Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Fistful of Dollars: The Story of a Loan

As I have mentioned in the past, I do some volunteer editing work with, an Internet-based microfinance entity that raises loans for entrepreneurs in the developing world.

A video explaining how Kiva works was recently produced by Kieran Ball, a Kiva Fellow, and can be found by clicking here. I hope you will get the opportunity to view it.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Alex and Me

Anyone who has ever owned and had a close relationship with a pet other than perhaps a turtle or a hamster will likely attest to the belief, much resisted by the majority of the scientific community, that animals do in fact have some capacity for thought. That has certainly been true of our last two pets, now deceased, a Newfoundland dog and a tabby cat. I remember when I would take Fred, our Newf, on long walks which would frequently see me running into people I knew and stopping for a chat. Fred, always the gentleman, would sit nicely beside me for about five minutes, but after the elapsed time, would invariably take his paw and nudge me on the thigh, saying, in effect, “Time to get a move on.” Similarly, our cat would stay out of our bedroom until he heard me getting up, at which point he would enter the room and meow at me to feed him. Despite the fact that I would react with pavlovian haste to his request, it was somehow never fast enough for him, and he would inevitably chastise me with a series of very acerbic meows as I made my way to the cupboard to get his food, as if swearing at me for not being fast enough.

No doubt, many will dismiss these two anecdotes as manifestations of nothing more than operant conditioning, but on an intuitive level I know they were much more. Which brings me to the subject of this post, a fascinating book by Irene Pepperberg called Alex and Me, the story of her 30-year relationship with an African Grey parrot named Alex. Although possessing a doctorate in chemistry, Pepperberg turned her lifelong fascination with birds into a career discovering the capacity for thought and true communication between parrot and human.

Hers is the story both of the struggle to get sufficient funding to pursue her studies and the very close, loving relationship that developed over three decades with Alex, her subject and, in a very real sense, collaborator. The book is not meant to be a scientific explication of her methodology, although she provides sufficient information about her training techniques and her results to leave the reader with the belief that what she uncovered was not some unusual capacity for mimicry on the part of an unusually bright parrot, but rather significant indications that Alex was not only able to speak with meaning and purpose but also grasp abstract concepts such as numbers, differences and similarities between things, and language as a tool for influencing and manipulating others, all qualities that have been traditionally viewed as the exclusive domain of homo sapiens.

Rather than my recounting some of Alex’s specific achievements here, I am providing a link to a segment done with Alan Alda on Scientific American Frontiers: PBS - Scientific American Frontiers:Pet Tech:Watch Online

The reader can’t help but be amused and touched by the experiences that both parrot and human shared over the many years, and perhaps a little humbled in seeing that human beings are perhaps not quite as distinct a species as we have always believed.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

I Support Our Troops

While I rarely make overtly political comments in this blog, I have to say that as a Canadian, one of the phrases that irks me to no end is, “I support our troops,” whether uttered by the individual or found on the bumper sticker of the still-ubiquitous SUV. The irony of that statement, as it pertains to democracy, is profound.

What does it mean to express support for the troops? In practice, it invariably means, and demands, an unquestioning acceptance of their presence, their mission, and, sadly, their deaths in Afghanistan. To support the troops by advocating an end to their Afghani operation has been seen as tantamount to some kind of betrayal of them. Certainly this is much evident in the way the Harper Government has used the phrase to stifle discussion about the mission, a warning to those who oppose it to keep their mouths shut at the risk of being labeled unpatriotic.

A couple of years ago, before the Liberal Opposition cravenly acquiesced in yet another extension of the Canadian operation to 2011, (on the specious grounds that they didn’t want to divide the nation), the ever-political, ever-manipulative and ever-morally- blunted Prime Minister Harper labeled those politicians who dared question the validity of our troops being in Afghanistan as ‘Taliban sympathizers,’ working a Macarthesque rhetoric into his usual practice of division and demoralization. Sadly, very little spirited defense was mounted for freedom of thought, opinion, and expression, foundational freedoms that are the putative reasons for trying to “bring democracy’ to the Afghanis. Somehow, the Harper concept of democracy applies only to those views in accord with his own.

And yet perhaps Harper is only a sad symptom of our own weaknesses as human beings. While we rarely consciously acknowledge the hypocrisy, our notions of informed and spirited discourse frequently seem to fall far short of anything approaching a meaningful exchange of ideas. One can’t help but feel that perhaps civilized and respectful discussion is only an ideal, never to be truly realized.

But then, of course, there is the possibility of a renewal of public discussion in the United States with the election of Barack Obama. One of the most encouraging signs emerging south of the border is the fact that unlike Prime Minister Harper, who has surrounded himself with sycophants and policy clones, Mr. Obama seems intent on having a diversity of views in his Cabinet, suggesting he wants the best policy options emerging from the cauldron of heated discussions that inevitably ensue when you place people of diverse perspectives together. Kind of like the classroom I remember so well when things were really working and the kids were really thinking.

Will this mark a turning point in what has become a sad parody of political process as evidenced under the disaster of the Bush presidency? If so, will it have any impact on the poisoned Canadian political process? Perhaps we will begin to get the answer to those questions in 2009.

Happy New Year.