of the mind therein. I called Ellen up. She told me the story of her mother’s and grandmother’s buy valtrex over the counter afflictions. Then I learned she was contemplating this cancer study. It started to feel like a story.

Did she surprise you in any way?

About 20 seconds into a conversation with her, you know she’s different. She doesn’t sound like a scientist. She speaks in the rhythms of one of those old borscht-belt comics — punch, punch, punch, stop-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-before. There’s almost a narrative intelligence — if that’s a thing — that’s more obvious than her scientific intelligence. She’s an artist — literally (she paints) and also in sensibility. She’d surely agree with Einstein that not everything that can be measured matters, and not everything that matters can be measured. She’s fun to be around, but she kind of wore me out.

read the rest of this story here:

What If Age is Nothing But a Mind-Set?

What If Age is Nothing But a Mind-Set?

Aging Essays Featured

from the NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, OCT. 22, 2014

One day in the fall of 1981, eight men in their 70s stepped out of a van in front of a converted monastery in New Hampshire. They shuffled forward, a few of them arthritically stooped, a couple with canes. Then they passed through the door and entered a time warp. Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio. Ed Sullivan welcomed guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside — including the books on the shelves and the magazines lying around — were designed to conjure 1959. This was to be the men’s home for five days as they participated in a radical experiment, cooked up by a young psychologist named Ellen Langer.

The subjects were in good health, but aging had left its mark. “This was before 75 was the new 55,” says Langer, who is 67 and the longest-serving professor of psychology at Harvard. Before arriving, the men were assessed on such measures as dexterity, grip strength, flexibility, hearing and vision, memory and cognition — probably the closest things the gerontologists of the time could come to the testable biomarkers of age. Langer predicted the numbers would be quite different after five days, when the subjects emerged from what was to be a fairly intense psychological intervention.

Langer had already undertaken a couple of studies involving elderly patients. In one, she found that nursing-home residents who had exhibited early stages of memory loss were able to do better on memory buy cheap tramadol tests when they were given incentives to remember — showing that in many cases, indifference was being mistaken for brain deterioration. In another, now considered a classic of social psychology, Langer gave houseplants to two groups of nursing-home residents. She told one group that they were responsible for keeping the plant alive and that they could also make choices about their schedules during the day. She told the other group that the staff would care for the plants, and they were not given any choice in their schedules. Eighteen months later, twice as many subjects in the plant-caring, decision-making group were still alive than in the control group.

To Langer, this was evidence that the biomedical model of the day — that the mind and the body are on separate tracks — was wrongheaded. The belief was that “the only way to get sick is through the introduction of a pathogen, and the only way to get well is to get rid of it,” she said, when we met at her office in Cambridge in December. She came to think that what people needed to heal themselves was a psychological “prime” — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself. Gathering the older men together in New Hampshire, for what she would later refer to as a counterclockwise study, would be a way to test this premise.

read the rest of the article here:


Hollywood called. They want to turn your book into a movie.

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Imagining the movie that Hollywood’s going to make of your book feels a bit karmically dangerous – a “counting your chickens before they’ve hatched” dodge for the modern creative class.

But what the hell. Every writer does it. It’s fun to dream. It’s especially fun to imagine yourself as the casting director, armed with an unlimited budget and access to all the world’s acting talent. Who would play your protagonist? Your villain?

Marshal Zeringue terrific blog My Book, The Movie scratches just this itch. Marshal, an American screenwriter and champion of literary efforts high and low, asks writers to “dreamcast” their book.

You’d think writers would be the best people to consult on this – they cooked up the characters, after all. But for some reason their opinions are not warmly received – or even solicited – by film producers. Elmore Leonard, whose novels are so dialogue-driven and cinematic they routinely make their way to the screen, doesn’t even bother offering candidates anymore. The first few times, “They would ask me what actors I saw in the roles,” Leonard says, in Marshal’s blog. “I would tell them and they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’”

It’s a bit of a Walter Mitty exercise, imagining you’d ever have the power to shape a big-budget movie. It’s pleasing to be asked questions that make you feel important. ‘In the movie of your life, who would play you?’ ‘What novel would you assign to the Prime Minister to read?’ Who would you invited to your literary dream dinner party?’ When you dreamcast, no one ever says no to your entreaties, even dead folks. “You might speculate what, say, Cary Grant or Grace Kelly would have done with the role,” says Marshal.

Most of the posts on his site are for works of fiction, but there are some great non-fiction ones, too.

My own stab at dreamcasting What Makes Olga Run? can be found here.


Squaring the Curve

Squaring the Curve

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As many of you now know, Olga died suddenly in the early morning of June 24. She got up to use the bathroom and a blood vessel feeding her brain burst. Doctors say she likely went unconscious in about a second – like the flip of a light switch.

I’ve spent a lot of time since then thinking about what it means that she died. “I thought she was going to live forever!” people said, only half-joking. A couple of weeks before her death she taped a segment for the Dr. Oz show. The episode was called, “How to Live to 100.” It aired a few days after she died. “I guess it was too late to pull her spot,” a friend said.

Too late to pull her spot. As if her death had shattered the magic, and sort of undermined the example of her life.

I don’t see it that way. On the contrary.

I think Olga dying when she did, the way she did, reframes the conversation around her. Her story’s no longer just about longevity, but also quality of life.

In a lot of ways, crazy as it sounds, she was peaking. She’d just smashed the world records in eight events at the world outdoor championships in Budapest. She came home to be love-bombed by her friends, and congratulated on the new memoir she’d just published. Then for good measure she set seven new outdoor world records. Then she tackled the garden.

If you think of life as a poker game – and figure that the currency isn’t money, it’s health and energy and purpose — then by those terms, over 90 years Olga amassed just about the biggest pile of chips anybody ever has. And then she walked away from the table. On this incredible winning streak she bowed out.

Now it could be she’d have kept on winning, in this poker game, for months or years or a decade or more. But the odds are against it. Beyond a certain point can i buy ambien online there are trade-offs in length of life vs. quality of life – for everybody. So for Olga, was that tipping point a year away? A day away? All I know is, she thought of her life as a miracle. It was beyond her wildest imagining.

Gerontologists have a term: “squaring the curve.” It just means, if you think of your physical and mental health plotted as a line on a graph, what you want is for that line not to be one slow long decline. You want it to stay high for as long as possible, until it plunges sharply at the very end of your life, as illness or something else takes you out quickly.

