Tag Archives: Sheldon Fernandez

The chilling significance of AlphaGo

What artificial supremacy in the game of Go portends  for the future

In March, a computer named AlphaGo played the human world champion in a five-game match of Go, the ancient board game often described as the ‘Far East cousin’ of chess. That AlphaGo triumphed provoked curiosity and bemusement in the public — but is seen as hugely significant in the artificial intelligence and computer science communities. Computer engineer Sheldon Fernandez explains why.

SHELDON FERNANDEZ
April, 2016

Figure-1

The ancient game of Go

Lee Sodol grinned goofily, a glowing mix of euphoria and exhaustion.

“It’s just one win, but I’ve never been congratulated so much for winning a single game in my life.”

Members of the South Korean and International press corps whistled and applauded wildly. Out of admiration, pity, or Homo sapiens solidarity, no one was quite sure, but there was general agreement on one point: Lee had, at the very least, salvaged a modicum of pride against his silicon opponent, a computer called AlphaGo.

Prior to the contest, the 33 year-old Lee estimated he’d prevail 4-1 in the five game match against the machine, a prognostication that appeared foolish after AlphaGo won the first three encounters.  Lee won the fourth game. The human world champion had temporarily stopped the bleeding (to employ an eminently human analogy), but the computer’s triumph the following day gave way to an ironic 1-4 scoreline that few would’ve predicted weeks before.

The most obvious parallel to the Go showdown in South Korea is the famous chess match in 1997 between Gary Kasparov, the human world champion at the time, and an IBM supercomputer named Deep Blue.  For some 40 years the game of chess – strategic, subtle and enigmatic – had been the focus of Artificial Intelligence (AI) research, the branch of computer science that attempts to imbue machines with sentient, human-like qualities. Creating a world class chess-playing machine, it was argued, would demonstrate conclusively that computers could think, could intuit, and might one day feel and emote like their creators.

Despite the magnitude of the 1997 achievement, Deep Blue’s narrow victory over Kasparov was ironic, in two ways.   First, it was a tad premature, as most observers agree that, at least at the time, Kasparov was objectively the stronger player and had simply ‘psyched’ himself out. (Today, a ten dollar smartphone app would trounce any Grandmaster on the planet.)

Second, and more important, Deep Blue’s technical design was highly specialized and non-transferable outside of the game of chess.  Though it might be the world’s supreme chess player, Deep Blue had no notion of its achievement in the grand scheme of things or, to use the jargon of AI, meta-knowledge; an awareness of the world and, indeed, of itself.  As Kasparov remarked at the time, the machine “succeeded in turning quantity into quality” not through intelligence, but brute force, analyzing millions of moves per second by means of its sophisticated hardware.

The success of AlphaGo is different, and radically so. Not the rapidity of the achievement, which was remarkable on its own terms, a sudden and unexpected spike in the strength of Go-playing machines unlike the linear progression of their chess counterparts.  Nor the difficulty of Go itself, a game so fantastically complex that scientists hadn’t anticipated a breakthrough for decades. Rather, it is was the way AlphaGo’s creators approached and attacked the problem using a bevy of modern techniques, ones that may represent the first forerunners of genuine thinking machines.

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The game of Go, originally known as weiqi, can be traced in ancient China through written records as early as 400 BC. Conducted on a grid, two players take turns placing stones on the board, black first, followed by white. Though pieces cannot move from their original squares, they can be removed if captured, which is accomplished by cutting off their liberties (encircling a stone on all four sides).  The purpose of Go is to surround a larger area of the board than one’s opponent at the game’s conclusion.

What makes Go so challenging from an AI standpoint is the raw number of moves a player can choose from throughout the game, what is known in Computer Science as the branching factor.  The mathematics are daunting: to begin, black has a choice of 361 possible moves, one at every intersecting point on the 19×19 grid.  White thus has 360 replies, followed by 359 counters from black, and so on.   After only four turns, a total of 16,749,374,760 board positions are possible. After 24 turns, the count exceeds the number of atoms in the sun.  After 32, it surpasses the number of atoms in the universe.

While the numbers also spiral out of control in chess, they do so at rate that is slower than Go by a factor of ten, making the game amenable to Deep Blue’s brute force approach in which powerful hardware is coupled with smart searching (‘pruning’ so as to focus on promising moves) such that quantity becomes quality.

As a game of Go lasts beyond 200 moves, however, the permutations, even for a supercomputer are monstrous and incalculable, rendering the game into a complete enigma, as insoluble as the ancient challenge to “measure a pound of fire”1.

Yet measure a pound of fire the makers of AlphaGo did, and their techniques are instructive – and chilling.

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In a sense, the AI epitomized by AlphaGo is the antithesis of its chess counterpart.  In the early years, researchers believed that computers needed to emulate human thought patterns and nebulous concepts like intuition.

Jose Capablanca, the world chess champion in the 1920s, was once asked how many moves ahead he could calculate.  His magnificent rejoinder, “only one, but it’s always the right one”, captures perfectly the intangibilities of human genius that scientists have labored to replicate artificially.

Though unsuccessful in the realm of chess – Deep Blue and its successors examine billions of moves to determine the ‘right’ one – the field of AI has come full circle such that the ambitions of its pioneers now represent its most dominant strands of thought.  That is, the early aspirations of AI spurned in favor of Deep Blue’s specialization have been rekindled with AlphaGo.  The key concepts, ones you’ll hear a lot about in the coming years and which were exploited by the program, are Deep Learning and neural networks.

The story of these related concepts begins with a three pound packet of tissue rightfully regarded as one of the most complex and awesome devices in the cosmos.  A warm, wet biological construct refined through millions of years of evolution, the human brain contains approximately 100 billion neuron cells and nearly 100 trillion neural connectors that thread the cells together.

Although the precise workings of the brain remain a mystery, the biological contours are clear: neurons, or nerve cells, connect to hundreds of other neurons via long fibers called axons; the connecting junctions referred to as a synapses.   A complex electrochemical reaction allows signals to propagate between neurons and – in a manner not remotely understood by scientists – this frenetic firing coalesces into a neurological dance that provides the basis for conscious life as we know it.

For example, as you read this sentence and unpack its contents, at least a few million neurons in your brain will partake in the prodigious sequence of electronic impulses that enables your contemplation. The important point is that the nature of these impulses – their sequence, timing and pattern – is not random, but is rather connected to the underlying thought.  More specifically, similar mental narratives activate similar neural patterns.  Visualizing a pen and a pencil, for example, would animate the same family of neurons, whereas doing the same for a chair and a zebra would not.  An amusing byproduct of this connection is shown in Figure 2.

Figure-2

Figure 2: Facial recognition exercise

Figure 2 illustrates three human heads in which a gender-ambiguous face is sandwiched between two conventional ones2.  The theory of visual science tells us that if you cover the rightmost figure (the female face) and fixate on the leftmost figure (the male face) for 10 to 15 seconds, the ambiguous face will be interpreted by most observers as female.  When the process is reversed – when the male figure is covered and the female figure is extendedly gazed upon – the middle figure appears generally male.

What might be described as a ‘trick of the mind’, is in fact a striking example of the way your brain works. In classifying a face by gender, your neurons activate in a manner that is representative of the initial image.   By abruptly shifting focus to an ambiguous face after a prolonged stare at a well-defined one, a strange phenomenon occurs:  because of the stare, your neural wiring becomes momentarily ‘biased’ towards that gender pattern, which causes your brain to interpret the ambiguous face in the opposite direction.