Olga squared the curve with a ruler. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect example. You blaze for 95 years and then die instantaneously with no pain and no regrets no burden on anybody else. I think this is what we all aspire to – to live right up to that tipping-point moment. Whether it comes at age 75 or 85 or 95. I think that’s a way better goal than living as long as humanly possible. We make a fetish out of this quest for super-longevity; we try to concoct ways to “solve” aging, as if it’s a disease. But squaring the curve: that’s what we should be thinking about.

In some ways our whole culture and economy depends on us embracing that idea – that it’s the “life in your years,” as Olga liked to say, rather than the “years in your life.” Because otherwise the so-called grey tsunami is going to be real, and it’s going to swamp us. Most people cost the health-care system as much in the last six weeks of their life as they do in the entire rest of their life. It’s the decline into decrepitude that does us in. Gotta square the curve. Live well and live long enough and then kick the bucket – boom.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Olgas Among Us – Part 3: Sven the Frontiersman

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A guest post by SID TAFLER


There are two important things to know about meeting Sven Johansson.

The first is, don’t shake his hand. At 90, he still has an iron grip, so my advice is, avoid the pain and offer a fist pump.

The second is, if you ask him how he’s doing, he’ll invariably say in his high-pitched Swedish lilt, “Never had a bad day yet.”

With the glint in his ice-blue eyes and an impish smile, you have to take him at his word, even though he’s known many dark days living in a tent with ice-cracking temperatures in Canada’s far north. And more recently, many days trying to break through the barriers facing a struggling new arts company.

His denial of the downside of life is long-living proof that healthy longevity is as much about attitude as it is about genes and lifestyle.

“If you want to preserve meat you put it in the freezer,” he chuckles. “I lived in the Arctic in 40 below, 50, 60 to 72 below for 25 years–frozen solid. So the meat never went bad.”

Sven is a solidly built, compact man who immigrated to Canada in 1962 and spent much of his life herding reindeer (he won an Order of Canada in 1994 for reviving Canada’s herd) and sailing his ship the North Star in the Beaufort Sea for the Geological Survey of Canada. Then in his 60s, he developed a new form of aerial dance, moved to Victoria and established the Discovery Dance Society, reigniting his life-long interest in the arts.

With proper lighting, Sven’s dancers appear to fly in the air, suspended on a boom, with the performer at one end above the stage and an operator on the floor at the other, the two working as a team to defy gravity and delight the audience.

Sven calls his technique ES (for Excedere Saltatio, or exceeding the limits). He says it releases buy soma 4 pain dancers from the limits of their own bodies as well as the force of gravity and encourages new forms of choreography and performance.

Even disabled people confined to wheelchairs have experienced the thrill of dancing in air, strapped into his crane-like device which he calls a dance instrument.

Sven has presented more than 20 of his own dance productions, including one at the closing ceremonies for the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria. His work has been featured in six films and is showcased at the summer Shakespeare by the Sea festival in Victoria and at performances in Winnipeg, Vancouver and other centres.

In his tenth decade, he says his ever-active mind is as sharp and agile as it was in his 20s. His hearing has weakened, but he still lives on his own and walks without a cane with occasional rest stops.

In his book-lined bachelor apartment in downtown Victoria, he works on upcoming dance performances and his ever-expanding autobiography. He has no plans to retire for another ten years, but knowing Sven, he’ll probably find the motivation to keep going into his 100s.

There’s a lot to accomplish. Despite some successes and awards, ES Dance hasn’t achieved the recognition he believes it deserves, perennially rejected for funding by the Canada Council and the BC Arts Council and given short shrift by the local news media and “the very archaic dance community.”

He’s not the first outlier to be slighted in his own lifetime. He mentions Emily Carr, considered in her day as “just a funny old lady with a monkey in a baby carriage–not the great Canadian artist she in fact was.”

Looking ahead, Sven is searching for a young person “talented in all the arts” to lead Discovery Dance to new heights in the next 30 years.

“It often takes two generations for innovative artists to be recognized. By 2044, the second generation of ES Dancers may do it.”Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Can you judge a book by Page 99?

Can you judge a book by Page 99?

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The 19th century novelist Ford Madox Ford, beloved of literary types for his perfect gem of a novel The Good Soldier, has lately seen his name appear more widely, attached to this quote:


“Open a book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”


Ford never explained why he picked that particular page at the litmus, but his “Page 99 Test” is quickly becoming better known than Ford himself — thanks partly to an American playwright and screenwriter named Marshal Zeringue, who founded a blog devoted to the idea. Since starting it in 2007, Marshal has run more than a thousand of these mini-reviews, which together serve as both an informal test of Ford’s theory and welcome press for the authors of deserving books that are underexposed because they don’t, you know, involve vampires.

My own stab at the Page 99 Test can be found here.

The Page 99 Test is an idea for our age. Everybody’s falling-down-busy and desperate for cheats and life hacks that will let them do stuff and learn stuff in a fraction of the time, in the cracks and margins. The only thing that scares us more than vampires is wasting time. Having a sneaky way to assess in 90 seconds whether a book is worth the effort? Priceless.

Unless there’s some sort of Masonic significance to the double-9s, it’s probably an arbitrary number. But it makes sense to pick a page around there, in the early middle. For sure it’s better than judging a book by page 1. Every author spends inordinate time shining up those first few paragraphs to lure you in, and often as not there follows a dropoff in quality. (Because, hey, you’ve already bought the book!) By page 99, the scene is set, the characters are established, the narrative engine is starting to rev. The story is going somewhere — or not. Philip Larkin once famously claimed that British novels are generally made up of “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.” Most books are. Middles are hard; sustaining momentum is a feat of magic.

Something else page 99 has going for it? It’s a perfect place for the author to step back and reveal the whole landscape. Sometimes you will find the whole book in microcosm on page 99 or thereabouts. Sometimes there exactly. In Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, page 99 “takes place at exactly the moment Waverly has started winning chess championships and the community is rallying around her,” one critic found. In Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, page 99 is the moment the hero’s dual identity is revealed. I flipped to page 99 of Fifty Shades of Gray the other day while waiting in the grocery line. (I didn’t pull my own dog-eared copy from under the mattress, honest.) It was a bit shocking. That page so perfectly aces the Page 99 test that you almost suspect the author knew that browsers would be kicking the tires there, and so built the page to contain the nut of the story, plus a tantalizing hint of what’s to come. Even the writing wasn’t terrible. I almost jettisoned my avocados to buy the book. At the very least, it made me think of other uses for avocados.

Marshal runs his Page 99 Test blog out of a mothership called the Campaign for the American Reader, “an independent initiative to encourage more people to read more books.” Marshal himself is a bit of a man of mystery. He appears to be among those rare folk who are genuinely here to help. He has created this great vehicle for other writers to advertise themselves, but he is himself “internet-shy.” This of course makes you want to know more about him. He trained to be a political scientist (at Tulane and UVA) but stopped just short of getting his Ph.D. to pursue the creative-writing dodge. You can see the depth/breadth of his tastes in his book selection. There are a lot of smart and worthwhile titles here you’ve never heard of – just as you’ve never heard of Marshal.

“I suppose getting out front and pimping my blog would be good PR,” he said in an email, “but I feel like the work I do on the site already sucks up too much of my reading, writing & movie-viewing time, and have resisted (the relatively few) invitations to promote my sites.”

The other site of Marshal’s worth noting – and I won’t note it at length cause I plan to do another whole blog post on it – is called My Book, The Movie.

I think of Marshal as a kind of literary superhero, moving incognito among us. Maybe someone should write a book, or make a movie, about him.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Olgas Among Us – Part 2

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While working on the Olga book, framing up Olga as a model of someone living the Exemplary Life, I sometimes wondered: why am I privileging physical health over mental health? Don’t get me wrong: she was sharp and funny and wise, a puzzler and a careful reader. But she wasn’t an intellectual. Hers was a life of the body much more than it was a life of the mind.

Surely there are some old souls out there whose lifelong devotion to intellectual pursuits rival Olga’s to devotion to staying fit and in motion; people who remain, even as they approach 100 years old, Olympians of the neocortex?

Look no farther than Eric Koch.

A longtime producer and executive at the CBC (Canada’s national broadcaster), Eric also taught social science at York University in Toronto. I learned this from his blog, called “Sketches,” which he began five years ago, at the age of 90.

If you want to read Eric’s archive of posts, prepare to set aside a week. There are close to fifteen hundred of them. (Honestly, I lost count). A daily-newspaper columnist who managed that kind of output would be in a good position to ask for a pay raise. Together, Eric’s posts — or “feuilletons,” as he calls them — display the breadth of his interests, and the acuity of his mind. Some are links to provocative articles found elsewhere, and some are original musings. The canvas is wide: world affairs, history, economics, literature, Hitlerology, soccer, philosophy, politics, music, language, bees. He also has links to short videos he created and posted on YouTube, in which he sits musing in front of a webcam in his home – like John Green, but with less hair and more gravitas. If you read all of his entries and watched all of those films, you’d get a good picture of Eric, and fine snapshot of Canada, and a decent liberal-arts education. This is all the product of a ferocious curiosity indulged with the time and will to roam, for decade upon decade.

The legendary New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell, a fabulous prose stylist still at 93, told a reporter recently that he churns out personal blog entries partly to keep his mind sharp. There’s good evidence that a habit of writing — letters, blogs, diary entries, novels, whatever —is a bulwark against dementia. I’d assumed that writing was actually a better bulwark against dementia than even reading, because writing is for most people a more active process than reading. But there’s no good data to support that. Writing’s good, reading’s good, learning other languages is good, doing puzzles is good.

A new study out of the Mayo Clinic, however, seems to speak directly to the earned cognitive horsepower of people like Eric Koch. As Pacific Standard Magazine summarized the findings: “The best medicine, for brain health, is living a life of the mind.” (I would actually quibble with the word “best,” here, since we now know that nothing, but nothing, promotes overall brain health like vigorous exercise.)

“Lifetime intellectual enrichment might delay the onset of cognitive impairment,” notes the scientist who led the research team. How much? Three to six years, on average. For people born with the APOE4 gene variant, which carries a high risk for dementia, the difference is even bigger. For such unlucky folks, a lifetime habit of ongoing intellectual enrichment delayed cognitive impairment “by more than eight and one-half years, on average.” So there it is. “Lifelong learning,” so often touted as a better alternative than sinking into the barcalounger with a beer for your post-retirement decades, emerges as a prescription for the impending dementia epidemic. You can almost see the wheels turning in the mind of policy-makers. Make university courses free for seniors. Subsidize travel for them. Forgive their library fines.

Here’s the funny part. Eric tells me he doesn’t write his blog to “stay sharp.” (Also: “I leave solving puzzles to my wife.”) “I do it because I want to be loved,” he says. “And to prevent boredom. And to cheer me up.”

The blog entries, he says, are a good “counterbalance” to his real work: writing books. He has authored thirteen books of fiction and five of nonfiction. “The blog posts are quick and easy, which books are not.”

This week, instead of banging out an original piece, Eric linked to an article, from Slate magazine, about the hemlock plant and the poisoning of Socrates. He has bigger fish to fry.

“I am working on a murder mystery and have to find out who did it.”Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Using Your Whole Life

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I’ve been enjoying Harry Bernstein’s memoir, the Invisible Wall, which crackles with details of life, and religious prejudices, in the hardscrabble mill town of his youth in Northern England. In a weird way, almost more impressive to me than the book itself are the circumstances of its existence.

Bernstein finished it when he was 93. He published it when he was 96.

“If I had not lived until I was ninety, I would not have been able to write this book,” the author told a New York Times reporter after the book hit the bestseller lists. It could not have been done even ten years earlier. I wasn’t ready.” And then he added this kicker: “God knows what potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive till well into their Nineties.”

Now that is a radical idea in this culture: that really old people still have untapped potential. That not only are they not sitting around decaying, they’re still ripening. It’s not a radical an idea to me, though. Because my pal Olga Kotelko has convinced me it’s true.

Olga turned 95 in March. Like Bernstein, she had a rich and tricky upbringing, from weathering the Depression on a Saskatchewan farm to raising two daughters as a single mom to teaching elementary school for three decades in British Columbia. But it was only post-“retirement” that Olga’s life really got cooking. At age 77 she took up track and field. Competing in 11 events, she re-wrote the “masters track” record books. This spring she graduated to a new category – women aged 95 to 99  — and promptly bagged nine new world records at the world indoor championships in Budapest, bringing her total up over 40. She’s currently experimenting with a new high-jump technique.