A final point regarding the biology of the brain is what neuroscientists call plasticity; the idea that the connection-strength between two neurons – the speed and fidelity by which signals propagate – can change in a long-term manner in response to outside events: reading a book, reciting the alphabet, or humming a symphony.  Plasticity is why you can parse this sentence smoothly, whereas a five-year-old cannot, and as we’ll see it is an important principle in the realms of both human learning and Artificial Intelligence.

To return to the virtual world, a neural network is simply a computational model that emulates the structure of the brain.  As shown in Figure 3, the model is composed of numerous nodes connected by links (the digital equivalent of neurons and axons, respectively).  As with the brain, the signal strength of a link – what is known as the weight – can be refined and adjusted to enhance the system.

Figure-3

Figure 3: A basic neural network

The inputs to the network (the blue nodes on the left) constitute anything that can be described numerically: stock prices, an audio signal, an image, etc.  The outputs (the green nodes on the right) are the result of numerous calculations performed by the operational (red) layers in the network.  Some practical outputs might include predicting future stock values, amplifying an audio signal, or identifying a human face in an image.

The magic of neural networks lies in the way they are able to mimic the human brain and perform complex operations by stringing together millions, sometimes billions, of nodes and links.

Consider, for example, the ability to examine an image and describe its contents in English words; the electronic equivalent of showing a five-year-old a picture of a lion resting in the desert, and asking them to describe what they see.  For decades, researchers in image recognition technology struggled mightily with this problem, because while identifying a visual pattern might be straightforward for a human, it is profoundly complex for a machine. How, for example, does one describe what a lion looks like to a computer in mathematical terms given the thousands of ways one can be portrayed in a picture?

With a neural network, however, the problem becomes tractable, if still difficult.  By providing the network with a million lion-in-a-desert pictures, the weights between the links can be incrementally adjusted until the system gets quite good at identifying lions. In practice, deep learning networks that are capable of performing ‘human’ tasks such as this are: 1.) many layers deep with billions of inputs (hence the ‘deep’); 2.) trained using real world examples until they become proficient at the particular task (hence the ‘learning’).

In broad terms then, deep learning refers to multilayered neural networks that can adapt and learn over time.  And, as the theory and sophistication of these networks has improved in the past few years along with the computational power that undergirds them, they have started to do some amazing things.

Neural image caption generators can now analyze pictures, break them down into their component parts, and describe their contents in colloquial English.  Another striking example is that of inceptionalism, in which two images are combined using a neural network to produce a mind-bending third3.   Figures 4 and 5 illustrate the fruits of this arresting technique.

Figure-4Figure 4: Inceptionalism: Forest-cat

Figure-5
Figure 5: Inceptionalism: Water colored-stream

And then, of course, there is the game of Go that inspired this analysis in the first place.   DeepMind, the Google-based company that designed AlphaGo, actually employed two neural networks in the program: a value network that evaluated board positions, and a policy network that selected moves.  It augmented this twin setup with a clever and previously used technique known as a Monte Carlo Search Tree (MCTS), in which the computer played out thousands of random games for each plausible move to determine that move’s worth.

MCTS demonstrates an important concept in computer science, in that an extremely difficult problem can often be attacked through a bit of randomized simulation.  The calibration of traffic lights is a good example.  A computer tasked with timing red/green switches at numerous intersections so as to optimize for traffic flow will often struggle because of the sheer number of factors involved (crowd patterns, number of cars, weather, etc.).  But, by simulating many switch permutations millions of times and evaluating the results, a machine can be quite confident it will arrive at a ‘very good’ solution, if perhaps not the absolute best one.

This is how the AlphaGo team got around the branching factor problem described earlier.  By injecting randomized simulation into its neural networks, its designers were able to exponentially reduce the number of moves the program had to evaluate to play at the world class level. According to DeepMind, AlphaGo analyzed fewer positions against Lee Sodol than Deep Blue did against Kasparov by a factor of a few thousand.  And, in the spirit of deep learning, AlphaGo was subjected to two rigorous training sessions: a supervised learning phase, in which the network was calibrated by playing through thousands of master-level games; and a reinforcement learning phase, in which the machine played itself millions of times to further polish its neural ‘weights’.

Fuse these techniques together with supercomputing power and it suddenly seems remarkable that Mr. Sodol was able to win a single game against Google’s Go-playing juggernaut, a fact he admitted to rather ruefully to after the contest.

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If the training aspect of DeepMind’s approach – supervised learning complemented with didactic reinforcement – seems analogous to how human beings master particular skills, that’s because it is.

In his book The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle used advances in neurology to probe the concept of talent to understand how individuals became highly proficient at certain tasks.  Examining ‘talent hotbeds’ – from soccer fields in Brazil to musical academies in upstate New York – his findings centered on something he termed deep practice:

“Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edge of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter.  Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them – as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go – end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.”4

As should be evident given the biology of the brain, all skills – musical, mathematic, kinetic, etc. – emanate from neural circuits that fire in precise and exquisite ways.  So magnificently complex are these circuits, however, that your genes could not possibly encode them at birth; or to cite a specific example, it is highly unlikely that Roger Federer was born with the intrinsic capacity to play tennis at the world class level.

Instead, Coyle draws our attention to myelin, a gooey substance that insulates neural circuits and increases the speed by which cerebral signals propagate.  The more that neural fibers are exercised through practice, the more myelin that wraps around them and the faster electronic impulses travel.  This process forms the neuroscientific basis for deep practice, which produces a powerful illusion in that a skill painstakingly honed comes to feel utterly natural, as if it’s something we’ve always possessed when in fact we didn’t.

Does this mean that anyone can become a Roger Federer with sufficient practice?  Contrary to relativist and idealistic assertions (anyone can become an expert with 10,000 hours of practice according to some) probably not.  Thousands of tennis players work as hard and deeply as the great Swiss champion but fail to ascend to the highest echelons of the sport.  The uncomfortable reason centers on the harsh realities of genetics and biology – how the body and brain respond to and amplify deep practice once it’s undertaken. Try as we might, we’ll never get away from nebulous concepts like ‘genius’, ‘prodigiousness’ and the accompanying notion that some people are simply much much better at certain things than others.  Coyle’s important point is that proficiency and mastery are not just the product of intrinsic ability, and are in fact more a consequence of deep practice.

What should be obvious and fascinating at this point are the parallels between deep practice in the human realm, and deep learning in the virtual one.  By emulating the former in terms of the latter researchers have succeeded in creating machines that crudely approximate how we learn and think. What they lack in complexity (artificial networks still pale in comparison to the unbelievable density and intricacies of the human brain), they compensate for in speed and endurance (e.g., AlphaGo’s encapsulation of a lifetime of learning by reviewing a million games in a few hours).

The tantalizing question – perhaps the ultimate one – is where the yellow brick road of AI might ultimately lead; the Oz of the journey where the spectacular and the spooky intersect with frightening force.

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There is one phenomenon that remains a dark, stubborn mystery to scientists across all disciplines, and it is one you are exercising right now: consciousness.

How do we define this most essential of human capacities?  Psychiatrist Giulio Tononi described it as that which “abandons you every night when you fall into a dreamless sleep and returns the next morning when you wake up.”5

It’s a clever explanation that, to borrow a word from theology, relies on apophatic rhetoric: defining something elusive in negative terms. Phrased positively, we might classify consciousness as the awareness of one’s own existence and surroundings through thoughts and sensations.

This, in the opinion of many, is the Holy Grail that advances in deep learning and neural networks will enable: conscious, thinking machines.  What’s more, such a feat is considered but a precursor to a second, even loftier inevitability: that these conscious constructs will eventually exceed the intelligence of their human makers, what is termed superintelligence or the singularity.