People like Harry Bernstein and Olga Kotelko serve a valuable function in the lives of the rest of us. They show us what using a whole life looks like. Their stories exist as a kind of counterpoint to the dire warnings of demographers of how the population is aging at an accelerated rate, which means (we’re told) that a train wreck awaits in our lifetimes.

Last month the US Census Bureau announced that by 2050 fully one-fifth of Americans will be 65 or older. That’s double the proportion of seniors in 1970, when the baby boomers were still young and massing under cover in the TV rooms of suburban households, their eventual needs — their burden — still beyond imagining. Longevity is up; birth rates are down. Those two conditions are quickening the pace of the greying of America. (And hey: if you think these numbers are scary, just be glad you’re not Japanese. By only 2030 the proportion of their population aged 65 and older will be one third.)

The oldsters are going into the liability column. We have a hard time thinking of them as individuals, obsessing instead about the collective dent they’re going to make. When we can puncture the denial and imagine becoming old ourselves, it’s very often fear that floods in — fear and a kind of advance mourning. We are saying goodbye to our life well before it’s actually over. Because those are what the statistics suggest too. We’ll likely become fragile and unsteady, as sarcopenia robs us of muscle mass and osteoporosis makes us vulnerable to shattering if we slip up even once. It’s a coin toss whether we’ll lose our marbles.

But that’s the story the average numbers tell. As individuals, there are things we can do – lifestyle changes involving diet and exercise and risk exposure even cognitive strategies (the stories we tell about ourselves influence what we think and do) – that tip the odds in our favor.

We may never pull off a Third Act as brilliant as Harry’s, or Olga’s. They likely have some genetic protection that we don’t yet fully understand — not to mention the rare ferocious desire to realize those potentials lurking within. But for sure we can be more Harry-like, more Olga-like, if the will is there in us. We can “square the curve” of our decline, as the gerontologists say, so that our final years are productive in whatever way we choose to make them so. Thus do old people become assets and not liabilities – which was their customary place of course, most everywhere but in the contemporary West.

I’m almost embarrassed now about how gloomy I was about aging before I met Olga — before she and I began researching a science book on why she is the way she is — five years ago. I felt acutely what the Germans call torschlusspanik – a fear of gates closing, horizons narrowing to a pinpoint. Clearly my best thoughts, feelings and 10k times were so far behind me even the memories of them were hazy. Soon my options would be limited to whatever the care facility was offering that day. I was not yet fifty.

You can choose that outcome, Olga said — but just be honest that it’s a choice.

And then she laughed. It’s fun to be Olga, right now.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Chicken Suit for the Soul

Chicken Suit for the Soul

Essays Featured Published Stories Archive

from READER’S DIGEST, June 2014

It promised to be the best job so far that summer—which wasn’t saying much. I’d been scanning the “casual labour” postings at the local employment office, vowing every visit to take something, anything. Already I had unpacked shipments of underpants, been pulled through an active sewer on a rolling sled with a bucket of caulk and a trowel, to seal cracks, and delivered flower arrangements in a car so small half the buds got crushed when you closed the hatchback. At 18, you take what you can get.

That’s why this particular gig looked so beguiling: “mascot.” To celebrate the grand opening of a new Edmonton location in the Red Rooster convenience store chain, the employer needed to catch the eye of passing motorists and was offering two days’ work to a self-starter who could bust a few dance moves on the corner.

I fit the suit. I got the job.

The outfit had clearly been washed fewer times than it had been worn. The oversize head—more chicken than rooster—was sculpted out of wire and foam and sat heavily on shoulderpads, which had been shined and flattened by sweat and compression. The moony eyes didn’t line up right with mine.

It was mid-July. Even the mosquitos were sluggish. A high-pressure system had settled on the city and forecasters were calling for record-breaking temperatures by Sunday. The suit had no ventilation. There was no relief unless you removed the head, which was only allowed during one of two 10-minute breaks, out of public view—lest any children (delicate creatures) be forever traumatized by the sight of decapitated fake fowl.

It didn’t take long for the welcome party to show up. Kids can smell the stress hormones in adult sweat even upwind, and soon half a dozen pre-teens were orbiting as I staked out a spot on the sidewalk and tried to get into character. “Hey, chicken!” one kid taunted. This was a part of town that might charitably be called “emerging.” These were tougher kids than I was used to. “Hey, chicken legs!”

My best defense was to concentrate on the job. I improvised a dance that involved standing on one leg and helicoptering the other leg and the opposite arm—er, wing—more or less in sync. It wasn’t particularly roosterly and it certainly wasn’t manly. Immediately, I could feel a change in the energy of the kids. They were homing in on a new frequency of vulnerability.

The first rock hit me in the back. I figured they were aiming for the head and I actually re-oriented to give them that bigger, softer target.

No cars slowed. A manager briefly emerged from the store, was hit by a blast of heat that lifted his toupee, then quickly darted back into his air-conditioned cave. During break time I closed the door of the store’s stock room, removed my head and hyperventilated.

That night at the supper table my dad said grace. “Lord, bless this food to our use and us to Thy service” — the same grace he had grown up with as a missionary’s son, said quietly to himself in wartime mess halls and still trotted out for his four kids, who were mostly just glad it was so short. Then he asked: “How’d it go?”

To everyone’s surprise—but mostly mine—I started to cry. I described the heat, the stench, the rocks, the sticky pavement under my chicken feet.

“And the worst part is,” I said, “I have to go out there tomorrow and do it all again.”

My father was quiet for a full 10 seconds. Then:

“No you don’t.”

This was unusual. Dad had always believed we kids should keep our commitments. The store had hired me in good faith to be a chicken (rooster) and it wasn’t cool if the chicken (rooster) didn’t show up.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I mean, you’re not putting on that suit tomorrow,” he said. “I am.”

Dad had wiry black eyebrows and, under them, the kindest eyes. He was 60 years old. “Look, we’re about the same size,” he said. “Who’s to know?”

We’re only lent to each other, the short-story writer Raymond Carver once said. We get to have moments, and all we can do is savour the best ones as they happen: here, now… gone. The part of me that relished imagining my father out there doing the Twist or the Bus Stop, maybe even kind of enjoying himself in the anonymity of the costume, was hard to deny. But there was no way I was letting him be the chicken. The fact that he was willing to be the chicken was enough. The gesture blew new strength into me.

The next day went well. Nothing was different, but everything was. At the end of it I deposited a cheque from Hormel Foods for $86, and felt like a king.

Meet the “Warrior Mensch”

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No more than twenty minutes after we first met, I was struck by the Second Mystery of Olga.

The First Mystery of Olga was, Why is she aging more slowly than other people?

The Second Mystery of Olga concerned her temperament. I simply could not reconcile this sweet, grandmotherly woman who was inviting me in and offering me tea with the athlete so ferociously competitive on the track that she gets tunnel vision before meets? How can those two people live in the same body?

Certain personality traits incline us to certain lines of work, and certain levels of success within those lines of work. Turns out, there is a ‘performance personality’ and a ‘longevity personality’ and perhaps also a ‘happiness personality’. And at the junction of all three axes sits Olga.  Think of that zone as the place where Performance and Staying Power and Life Satisfaction meet. It’s a rare place to live, but Olga’s not quite alone there. Mariano Rivera is there beside her.

Rivera is the New York Yankees pitcher, the best closer in baseball history, who retired recently at age 43. Rivera is obviously nowhere near Olga’s age bracket, but 43 is paleolithically old for an active professional baseball pitcher, especially one who relied on heat instead of canny knuckleball movement. Rivera not only played into his mid-forties, he dominated. Not long ago, New York Times books columnist Michiko Kakutani was inspired to weigh in on Rivera. She memorably summed up his personality in three words:

“Gentleman, Warrior, Mensch.”

Rivera was every bit as universally loved, off the mound, as he was feared by batters while on it. He was thoughtful and gracious and well-spoken and did heroic work in the community. Some other force seemed to be giving him energy, extending his warranty, stretching his years of high performance and giving him the ability to turn his ferociousness off and on like a light switch.

For Rivera – and for Olga too — that force, I believe, is faith.

Many elite purchase tramadol with mastercard older athletes profess deep faith—the subject came up again and again in my discussions with masters tracksters. Now, this is partly a generational story: most older North Americans were raised in a faith, which means if you’re without belief at Olga’s age you probably had to actively give it up at some point. But there are other ways in which the overlap between belief and high-level sports might not be coincidental.

Athletes get better by pushing themselves to their “ultimate limits.” They emerge stronger than they would have been without that test, just as the repentant sinner is often said to be “closer to God” than the righteous soul who always stared straight ahead, and so never glimpsed the temptation that was shadowing him in his blind spot. Adaptation is a physiological fact, but it’s also a spiritual notion.

Whatever your position on faith, there’s no denying it gets results. The faithful are on to something, in that they live longer and apparently happier lives, moment to moment. There’s evidence that they use their time better and are better long-term planners.

Athletes running with the tailwind of faith have an almost unfair advantage, it seems to me: spiritual doping. “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure, said Chariots of Fire’s Eric Liddell, in one of Olga’s favorite lines from the movies. When you believe you’re running for a higher purpose like that, there’s almost a duty to marshall all the competitiveness that is in you.

This explains the ferociousness of the Warrior Mensch — the Warrior part. The “Mensch” part comes from the obligation to help other people similarly tap everything that is in them, not just on the track but in their lives. You don’t have to be religious to have a high degree of menschness – but you do have to have lots of humility, and a healthy appreciation that it’s not all about you.


Aging is an art. Meet three modern masters

Aging is an art. Meet three modern masters

Aging Essays Featured


From READER’S DIGEST, January 2015

Dr. Ephraim Engleman is often asked for his advice. The American rheumatologist, who sees patients when he’s not at the prestigious research centre he heads up at the University of California San Francisco, will turn 104 in the spring. A common query: “What’s the best way to stay as cheerfully, productively, healthily above ground as you?” “Choose your parents wisely,” he quips back.

Like many jokes, it contains a grain of truth. Genes matter. But they’re not the whole story, or even most of it. Scientists say longevity is around 30 per cent DNA and 70 per cent other factors, including lifestyle choices and psychological strategies.

We now have reams of data from longitudinal studies and twin studies and analyses of the super-seniors who inhabit the world’s so-called “blue zones” — pockets were healthy centenarians thrive. To boil down all the wisdom found therein to one word seems folly, but here goes:


Humans need to be challenged. Continually. When we are, everything in us becomes a little more durable. You could say super-aging is about finding ways to grow, even into our advanced years, to offset the forces of nature trying to diminish us.

The principle applies in all dimensions of our lives, even the ones not easily measured by a heart test or a brain scan. Wisdom, character, spirit: whatever these qualities actually are, pretty clearly they anneal in the fire of “just-manageable difficulty,” no less than a marathoner’s cardiovascular system or a chess grandmaster’s frontal cortex. People who find ways to live on what poet Sam Keen called the “green, growing edge,” in all they do, are youthful — no matter what their birth certificate says.


Betty Jean “BJ” McHugh’s adaptation involved flipping the usual parent/child motivational paradigm on its head. We try to inspire our kids. But McHugh’s daughter inspired her. Jennifer was a swimming prodigy, a butterfly specialist who competed for Canada in the 1972 Munich Olympics at the age 15. When Jennifer announced she was done with competitive swimming three years later, her mom — who had quietly jogged on the seawall while her daughter churned laps in the pool — realized it was now her time to see how far she could go.

BJ is 87 years old. She is the fastest marathon runner on the planet in her age group by an astonishing margin: during the 2012 Honolulu marathon, she crossed the line in five hours, 12 minutes, smashing the old record by nearly half an hour. (Whereupon she did not light up a smoke to celebrate – as she had after her first marathon almost thirty years earlier. Instead she feasted with her son and granddaughter, who were also in the event.) Since her first road race at age 51, the sprite-like mother-of-four from West Vancouver has set more than 30 world records.

Aging runners are no rare sight in big-city marathons. But there comes an age point—around 80—where the numbers drop right off. Not coincidentally, it’s around the same point that human athletic performance craters. For reasons scientists can’t quite pinpoint, the body starts wearing down in double-time. Muscle mass falls sharply. Lungs lose their elasticity. Mitochondria—the tiny power plants in our cells—degrade. Bones thin. Balance falters. Old age clamps around us like a suit of armour. Anyone who has found a way to stay youthful in the face of this formidable headwind—the BJ McHughs of the world—seem mystical.