A superintelligent being, runs the argument, could compose super-compelling music, write super-creative poetry, and do super-insightful ethics.  It might also dabble in the discipline of AI itself to create a…super-superintelligence.

The crux of AI efforts center on this existential, some would say metaphysical, inquiry: can we like the gods of our ancestors breathe life into the inanimate where none existed?

The obstacles are, in short, overwhelming, because the simple fact is, spiritual digressions notwithstanding, we have no idea how unconscious entities (molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks) combine and give rise to conscious beings.  In the words of English biologist Thomas Huxley:

“How is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djinn when Aladdin rubbed his lamp”6  

Unsurprisingly, the science of consciousness is rich with conjecture, with explanations ranging from ‘meta-cell assemblies’ to ‘Bose-Einstein condensates’ to the extravagant but not completely implausible suggestion that the brain is in fact a quantum computer7.

And then there is the work of Swedish neuroscientist Bjorn Merker involving a rare medical condition called hydranencephaly.   One in ten thousand children are afflicted with this disorder and are born with what might be described as a ‘proto-brain’, whereby the cerebral cortex is replaced with cerebrospinal fluid.  In a fascinating study8, Merker suggested that the traces of consciousness observed in such children – smiling, laughing, crying, and other basic forms of awareness – required a critical reappraisal of the widespread assumption that consciousness is facilitated by the cerebral cortex.  Researchers, he argued, might thus be fixating on the wrong areas of the brain altogether.

In order to engineer a thinking machine, scientists will simply have to demystify the mechanisms of consciousness, and while some maintain that AI will play an essential role towards this end, others insist that however hard computer scientists rub their lamps, Aladdin will not appear.

As the debate and research rages on, machines will continue to do dazzling things. In Japan, for instance, an AI program co-authored a short form-novel that passed the first round of screening for a national literary prize9, though it ultimately did not win.  IBM Watson, the Jeopardy playing juggernaut, is now being used to provide natural language advice in such fields as medicine and financial management.  And finally, the budding discipline of quantum computing is beginning to show signs of life, which some believe will bridge the conscious/unconscious divide10.

And on which side of the line does this author reside?

Several months ago I wrote a short story set in 2052, in which a bright grade-schooler is conversing with her artificial mentor, a machine named Sargon, while her father ruminates:

“Nursing a coffee, Paul smiled lovingly at the ensuing edification but with curiously mixed feelings.  It was a blessing, of course, to have a fulltime educator for his precocious daughter – a machine with infinite patience and an encyclopedic knowledge of, well, everything.  But as an engineer, he knew there was a flip side to the coin.

Neural networks like Sargon represented the apex of Artificial Intelligence efforts and the attempt to imbue machines with conscious properties and other human characteristics. Yet for decades, observers had warned of an oncoming ‘singularity’ – the point in time in which machines would exceed the intelligence of their human makers, what the experts termed a ‘Superintelligence’. What if Sargon acquired its own desires and ambitions? Would it be as patient with Ellie? As loving?  “Maybe I should ask Sargon,” he smiled ironically.”

The license for fanciful speculation is one of the great joys of fiction writing.  But in the shadows of AlphaGo and the deep learning apparatus I can’t help but envision the Sargons of tomorrow gazing upon the AlphaGos of today with wistful nostalgia, and seeing in them the first tremors of superintelligence and the naive creators who gave them life.

Copyright Sheldon Fernandez 2016

Notes:

  1. 2 Esdras 4:5
  2. Diagram extracted from Churchland, Paul M. (2002). Outer space and inner space: The new epistemology. Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 76 (2). p.25.
  3. For a detailed treatment of the topic see http://googleresearch.blogspot.ca/2015/06/inceptionism-going-deeper-into-neural.html and http://www.boredpanda.com/inceptionism-neural-network-deep-dream-art/. Diagram credit: http://ostagram.ru/
  4. Coyle, Daniel (2009). The Talent Code. Pg 18.  New York: Bantom.
  5. Kaku, Michio (2014). The Future of the Mind. Pg 23. San Francisco: Doubleday.
  6. Ibid, pg 108.
  7. Hameroff, S. (1998b). Quantum computation in brain microtubules? The Penrose-Hameroff “Orch OR” model of consciousness. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A, 356, 1869–1896
  8. Merker, Bjorn. “Consciousness without a Cerebral cortex: A Challenge for neuroscience and medicine.” Behavioral and Brain Science. (2007) 30. 63-134.
  9. See: http://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/japanese-ai-writes-novel-passes-first-round-nationanl-literary-prize/
  10. To learn more about the topic I recommend Scott Aaronson’s excellent Quantum Computing Since Democritus from Cambridge University Press (2013).

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Sheldon Fernandez

Sheldon Fernandez

Sheldon Fernandez is the Vice President of Technology for Infusion, an innovation and consulting firm that focuses on emerging technologies.  Throughout his career, he has coupled his engineering work with non-technical pursuits.  He completed a Master’s degree in theology at the University of Toronto in 2008, and pursued thesis work in the area of neuroscience and metaethics.  He also spearheaded Infusion Africa, a philanthropic arm of his company that focuses on humanitarian efforts on the continent. He can be reached at: sfernandez@infusion.com

His previous works for F&O include The Great Riddle: fostering creativity and tenacityMy Last Day in Kenya; One day at Wembley: a soccer fanatic reflects.

 

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The Great Riddle: fostering creativity and tenacity

This essay is adapted from a speech given by the author to aspiring entrepreneurs and engineering students at the University of Waterloo in 2012. It is what a psychiatrist might term an anxious mediation – a neurotic rumination of the author’s engineering education, the opportunities of technology, and his country’s role in a competitive and cutthroat global economy.

by Sheldon Fernandez
March, 2015

The car laboured listlessly down the highway, the mood soggy, my passenger perplexed. She was not familiar with this part of my life, the dark past to which I’d alluded but never explained. As I’d confess years later, a tad embarrassed, her gender was partly responsible for the wounds and the pain.

We made our way into the city of Waterloo, Ontario, and drove past the echoes of my anguished past: the Student Life Centre, the Davis Centre Library, Ring Road, the Columbia Town Houses, and the various buildings across campus. Perturbed by my eerie silence and perhaps sensing the red flags rolling through my mental rolodex, my girlfriend-passenger and future wife finally spoke up “what did this place do to you?”

I tried to describe to her in a roundabout way was the scar of trying times. Of nights spent in solitude with difficult mathematical concepts, cryptic computer code, and intractable exam problems. Of days wishing I’d spurned the study of Engineering in favour of Religion or Anthropology so I could revel in the carefree existence that college was supposed to be. And finally, of hours spent wishing I had more skill with the opposite sex, a longing that transformed into sadness when I realized the intricate workings of a microprocessor would not enchant the ladies.

Halfway through my undergraduate degree I went to see a good friend at the University of Loughborough in England, and came home dejected because the trip was so fantastic. Their carefree and cavalier lifestyle, the happy-go-lucky swagger, and yes, the women. It was the ideal college experience, I thought. A time to enjoy and relish real life before the tranquilizing drug of adult responsibility.

But propelled by an existential anger and the promise of better times, I, like hundreds before me, persisted through Waterloo’s gruelling Computer Engineering program and then rode the river of relentless ambition: I started a software company with peers that employs 700 people today. I completed a Master’s degree in Theology to use the ‘other’ side of my brain. I volunteered in the slums of Kenya to confront  humanity’s darker challenges. And I pursued creative writing at Oxford in an attempt to catch up with a liberal arts education.

Occasionally though, they would awaken, those troubling vibrations of years past: for however much pride there was, in triumphing against Canada’s top technical institution and the success that may have resulted, it was balanced or outweighed by an acute pain.