So what’s the secret?

For starters, the very exercise that becomes such a struggle when we age. The marathons McHugh runs now are far harder than the first one she ran 30 years ago, even though she’s slowed the pace significantly. Round about mile fifteen, “there’s a little war going on in my mind,” laughs BJ. It takes a mighty will not to stop and walk.

The good news: for most of us, walking is more than fine. National health associations in both Canada and the United States recommend 150 minutes brisk walking — or its equivalent — a week. While some studies maintain that working up a sweat delivers outsized benefits, the secret is finding an exercise you will actually continue to do, one that is pitched at a level that’s challenging but not overwhelming. Most sports-medicine experts recommend adding resistance training as we grow older — to strengthen bones, improve balance, and combat frailty.  After her morning run, McHugh will sometimes peel away from the tight company of her training group and pop into a yoga class. There is a level of productive restlessness about her — the same restlessness that got her into running in the first place, rather than wait in her car for her daughter to finish swimming. And that shark-like need for constant motion may be as important a key to longevity as the exercise training itself. 

McHugh doesn’t park her body for long stretches. She doesn’t sit for long without changing position. The television never comes on before the six o’clock news. She prefers walking to driving, even to her bridge games, which are five kilometres away.

Increasing evidence suggests we need to just move around as much as we need to exercise. Joan Vernikos, the former director of life sciences at NASA and godmother of “sedentary studies” suggests the single best exercise we can do, bang for buck, is standing up frequently. Again, it’s about challenging the body—in this case, with gravity. And standing up repeatedly maintains circulation by keeping blood-pressure sensors in tune. With moving comes energy, and with energy comes, well, if not eternal youthfulness, at least the mojo to be a powerful role model.

“One day out running I saw a truck pull over,” McHugh recalls. “This guy got out and said, ‘You’re BJ McHugh aren’t you?’” She recognized him. A couple of years previous, he had stopped her as she was finishing a long run. “How old are you?” he’d asked. He’d looked rough. But this time he was beaming. He said: “I’ve changed my whole life around and I’ve qualified for Boston.”

Ephraim Engleman isn’t taking on any new patients, and has begun to feel obliged to suggest to his regulars that “perhaps the time has come that you ought to think of getting another doctor.” No thanks, they say: they’ll stick with him. Experience and wisdom are things you can’t just Google.

Engleman, who is likely safe in his guess that he’s the oldest practicing physician in America, enjoys dispensing slow, dry witticisms, eyes twinkling under storks’-nest brows. He recently renewed his driver’s license (“so I’m good now until 105”), but in a nod to his family’s wishes, he sometimes lets a driver take him the 30 kilometres to work at the Arthritis Research Medical Center at UCSF, of which he is founding director. Once there, “Eph” answers correspondence, consults with colleagues, and just generally bucks the odds surrounding aging and cognition.

The chances of an individual getting dementia double every year beyond age 65. Of those lucky enough to reach 100, only 15 to 25 per cent arrive with all their marbles. The brain of the average 90-year-old is about the same size as the brain of the average three-year-old: typically the shrinkage zolpidem order diazepam comes in the frontal cortex and the hippocampus, headquarters of planning and memory filing, respectively.

Very old folks like Engleman whose wetware is still high-functioning owe much to what brain scientists call “cognitive reserve”—renovations that keep the brain humming even as senescence sets in.

Cognitive reserve is the key to aging very well from the neck up.

There are a few ways to build it.

You eat a heart-healthy diet, because fatty plaques affect both the heart and the brain. Which Engleman does.

You exercise, preferably vigorously. Which Engleman doesn’t. (“I don’t even do the walking I used to do,” he says, because of increasing back trouble that’s led to his hunched-over gait.)

You keep the brain continually challenged with reading, writing, blogging, puzzling, bridge-playing, travelling, language-learning, storytelling. The more interventions you pile on the better: the benefits seem to compound. “The principle of synergy — you know, one plus one equals three — has been shown time and time again” to forestall dementia, says Richard Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Having more brain activities is good for the backup system,” Isaacson says. When the brain encounters novelty it’s forced to adapt. Neurogenesis, the hatching of new grey-matter cells, has no known age limit. So not only can you teach an old dog new tricks, it’s essential if you want that dog to stay sharp. (Engleman, among other non-work-related diversions, emcees at a local social club, at writes his own material.)

You go to school: education levels correlate with brain density. Then you keep going to school, even when you’re out of school. “Lifetime intellectual enrichment” seems to delay the onset of cognitive impairment, notes Prashanthi Vemuri, the lead researcher of a new study out of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn, published in the journal JAMA Neurology. By how much? Three to six years, on average.

So far, so good for Ephraim Engleman. But he may have a secret weapon on his side as well: music.

Engleman is a former violin prodigy. He put himself through school in the 1930s partly by playing in vaudeville orchestras. He still jams with a chamber quartet once a week in his San Mateo, CA, home, where he lives with his 99-yearold wife, Jean. “Playing music,” he says “is a real stimulus—and very, very good for the soul.”

The science bears out his statement—the first part, at least. Playing music seems to challenge brain in ways that offer significant protection from cognitive impairment and dementia, studies suggest. Richard Isaacson, of Cornell, rattles off five studies that have helped build the case: In one of them, six weeks of “music therapy” increased the level of neurotransmitters in the bloodstream of Alzheimer’s patients. “Right there is the biological basis for music, in some ways,” he says. In general, “the deeper your relationship with music, the better the effect.” Indeed, Isaacson was so persuaded by the data that he picked up his guitar again—and now plays bass in a band of neuron scientists. They’re called The Regenerates.


In the French village of Trosly-Breuil, just north of Paris, 86-year-old Jean Vanier lives a simple life. Each day, he walks from his house to the group home he established 50 years ago, where he eats, laughs and prays with his adopted family. This is the first L’Arche community. Founded on Vanier’s vision, the organization is built around the idea that if adults with mental disabilities were settled in private homes alongside non-disabled people, the result would be a boon to both sides.

The son of former Canadian governor general Georges Vanier, he had once seemed destined for a different kind of life. Having written his PhD dissertation on Aristotle, he briefly taught philosophy at the University of Toronto. But there was a spiritual curiosity in Vanier that academia couldn’t satisfy, and he followed his mentor, a Dominican priest named Father Thomas Philippe, to France, taking on a life of voluntary poverty and daily challenge. It irks Vanier when people call him, as many are inclined to, a living saint. The sacrifice he made is no sacrifice at all, he insists, since the disabled offer us a great gift: they teach us how to become human. More generally, having to accommodate the wishes and quirks and demands of others tests our patience and, in the bargain, strengthens it. Would he be the person he is now had he remained on that earlier trajectory? “God knows,” Vanier says. “All I know is I’m here now. I have grown. I still have things to grow into—to have fewer barriers, to be more open to people. The story’s not finished. I’m 86, but the story goes on.”

Unlike physical and cognitive aging, there is no identifiable point where people start to break down spiritually—and no reliable prescription if it happens. Studies have found that those who attend religious ceremonies live longer, although who can say for sure if the active ingredient is the spiritual part and not, say, the routine, or the power of social networks, or the fibre in the little wafers (okay, we can probably rule that one out).

We tend to think of spirituality in terms of meditation or perhaps prayer, a private inward journey. To Vanier, that is only half the story. A second current nudges us in the opposite direction, out of ourselves and into meaningful contact with others. In effect, at a phase of life when many people start closing themselves off, Vanier counsels opening up. Instead of spending our later years cementing our own comfort within tiny tribes, we should be reaching out. In what one could call an adaptation response of the soul, empathy begets empathy.

In his famous Grant Study, which began in 1938 and followed a group of male undergraduates from Harvard for the rest of their lives, psychiatrist George Vaillant found that the ones who thrived into old age were the ones who, among other things, figured out how to love and be loved. If there is a reliable prescription for aging well cordially—from the heart—it’s this: the company of people you care about, and who care about you.


It’s not quite fair to prop up B.J. McHugh, Ephraim Engleman and Jean Vanier in their respective shop windows as models of brilliant aging of the body, brain, and soul. The ways in which people age brilliantly aren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, these three —as with spectacularly robust old men and women of all stripes — have a fair bit in common.

All have a strong sense of purpose that pops them out of bed every morning. And while all are extraordinarily conscientious, the drive is directed outward—all three were drawn to helping professions (McHugh is a retired nurse). When Howard Friedman, a psychologist at University of California, Riverside, was crunching the data for the famous Longevity Project—a study that was published in book form in 2011 and followed more than 1,000 American children to their dotage or their grave—he discovered a pattern. The hardest workers had the longest lives.

And so we return to the old formula: strive, adapt, live on. The kites that remain in the sky the longest are pinned there by resistance.




Olgas Among Us — Part 1

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I was having lunch with my friend Michele one day recently when the other shoe dropped. There are stealth Olgas among us, and I was looking at one.

Michele is from the Italian island of Sardinia. If you’re into longevity research, you’ll recognize Sardinia as one of the “Blue Zones” – those incubators of centenarians scattered here and there across the globe.

Actuarially speaking, the perfect profession might be a Sardinian shepherd. It ticks all of the longevity boxes. It’s rugged and serene and exhausting and joyful. You sweat buckets in the fresh air and sunshine, trudging up and down those mountainsides, but there’s about zero stress, and you come home to a healthful meal rich in life-extending nutrients (the tannens in the wine, the anti-inflammatories in the goat’s milk) and the loving embrace of your family. Many if not most Sardinian men enjoy the added benefit of a mutation on the Y-chromosome that offers protection from much chronic disease.

That’s the hothouse Michele grew up in. He is closer to ninety than eighty. He looks sixty. He has a lot in common with Olga. I don’t think I realized just how much until Michele started talking about the life of his body.

As a boy he rode his bicycle 60 or 70 kilometres a day — mostly because there wasn’t much else to do. The exercise became a form of meditation; over the gentle hills to the sea, he let his mind wander. Later, after moving to Canada, in the late-1950s, he found it frustrating to cycle in the city — too many starts and stops.

So he took up running. He ran long distances. Nobody ran long distances at that time. So Michele was ridiculed, which he didn’t mind and actually rather liked. He never timed himself or set goals: he just floated along, that dreamy Sardinian boy again. Then came the jogging craze. When he noticed other people out there in their sweats and their headbands, that’s when he stopped. He lost the heart for doing something that other people seemed to do because they thought it was good for them. “If there is a motive behind something,” he laughs, “I’m immediately suspicious.”

(It’s not that all rules and laws must be prima facie rejected – only the ones that don’t make sense. There’s actually quite a ferocious level of discipline involved in figuring out the difference. At every turn he asks himself, is his position “beneficial”? And he doesn’t mean physically beneficial, he means spiritually beneficial.)

With his aerobic base, and his habits, and his genes, Michele could easily be another Olga, racking up world records, submitting to muscle biopsies, peeing in a cup, and just generally serving as another data point in our quest to understand what it means to age well. But to be in that game you have to join it. And Michele is not a joiner. Which is actually one of the things I like best about him.

“I suppose I am an anarchist in my heart,” he allowed. “But at the same time I’m part of a community.” Michele had arrived late to lunch because he’s on the board at the local Italian cultural centre, and he had some last-minute business he needed to sew up there. “We do the things that are inborn in us to do to benefit someone — our community – not just ourselves.”

Michele had done yeomen translation work for What Makes Olga Run?, and at a certain point, in a café, over bean soup, I passed him an envelope with some small compensation in it. His expression changed. A heaviness came over him. “It has been my great pleasure to help you with this,” he said. “But now you have taken the poetry out of it.”


A Positive Choice

A Positive Choice

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Olga’s often asked how big a part attitude plays in the story of her crazily youthful vigor. Her answer is always the same: it’s huge. HUGE. Staying relentlessly focused on the positive keeps any doubts or criticisms from pulling her down.

On one hand, her faith in positive thinking is unsurprising. Plenty of research – including Yale psychologist Becca Levy’s work on aging stereotypes —suggests that optimism correlates strongly with health and longevity.

But I have sometimes heard grumbling from skeptics that the Don’t Worry Be Happy rule for living is too pat, too simplistic, and too specifically tailored to the lucky and the blessed.

“I’d be optimistic too if I were in Olga’s shoes!” goes the refrain. It’s easy to look on the bright side when you have no real aches and pains or health issues, you’re not radioactively lonely, not depressed, not burdened by money woes. The luxury of optimism, by this way of thinking, falls to those who have led charmed lives.