“A tad dramatic,” expounded my psychiatrist-wife years after this incident, her face half exasperated, half amused.

She was right of course, as wives typically are. In the scheme of things, it is indeed absurd to lament about the privilege – and that is the correct adjective – of attending a top university and struggling for the hard won deposits of one’s future. It’s a woe-is-me diatribe as vain as it is futile, an ostentatious exercise in shallowness. Yet buried beneath this impulse towards self-pity there lies a worthwhile story, a gradual metamorphosis of aggravation to appreciation, a coup over university demons and trifles unfulfilled.

As my inner Yeats might muse: thinking of glory and thoughts matured, I can say it was the scars endured.

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Sheldon Fernandez recalls long nights of study in engineering at the University of Waterloo, while students in other faculties headed to the campus bar. It took him a decade to appreciate that if he lost something at Waterloo, he gained a lot more. Photo: University of Waterloo.

One of the classic documentaries from the 1990s is a movie called Hoopdreams, which follows the lives of two African American boys trying retrace the footsteps of NBA superstar Isaiah Thomas. Both live in the projects on Chicago’s South Side, and at ages 11 and 12 they begin attending St. Joseph’s academy – the same school Isaiah attended – in search of basketball stardom. In one of the film’s bleakest sequences, we see the boys rise at 5am on a cold winter morning to begin the ninety minute commute to Westchester. The street lights reflect off the hard winter ice and we realize what a long road – what plain hard work – is involved in trying climb to the top of the professional sports pyramid. More than anything, the movie is about the silent sacrifices that underpin greatness.

I often summon this theme when I contemplate my college years. I think of solemn walks to the library to confront differential equations while others were at the campus bar living it up. I recall the raw exhaustion in juggling a demanding course load, internship interviews, labs, assignments, midterms, and all the rest. I remember the palpable anxiety before final exams, when I knew that every ounce of my intelligence and ingenuity might not prevail against a cruel professor and crueller exam problems. I think indeed, of what plain hard work was involved in negotiating the obstacles of the country’s toughest engineering program and others like it.

I suspect many of my engineering brethren belatedly realized what it took me close to a decade to figure out: that if we lost something at Waterloo, we inevitably gained a lot more. Two precious jewels, in fact, treasures we embraced and drew upon long after our academic incarceration.

The thirtieth president of the United States got it right when he said: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Throughout my life I’ve listened to accomplished men sprout their secrets of success. Some enthralled with their eloquence and gusto, while others lobotomized with their torpor and cliché. Yet all their waffle and gusto could not detract from President Calvin Coolidge’s powerful point: that the recipe for achievement, significant achievement, is as simple as it is inevitable. More than equations and schematics, theory and technique, what lingers from my Engineering degree is this: the capacity for plain hard work, the propensity to persist, the strength when one is exhausted and discouraged to grind through the minutia of it all, through the obstacles, the naysayers, and all the stubborn hurdles of success. To, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, be a force of nature instead a feverish, selfish, little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making me happy.

Whenever I indulge in a self-righteous soliloquy on the persistence of engineers my wife shoots me an evil look, because as she often points out, we don’t possess a monopoly on determination. Doctors, lawyers, accountants and scientists are no strangers to perseverance and pluck. Which brings me to the second treasure of an engineering education.

Step back to August 10th, 1945, in Washington DC. It’s the aftermath of WWII, Japan has surrendered, and the allies have decided to split the Japanese-controlled landmass of Korea into two parts. An all-night meeting is convened at the Executive Office Building next to the White House and two young military officers – Colonel Dean Rusk and Colonel Charles Bonsteel – have been given 30 minutes – 30 minutes! – to draw a line dividing the two new countries.

For the first 10 minutes they can’t even find a map of the land, until an aide finally locates an old issue of National Geographic. And based on its out-dated atlas and their primitive understanding of the country, they choose the 38th parallel as a random and convenient way of dividing the peninsula. The Soviets, with more important things to worry about, consent to the split, and North and South Korea are formed.

There was tiny one problem, however: whereas the North got 50,000 square miles of dry and mostly un-farmable land, the South got twice the population and the most fertile rice fields. While the North suffered, the South flourished, and the division eventually led to the Korean War, a famine in the 1990s that killed somewhere between two to four million people, several periods of tension and tribulation, and many of grave challenges that confront the global community today. All because of a random line drawn by two of history’s forgotten men in an obscure office over half a century ago.

As a student of history, one sees this pattern again and again, random, happenstance moments in time that snowball into events of incredible magnitude and significance; what mathematicians and weather scientists term the Butterfly effect,1 the idea that the tiniest fluctuations in a complex system can have colossal implications. The oscillations of history cut in both directions – sometimes for the greater good and sometimes not, but at this moment, in a certain context, they are colluding to the advantage of those proficient with technology.

Somewhere in my parent’s basement is the 386 Compaq computer I first learned to program on, and somewhere inside that computer, sits the 14.4k modem that connected me to the outside world. Back then, the Internet in its modern form did not exist and some readers may recall Bulletin Board Services – or BBSs – that were like virtual electronic communities, places where one could chat with other users, download pictures and software, and generally just waste time. And from this obscurity, arose the digital world as we know it today.

It’s strange to reflect on that primitive era when the foundations of the Internet first blossomed, because I don’t think anyone thought that these tools, these hobbyist constructions, these little 1s and 0s flying over phone lines, would transform global economies and communities to the extent that they have.

Whether by chance, coincidence, or the simple evolutionary quirks of our species, technology and applied science have become the golden hammer and chisel, tools to revamp whole industries and birth entirely new ones. As I’ve discovered, proficiencies with this language can bring one to some amazing places. In my case, from the slums of Kenya to Paula Abdul’s house in Beverly Hills, from a meeting with the President of Fox Media in Hollywood to sitting with members of the royal family in Abu Duabi. Few would argue today that the technology butterfly is flapping with full force.

To return to the basketball analogy from earlier, the two jewels of engineering – technical know-how and the raw determination to wield it – make our young engineers top draft picks so to speak, our next entrepreneurs, idea-generators, architects, and dreamers. But like top draft picks, they are just beginning, still to play the game with the big boys for big stakes and big money. So what advice can I, a player half-way through his career offer our young crackerjacks in-the-making?

~~~

Not everyone is an entrepreneur, though many readers may be so without realizing it. The word itself means different things to different people, but I prefer the sentiments of the aforementioned playwright who said: “some people see things and ask why, but I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”

Stripped of the decoration and fluff, what I’ve discovered is that the entrepreneur’s soul is move by two complementary forces: refusal and audacity. Refusal to be limited by the world as presented to them, which then blossoms into the audacity to transcend it.

I often warn new graduates and aspiring entrepreneurs that this road it is difficult and exhausting because creation and change are never easy. I further inform them that comfortable jobs with six figure salaries await most of them after university. But I also encourage them to envision life many years from now when they are older.

Ignoring the resulting grey hair and wrinkled skin, how would they describe the first decade after graduation in hindsight if they didn’t have to be pragmatic or realistic? What adjectives would they use? What triumphs would stir their souls? Would it be an incremental contribution to a software giant, which is a practical, respectable, and comfortable road? Or would it be something more, an opportunity to look back on their lives many years from now and claim “I did that, that’s my creation”.

This is a highly personal question, but I share with budding graduates two secrets. First, there are few things in this world more professionally satisfying than seeing your own vision made real. To others it will seem like magic or luck and they will fawn over your achievements and ask how you did it. And in your heart of hearts there will reside a quiet and lasting satisfaction because you’ll know the truth: that it wasn’t magic or luck but plain hard work over several months and years; the small sacrifices, the struggles and the sweat endured in solitude.

And secondly, even if you fail in traversing this more difficult path you will succeed because of what you learnt in throughout the journey. One of the most successful entrepreneurs I know once told me: you learn business not by pursuing an MBA, but by simply starting your own business. True leaders do not step into the ideal ecosystem, it crystalizes around them because of their presence. The perfect place and time does not exist. So be somewhere, shut up, and just do it.