But here’s the thing: Olga’s life has been anything but charmed. She grew up on the hardscrabble Saskatchewan prairie and her early years were full of struggle (she fled a terrifying marriage and raised two daughters as a single mom; one of those daughters she lost to cancer.) She earned a teaching degree at night buy 100 mg tramadol school while working days. She spent a lot of time trudging into a headwind. Clearly, optimism isn’t some default position she arrived at because she realized, like Dr. Pangloss, that “everything is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.” Optimism, for Olga, is a choice.

She chooses it for a lot of reasons. Because it’s how her parents raised her. Because gratitude sits better with her strong faith than grumbling does. Because it’s more fun. And, maybe mostly, because it works. Optimism helps us take a wide perspective and feel connected to others (as the University of North Carolina psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has noted.) There’s plenty of evidence now that where our minds go, our bodies tend to follow. And since Olga intends to keep competing at a high level until age 100 or beyond, she figures she might as well run the software that will help, not hinder, her movement along that trajectory.

This week she’s in Budapest competing in the world outdoor championships in a new category: women 95-99. She has already bagged a new world record in the high jump and it would surprise no one if she walked away with eleven new entries in the record books. “Why not?” she says.


Keeping Up With Your Joneses

Keeping Up With Your Joneses

Essays Featured Nonagenerians Psychology Science Sport What Makes Olga Run?


TO A CERTAIN kind of sports fan – the sort with a Ph.D in physiology – Olga Kotelko is just about the most interesting athlete in the world. A track and field amateur from Vancouver, Canada, Kotelko has no peer when it comes to the javelin, the long jump, and the 100-meter dash (to name just a few of the 11 events she has competed in avidly for 18 years). And that’s only partly because peers in her age bracket tend overwhelmingly to avoid throwing and jumping events. Kotelko, you see, is 94 years old.

Scientists want to know what’s different about Olga Kotelko. Many people assume she simply won the genetic lottery – end of story. But in some ways that appears not to be true. Some athletes carry genetic variants that make them highly “trainable,” acutely responsive to aerobic exercise. Kotelko doesn’t have many of them. Some people have genes that let them lose weight easily on a workout regime. Kotelko doesn’t.

Olga’s DNA instead may help her out in a subtler way. There’s increasing evidence that the will to work out is partly genetically determined. It’s an advantage that could help NYGoodHealth explain the apparently Mars/Venus difference between people for whom exercise is pleasure – the Olga Kotelkos of the world – and the coach potatoes among us for whom it’s torture.

In a spacious cage in a cramped lab in the psychology department at the University of California, Riverside, there lives an albino lab mouse who has no name, so I will call him Dean. Dean is small and twitchy, with slender musculature. He may be the world’s fittest mouse.

Dean is the product of a long-running study of voluntary exercise. Twenty years ago, the evolutionary biologist Ted Garland, then at the University of Wisconsin, gave a small group of mice access to a running wheel. The mice who liked using it the most were bred with each other, so that the trait of running fast and far was amplified in each successive generation until, almost 70 generations later, Dean emerged. When Dean wakes up in the evening (mice are nocturnal) he typically goes straight to his wheel – before eating, even – and just runs full out, making the wheel squeal. He has run as much as 31 kilometers in a night.

Garland and his colleagues believe that, genetically and physiologically, Dean is different from other rodents. “Marathon mice” like Dean seem to find exercise uncommonly satisfying – likely because of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is central to the brain’s reward circuitry. Exercise stimulates dopamine production, which in turn causes a cascade of other molecular effects – a process known as “dopamine signaling.” Dean’s dopamine signaling is unusual: when he runs, some as-yet-unidentified molecule, downstream from the dopamine receptor, gets altered so that it now provides reinforcement that normal mice don’t get.

Those differences, the scientists believe, may help explain why some of us merely tolerate exercise and why others, like Olga and Dean, love and perhaps even need a whole lot of it. If your genes predispose you to loving your workouts, as Olga’s appear to do, and if your environment offers the opportunity to work out constantly, as Dean’s wheel does for him, a certain chain reaction can start. Physical effort feels fantastic, which prompts even more effort, which delivers even bigger dose effects in mood and energy.

How does any of this matter for the rest of us schlubs, who may not be similarly endowed? File this question under “Where there’s a cause, there’s a cure.” If scientists crack the genetic code for intrinsic motivation to exercise, then its biochemical signature can, in theory, be synthesized. Why not a pill that would make us want to work out?

“One always hates to recommend yet another medication for a substantial fraction of the population, says Garland, “but Jesus, look at how many people are already on antidepressants. Who’s to say it wouldn’t be a good thing?” An up-and-at-‘em drug might increase our desire for exercise or, conversely, create uncomfortable restlessness if we sit too long.

It’s pretty clear that Dean the mouse experiences something way beyond uncomfortable restlessness if he sits too long. He is a full-on exercise junkie. When researcher Justin Rhodes, an experimental psychologist at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who joined the study at generation 20, took away his wheel, depriving him of his fix, Dean was miserable. Rhodes scanned Dean’s brain and found high activation in the area associated with cravings for drugs such as cocaine. Both “drugs” – indeed, all drugs – goose similar reward circuitry. “But I think there’s got to be some differences,” says Rhodes. “Because it’s not as if an animal that’s addicted to running is necessarily going to be addicted to cocaine or gambling.”

And therein lies another weird direction for the research to go. What if addicts could take a pill that exploits those minute differences, redirecting their jones from a harmful one to a positive one – a kind of running-as-methadone plan?
Such a pill is conceivable in principle, says University of Michigan psychologist Kent Berridge, who studies how desire and pleasure operate in humans, but developing it presents an enormous challenge. Without knowing exactly how the brain assigns urges to specific objects of desire, how do we ignite a yen to exercise without also stimulating the yen to do things that will land your customers in rehab? Or blunt the urge for drugs while leaving healthy urges untouched? Scientists within the big pharmaceutical companies are no doubt working on it, nonetheless. “I’m waiting for them to contact me and offer me funding,” Garland says dryly.

It’s the kind of drug that Olga – normally one to Just Say No – might even endorse.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

What a 94-Year-Old Track Star Can Teach Us About Aging