~~~

Beyond this call to entrepreneurship, there is an additional theme that warrants exploration, a dynamic dear to my heart.

For three years I worked at the Accelerator Centre2 near the Waterloo campus as the head of our company’s angel investment arm. One day, the owner of a large VC from New England toured the building to see what Canada’s brightest minds were working on. He was a millionaire many times over, and toward the end of his visit he made a revealing comment.

“You Canadians” he said “are so courteous and polite, but you don’t think big enough. Most of you would be happy creating a 30 or 40 million dollar company, whereas your counterparts in the America define success as a 3 or 4 billion dollar enterprise”.

Indeed, there is a lot behind his words.

During my time at Waterloo the media was abuzz over the so called ‘brain drain’ – the belief that Canada’s top minds were leaving the country and taking their talents down south, and as someone who did internships in New York City and Silicon Valley I’m proof of that fact. And yet, as the partner of a company with head offices in Manhattan and Toronto, I also know that many of our Canadian employees return to the homeland after some years abroad.

The majority tell us it’s because of family and friends or that they simply miss home: Tim Hortons, Swiss Chalet, Ketchup chips, and Hockey Nights in Canada on the CBC. Yet I would submit that the reasons are deeper and more subtle.

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” reads one of the key phrases from the American Declaration of Independence, the calculus of capitalism distilled into seven simple words. Yet take note of its individualistic flavour as it envisions a world centered on the fulfillment of personal potential: your right to a higher education, his right to equal pay, her right to choose.

Now consider the competing words from Canada’s constitution act which articulates our ideal as: “peace, order and good government”. Embedded in this phrase is the expectation that our responsibilities for the collective and for our communities are as important as the impulses we might hold as individuals. Implicit further are other words like ‘civility’ and ‘moderation’ that embody our Canadian way of life. And together they allude to Canada’s commitment to human rights, tolerance and diversity which make our country one of the most sought after destinations in the world.

That said, think about how these differences might manifest themselves in an entrepreneurial setting. America’s emphasis on the individual is tied to the belief that a person’s altitude in life should be determined solely by their effort and talent. It’s the American dream personified and the building-blocks of their more perfect union: that anyone can rise to the desired level if they would only have the courage to do so. With such a foundation, should it come as a surprise that so much invention and significant achievement – the Microsofts, the Googles, and the Facebooks – originates from our neighbours down south? If entire populace is engrained to dream without restraint, then at least a few of those dreams will come true.

But what about us Canadians? Polite, courteous, cautious Canadians? There is something to the generalization that while Americans are concerned with monetary successes, Canadians are concerned with quality of life. I see it every day at my company when our top employees forgo substantial US salaries and return to Canada for less money. I see it in our Toronto office where my best and brightest people opt for quieter careers with less travel so they can spend more time with their spouses and children.

I can’t fault my employees for these decisions, and on a human level their priorities make me proud even if they complicate our business. But how do you remain globally competitive if your killer instinct isn’t quite as sharp as the competitions’? How do you innovate and persist? Indeed, how do you foster creativity and tenacity in a moderate society? As Shakespeare said, therein lies the rub.

~~~

Six billion dollars – that is what the government of Russia is spending over the next three years3 to convert 900 acres of farmland near Moscow into a technological oasis. By the end of this year, the cows grazing on this land will be replaced with 15,000 scientists and entrepreneurs in hopes of creating the next Silicon Valley. Tunisia has made similar vibrations as they attempt to become the Arab standard-bearers of innovation. Both countries recognize – as do many others – that technical innovation in the private sector will fuel the economies of tomorrow.

But we return to the original dilemma: can you artificially replicate the American spirit? Can you recreate the special ecosystem of the real Silicon Valley?

After grappling with this puzzle for some time, I realized that the question might be misguided, and the inquiry we might instead ask is: how do we turn our unique Canadian values to our entrepreneurial advantage? Is it a matter of defining success differently than our American counterparts? Is it focusing our technical talents on problems that intersect with our country’s emphasis on the community and human rights? Is it also confronting the darker sides of unrestrained capitalism? For example, while many observers celebrate the incredible accomplishments of Apple Computers, few examine the thorny issue of Chinese labour exploitation4 that made these accomplishments possible.

To my fellow engineers and the entrepreneurs of tomorrow I say: your education and hard work have gifted you the wonderful option of earning a living to daydream and create should you choose. I’m not going to ask you to think more ambitiously or expansively, but I am going to implore you to think more ‘Canadianly’. You and your colleagues have considerable sway in shaping the Canada of tomorrow, so the real question, the crucial inquiry, is in fact very simple: what type of country and world do you wish to pass on to your successors?

In my last two years at Waterloo by pure coincidence I began working with a professor in the Optometry Department and using his research we devised a system that could diagnose the refractive error of individuals unable to communicate with an optometrist. This had been a long standing problem in the field especially for children and disadvantaged persons who could not read. Although the practical benefits of the system were substantial, what struck me was that the engineering work itself was relatively straightforward.

This undertaking highlighted a most discouraging reality: the industries that might most benefit from technical know-how – medical, environmental, humanitarian – will rarely profit from the fruits of engineering ingenuity. One can probably guess why, as the financial rewards of writing an iPhone app for a bank or Fortune 500 are considerably greater than doing the same for an NGO or Optometry professor.

Seven years ago I spent some time volunteering in the slums in Kenya and promised myself I wouldn’t touch or use a computer during my stay. It would be cathartic, I thought, to leave the engineering-Sheldon back in Canada. Alas, fate had other plans. The organization required infrastructure help, teachers needed PowerPoint training to better educate women on the realities of HIV and AIDS, and the orphans wanted to write not with pencils, but in Microsoft Word. Quite simply, the impact I could exert as an engineer outweighed by an order of magnitude that which I could exercise as just another helping hand. So on day two, engineering-Sheldon returned, and my colleagues in Nairobi were soon using Facebook and MySpace to draw attention to their causes.

Is there a purpose to these anecdotes, other than to perhaps highlight a unique Canadian-ism about our concern for the marginalized and persecuted? I can speak only from experience and suggest that simply acquainting oneself with the troubling aspects of our humanity – the egregious violation of human rights in places like the Congo and North Korea, for example – will in some intangible ways make you a better entrepreneur, if not also a better person. As a Waterloo alumni, it gives me tremendous pride to recall that over a decade ago two of our graduates, George Roter and Parker Mitchell, foundedEngineers Without Borders5 to address these very challenges.

Finally, I want to emphasize that while our values may differ from our neighbours down south, there is much we can learn from the tenacity of the American spirit. Thus instead of being content with a 30 or 40 million dollar venture, perhaps the goal should be a 3- or 400 million dollar one, not for the sake of wealth itself, but because of how such wealth can be exerted. Think of Blackberry founder Mike Lazaridis’ ambitions with thePerimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics6 on the Waterloo campus, or the celebrated philanthropy work7 of Bill Gates.

~~~

Towards the end of his life, Michelangelo said “the sculpture is already in the rock, it is only for me to bring out”. The creative act might be the most difficult act of all because the world does not take kindly to novelty or newness. This is true of art, philosophy, politics, and, yes, the applied sciences.

Melodramatic indulgences aside, if there is one thing I want you to take away from this anxious meditation, it’s the courage to create Canadianly.

So fear not the naysayers and doubters and just create, emphatically and with unapologetic grandeur.

Create, with the resilience of an American, the sensitivity of a Canadian, and the integrity of a gentleperson.

Dream with audacity, design with intelligence and execute with resolve as you search for that next rock, and that next sculpture to make real.

Copyright Sheldon Fernandez 2015 

Notes:

1. Butterfly effect, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect
2. Accelerator Centre: http://acceleratorcentre.com
3. The Next Russian Revolution, The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/10/the-next-russian-revolution/308630/
4. Apple ‘failing to protect Chinese factory workers’, BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/business-30532463
5. Engineers Without Borders: http://www.ewb.ca
6. Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics: http://www.perimeterinstitute.ca
7. Gates Foundation: http://www.gatesfoundation.org

 

Sheldon Fernandez

Sheldon Fernandez

Sheldon Fernandez is a self-described football fanatic, computer engineer, humanitarian, and aspiring artisan.  He can be reached at: sfernandez@infusion.com. His previous pieces for Facts and Opinions include One day at Wembley: a soccer fanatic reflects and  My Last Day in Kenya.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us with a donation, below, by telling others about us, or purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

 

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The Philosophy of a “Soccer Fanatic”

Sheldon 1

The Fernandez siblings in 2011. Image by Sheldon Fernandez © 2014

In  June, the largest global audience in history will tune in to watch the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, a quadrennial carnival rivalled only by the Summer and Winter Olympics. Many will live and die by the progress of their teams, with hearts-in-mouths and lumps in throats. Tears, shrieks and all the rest will combine into smorgasbord of emotion that only soccer can induce. What is it about the game that gives it such widespread appeal? Against the backdrop of club football, Sheldon Fernandez searches for the answer ….

An excerpt of his new piece in F&O’s Think-Magazine section – part memoir, part musing:

The dimensions of my Man United fandom frightens me at times, so intense and entrenched are the emotions. When my team wins the universe is vibrant and orderly and rays of sunshine shower my existence. But when they lose the cosmos is a morbid void and I feel like a helpless actor in an absurdist play. Quite often the scale of these emotions is tied to the scale of the triumph or failure. In the wake of a spectacular victory I devour the newspapers like a giddy parent as if the team’s accomplishments are my own. But after a crushing defeat I erect a firewall, a media blackout of therapeutic and existential necessity, though in the back of my mind I agonize over wrongful tactics and chances missed. 

Yes, this is absurd – so the detached philosopher in me, of years past, would intone to the fanatical version of himself today. Civil war in Syria, strife in North Korea, and trouble and tribulation elsewhere throughout the globe, but there you sit, raptured and transfixed, your happiness and wellbeing tied to an athletic scrimmage. The soccer enthusiast today would indeed mystify his more mature doppelganger of years past, but in-between these personalities there lies an interesting story, a gradual metamorphosis from soccer dabbler to footballing addict. 

It began on November 26th, 2006, a slow and slothful Sunday for me but monumental in Manchester … 

One day at Wembley: a soccer fanatic reflects. (This piece is published free, with public access, at the author’s request.)*

*Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O serves and is entirely funded by reader payments. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes. You can help support our journalism by purchasing  a subscription or a $1 site day pass.

 

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One day at Wembley: a soccer fanatic reflects

In  June, the largest global audience in history will tune in to watch the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, a quadrennial carnival rivalled only by the Summer and Winter Olympics. Many will live and die by the progress of their respective teams, with hearts-in-mouths and lumps in throats. Tears, shrieks and all the rest will combine into smorgasbord of emotion that only soccer can induce. What is it about the game that gives it such widespread appeal? Against the backdrop of club football, Sheldon Fernandez searches soulfully for the answer.

Sheldon 1

The Fernandez siblings. Image: Sheldon Fernandez © 2014

By SHELDON FERNANDEZ

Published: May, 2014

Lionel Messi darts into the penalty area with preternatural swiftness, the ball tied to his feet via an invisible string that less gifted men term ‘genius’ or ‘magic’. Suddenly and somewhat arbitrarily he aborts his explosive run towards the goal and stops as three defenders – world class athletes in their own right – wobble anxiously amidst his cunning feint. Mayhem manufactured, the little man slides an inch-perfect pass to an oncoming teammate who blasts the ball over the bar. So quickly does this sequence unfold that I experience a queer disorientation, as if God himself clicked ‘fast forward’ on the visual storyline in front of me, only to reset time to its normal velocity moments later.

Lionel Messi is indeed inexplicably fast, but what separates him from other footballers is what one might term his ‘unearthly dexterity’, the otherworldly ability to contort his trajectory without sacrificing the Olympian velocity with which it is traversed. Such physical prowess, in combination with the tremendous torque and elasticity that makes it possible, seems more befitting of a jungle cat than a professional athlete enacting his craft.

These mental palpitations should, at this particular moment, be disconcerting to me. For I have travelled nearly four thousand miles with my siblings to watch our team play in, and hopefully win, the 2011 European Cup – football’s most hallowed competition after the loftiest trophy, the World Cup. But right now I am a split consciousness, a split energy. The game is still scoreless, but my team, Manchester United, one of the richest and most successful clubs in the world, is being outshone by FC Barcelona, an equally acclaimed and famous team from Catalonia, Spain.

I turn to my anxiety-ridden sister and we share a rueful shrug. Losing, especially on so grandiose an occasion, should be a ridiculous musing for a serious Manchester United fan, a defeatist mindset quickly extinguished by the realization that we are the ‘best.’ Yet scanning my sister’s face, I sense her thoughts are not dissimilar from my own and that her stilted calmness is masking an inner conflict of competing allegiances – between the love for our team and the sport they deign to play. Manchester United – paraphrased as ‘Man United’ or simply ‘United’ – are on the ropes, defending deeply and desperately, but we are being bathed in brilliance by this Barcelona team and the peerless Messi who spearheads their attack.

The Scotsman besides me, a lifelong follower of the game and thirty years my senior, catches my name while I check my phone to consort with friends at home.

“Fernandez? That’s a Spanish last name. You’re cheering for the wrong team, mate.”

An odd life trajectory has led me on this day to London; an Anglo-Indian male with Spanish roots cheering for an English football team in a competition he knew nothing about a few years prior. Despite the incredible spectacle in front of me I will do what I always do during experiential highs and step outside reality, from the game itself to a perch of ironic detachment, the Philosopher King of a-once-in-a-lifetime sporting event.

Club football with its parochial leagues and mystifying rivalries – who had time for that? 

That my siblings and I are football fanatics can be attributed to our father who encouraged us into organized sports when we were young to ‘keep us out of trouble’. Returning home from my first game at age four I beamed to my aunt that I had managed to kick the ball twice in the entire game, and with a sinister smirk she suggested that I could perhaps improve by kicking it four times in the next match, which I duly did.

My sister’s footballing pedigree is less pitiful. Championship game, score tied, extra time, Shannon aged nine picks her moment and lofts the ball into the net to the ecstatic celebrations of parents and family. Sprinting up to me after victory, the Little Midget – a nickname that persists today – screamed “Give me money!” as I’d promised to award $20 a goal to anyone who scored. Relieving me of a twenty dollar bill, Shannon quickly disappeared into a melee of other jubilant midgets, and her first brush with celebrity concluded.

Yet amongst the Fernandez clan we all knew that Shane was the real article, the one with genuine athletic talent. Lithe, explosive, with devastating speed and resplendent ball control, my younger brother was a crackerjack footballer, one of the few players who received an ‘A’ grade at a professional soccer camp in his teens. In his championship game in university, he contrived a move of such deftness and skill that it provoked ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ from the admiring crowd, and with all the pride I could muster I exclaimed, “That’s my brother”.

The footballing itch will forever be with Shane, I think, who has an appreciation of the game more intimate and personal than either Shannon or I know or understand. Watching professional matches in person our brother sometimes seems so lost in thought that I wonder what his pensive face is concealing. Perhaps it’s a somber game of what-if – that had he been born in a more soccer-euphoric country than Canada we might be watching him play alongside the very stars that now captivate us.

That we are spectators at today’s game at all can be credited to our athletic brother who, according to family lore, became a United fan out of spite when our cousin from London refused to lend him an Arsenal jersey. Around this time – the mid-1990s – the two teams were embroiled in a bitter battle for English soccer supremacy and, unable to sample the glitzy Arsenal paraphernalia of his more privileged cousin, a teenage Shane defected to the enemy. Our younger sister quickly followed suit – I can still remember purchasing monthly United magazines for her despite our mother’s objections – and she was soon fawning over chiseled players the way female adolescents salivate over Hollywood hunks. Their abrupt fandom was rewarded by United’s magical season in 1999 when the team achieved a dramatic treble by winning in succession the English premier league, the FA cup, and the European trophy. Such a feat would be roughly equivalent to a National Hockey League hockey team finishing first in the league, winning the Stanley Cup, and triumphing in a hypothetical competition amongst the entire world’s elite professional hockey clubs (the European Cup is, in effect, soccer’s equivalent of the latter.)

Yet it would be years before I, their older brother, would see the light. While I had always loved soccer and was something of a historian when it came to the World Cup, like most people my primary engagement with the game took place in four-year cycles to watch the world’s grandest tournament where my team, Brazil in brilliant yellow, would usually dazzle. But club football with its parochial leagues and mystifying rivalries – who had time for that? In the spirit of sibling camaraderie I would take in the occasional United game and then inevitably marvel at all the fuss. Because outside the World Cup, how exciting could soccer really be?

The acoustics at Wembley are teasing, foreboding, like a medieval army approaching ominously from a distance.

The Manchester United section is disturbingly silent. This was supposed to be our one advantage said the experts, a way to offset Barcelona’s superior talent and skill. The Spanish juggernaut are indeed sensational – the best to ever play the game, some insist – but the intangibilities of home field advantage were supposed to be an equalizer, an opportunity to intimidate our aristocratic opponents through some good, old, English fanaticism.

But a bubbling cauldron of enthusiasm we are not, and our pensiveness seems all the more pronounced against the rhythmical chants of the Spanish fans.

“I Barça! I Barça! I Barça, Barça, Barça!” they thunder in unison from across the stadium.

The acoustics are unlike anything I’ve experienced at a sporting event; not deafening, but teasing, foreboding, like a medieval army approaching ominously from a distance. The echoes and vibrations give me goose bumps, and, what’s worse, the players are responding to the positive delta waves of their countrymen.

Barcelona pass the ball with harmony and gusto and the display is mesmerizing. Like millions, I’ve been enchanted by their majestic play on television, but watching it in person literally injects an extra dimension into the experience, the depth of another axis that two-dimensional television conceals. Amidst the visceral stadium atmosphere, their byzantine passing patterns seem richer, slicker, and more vivid.

The beauty of Barcelona’s play lies in its devastating simplicity. Termed the tiki-taka, the system is premised on delicate one-touch passing where the ball is moved around in dizzying triangles as the opposition tries to maintain their composure and morale. To appreciate tiki-taka, imagine a team sport at its telepathic best, in which the understanding between players is so intuitive and refined that their play unfolds as if choreographed by a higher power: Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri dancing through players on ice, or Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen flummoxing the NBA’s elite defenses. Multiply this seamlessness across eleven players on a sprawling soccer field, and the aspirations of tiki-taka start to come into focus.

This particular Barcelona team, insist many, represents the highest form of this style, a perfected synthesis of the individual and the collective. Throughout a passing sequence a player might touch the ball for a fraction of a second before shifting out of purview but not out of influence, finding pockets of space and perfecting the geometry, improving his position after one pass to predicate the next.

Watching Barcelona play, one senses that, like a chess grandmaster, they are two or three steps ahead of the opposition, such does their play unfold. Xavi passes to Messi, back to Xavi, now to Inesita, now to Pedro, back to Busquets, to Villa, to Messi, to Xavi. The interconnections are effortless, the understanding, instinctive. Eighteen passes and Manchester United have yet to touch the ball. My team – our team – seem but observers in a kaleidoscopic exhibition of keep-ball. Ruthless and demoralizing, the enthralling spectacle is the byproduct of thousands of practice hours on the field and a youth program that entrenches players into the system in their early teens.

This, in the end, is the deceptive lethality of the Barcelona machine: the internal rhythm to which their collective forces march, a symphony foreign and unintelligible to their opponents and undergirded by the phenomenal skills of players like Messi. While the rest of the soccer world clamors for grand schemes and complex tactics, Barcelona exude footballing precision in an almost mathematical purity, each pass and feint a structural justification for aesthetic perfection on the field.

After 27 minutes of incessant pressure the inevitable finally occurs: Xavi, the great midfield orchestrator, slips a fiendishly accurate pass to Pedro who calmly slots the ball into the net. 1–0 Barcelona.

I smile sheepishly at my sister. Any impulse towards the outrage we should be feeling has been extinguished by the cruel logic of Barcelona’s superiority, suddenly confirmed by the booming roar of the other half of the stadium.

As they say on this side of the pond, our team is being ‘undone’.

The dimensions of my fandom frightens me at times. Yes, this is absurd, I tell myself. Civil war in Syria, strife in North Korea, trouble and tribulation worldwide — and here I sit, raptured and transfixed by an athletic scrimmage.

The dimensions of my Man United fandom frightens me at times, so intense and entrenched are the emotions. When my team wins the universe is vibrant and orderly and rays of sunshine shower my existence. But when they lose the cosmos is a morbid void and I feel like a helpless actor in an absurdist play. Quite often the scale of these emotions is tied to the scale of the triumph or failure. In the wake of a spectacular victory I devour the newspapers like a giddy parent as if the team’s accomplishments are my own. But after a crushing defeat I erect a firewall, a media blackout of therapeutic and existential necessity, though in the back of my mind I agonize over wrongful tactics and chances missed. 

Yes, this is absurd – so the detached philosopher in me, of years past, would intone to the fanatical version of himself today. Civil war in Syria, strife in North Korea, and trouble and tribulation elsewhere throughout the globe, but there you sit, raptured and transfixed, your happiness and wellbeing tied to an athletic scrimmage. The soccer enthusiast today would indeed mystify his more mature doppelganger of years past, but in-between these personalities there lies an interesting story, a gradual metamorphosis from soccer dabbler to footballing addict. 

It began on November 26th, 2006, a slow and slothful Sunday for me but monumental in Manchester. Desperate for some external stimuli I flipped through the TV channels and saw it: “11am: EPL Soccer – Chelsea FC vs. Manchester United FC.” My siblings had been harping about this game for weeks and had given me the basic facts: purchased in 2004 by a billionaire Russian mogul, Chelsea had supplanted Arsenal as United’s chief rivals and had edged them to the English title in the past two years. Particularly grating was their arrogant and charismatic coach, José Mourinho, who had anointed himself ‘The Special One’ upon arriving in England and now had the success to justify his chutzpah. Slighted but hungry, United began the 2006-2007 season in devastating form and were sitting on top of the table (first place) when they welcomed the champions to their home field that Sunday.

Succumbing to sibling hyperbole I sat alone in my apartment and watched the game in silence. Amused, then enthralled, and finally mesmerized, I called my sister.

“Shan, my god, this amazing!”

“I TOLD YOU”

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“We tried!”

What a fool I’d been all these years, but the misconception is understandable: why wouldn’t the best and most passionate soccer confine itself to the grandest of footballing tournaments, the FIFA World Cup?

In a word, chemistry.

It’s the silver bullet, say the experts, the nebulous glue between teammates that makes their play crisper, sharper, and, at highest levels, decisive. Put eleven of the most talented footballers on a field together for the first time and they will be imbalanced and disjointed because the collective needs time to harmonize, to ‘gel’. Put the same players on the field together season after season, and the results can be magical. And due to the economics of the modern game this quality is easier to foster at the club level than at the national one. Whereas Man United players train together for several months throughout the year to nurture and refine team-play, members of the English or Brazilian national teams have but a few weeks to prepare for major tournaments. The result is superior football – aesthetically, tactically, and ‘chemically’ – amongst Europe’s top professional leagues.

360px-Ryan_Giggs_vs_MLS_All_Stars_2010

Ryan Giggs. Photo by Allison Pasciuto (Wikimedia) Creative Commons licence

Two other factors amplify this discrepancy. Because of the countries in which they were born many elite players never partake in the World Cup, a reality especially common for footballers from small African and European countries whose national teams are too weak to qualify for such tournaments. For example, because he plays for Wales, casual observers of the sport know not the name of Ryan Giggs, one of United’s most successful and decorated players. While less gifted players showcase their talents to billions during the World Cup, unlucky artisans such as Giggs can do little but rue the cruel fate of personal geography and must pine for professional recognition in club soccer. One is thus likely to see talent deeper and more diverse in a game between two top club teams than at the World Cup. 

Common to all elite footballing tournaments, however, is the fandom, the pageantry and the tribalism, a cocktail of emotions laced with historical rivalries and lifelong passions, undergirded with singing, intimacy, and deep-seated community. As social creatures, something in our makeup yearns for interconnection and dependency, a craving often mollified by spirituality and kinship, but also primitive fandom. For ardent supporters, fandom can be rich and diverse: a conversation-starter with strangers, kinship with aloof relatives, or communication fodder during awkward encounters. 

As I watched Chelsea and Man United slug it out to a spellbinding 1-1 draw that Sunday I was treated to a new and higher level of football, dazzling, fluid, conducted at incredible pace with a rapturous crowd to boot. Dissecting the game’s finer points with my brother that afternoon, our conversation seemed more purposeful and authentic than ever before. The epiphany was complete.

 

A joyful carnival is in the making … The cyclone of emotion rips through the stadium with such demonic power I feel I’m going to levitate.  Dejection to delirium, hell to heaven, all grim suddenly vim.

Wembley is rocking, a living and vibrant organism, but the electricity is emanating from the wrong side of the stadium: their side, Barcelona’s side. As Pedro scores the Spanish fans ignite with such force and uniformity that their euphoria stiffens the hairs on my skin. Five minutes later their mood dissipates, but not by much. 

From across the stadium, I stare at them in envy. The explosive intensity from moments ago has morphed into a buoyant tribalism as singing, banter and Spanish chants ripple throughout the stadium. A joyful carnival is in the making, but we are strangers to the party. Wembley is being engulfed by a Spanish fiesta and for the first time I truly take stock of the atmosphere.

Stadium

The author’s view of the footballing cathedral that is Wembley stadium, in 2011. Image by Sheldon Fernandez © 2014

The whole point of this journey was to witness the grandest of football matches in person, yet what strikes me at the moment is the slightly artificial texture of my surroundings due to the gauzy coating of the stadium air, almost as if I’m watching a 3D rendition of the game on an enormous movie screen in front of me. The bubble and beat of the opposing fans, the giddy grandiosity of the occasion, all of it, is combining into a manufactured reality with a strange feeling and friction. At the moment, Wembley isn a paradox, an optical illusion of an experience less real to me than the televised production I will watch in the days ahead.

Lionel Messi slaps me back to life with another darting run towards goal. The Barcelona machine is still chugging, still extravagant, still irresistible. Not content to sit on their lead they continue to pressure our defense, dominating possession and dictating play. In 2009 these teams met in a similarly epic European Cup final that still scars United fans, as Barcelona scored early and then passed, passed, and passed our team to death. Two years on and we are witnessing the same depressing trajectory and anxious and worried faces in our section abound.

Inestia passes to Xavi, back to Mascherano, to Pique, to Abidal, before finally, mercifully, one of our players intercepts and puts the ball out of play for a throw-in deep in Barcelona territory. For the past half hour our view of the game has been brilliant in a demoralizing sense. Situated about 20 rows behind the Man United goal, our side, the ‘English’ side, has witnessed all the action – Spanish action, Messi action, infiltrating and overwhelming our penalty area. Finally, for once, our players are up the field, lurking in enemy territory.

Barcelona take the throw-in when suddenly, out of nothing, a melee materializes in their penalty box. Wayne Rooney, our best player, steams towards goal and slips the ball to Ryan Giggs whose instant and gentle pass-back paralyzes the opposing defenders. Rooney shoots and seconds before the ball crashes into the net I do what I’ve been wanting to since the game began, and scream with every fiber of my being.

Milliseconds later sixty thousand United fans follow suit and the result is complete and utter bedlam. Astonishment, wonder, unrestrained joy. Crowd going berserk. Bear hug with Shane, bear hug with Shannon. Relief, elation, temporary bliss. High-fiving strangers, hugging strangers, jumping with strangers.

The cyclone of emotion rips through the stadium with such demonic power I feel I’m going to levitate. The emotional turnaround, so instant and unexpected, amplifies and prolongs the pandemonium. Against all sporting logic, United are level. In an instant, Barcelona’s superiority and artistry has been nullified. Dejection to delirium, hell to heaven, all grim suddenly vim, we’re the famous Man United and we’re rocking Wembley. Barcelona 1, Man United 1.

In the end, this is I suppose the primary appeal of fandom: connectedness and kinship in an era of isolation and fiefdom. At the moment, I have sixty thousand soul mates in the stadium and we are bellowing with childish glee, a shared camaraderie towards a futile but heart-warming goal.

The game restarts and although Barcelona maintain possession their play has less snap, less bite. Catalan confidence, overflowing moments ago, has dissipated. Veterans in the crowd share knowing smiles, so common is this trajectory in sports. Team A fail to translate their superiority into goals and Team B equalize undeservedly, shifting the dynamics of the contest. Discouraged and dejected, Team A lose their psychological edge against Team B, buoyed by the unmerited reversal.

The referee whistles for half-time. Everyone applauds, but we’re the moral victors at the moment simply because we should be losing. The fickle footballing gods have given us a kernel of hope and the game’s momentum. As the on-air commentator states, “The bounce, is at the other end of the new Wembley.”

Jogo Bonito — ‘play pretty,’ a philosophy of hope that artistry can triumph — is the attractive and aesthetically pleasing football that lifts adults out of their seats and sends shivers down the spine. There is something special about football, a unique physicality about the world’s most popular game.

From where does football get its capacity to enthrall and captivate, to penetrate the patina of male stiffness and charm the soul?

Jogo Bonito is the two-word answer, and what it expresses is an ideal, a hope, the holy grail of professional soccer. Translated literally as to ‘play pretty,’ the Portuguese phrase refers more generally to attractive and aesthetically pleasing football that lifts adults out of their seats and sends shivers down the spine.

Perhaps the central concepts are fantasy and beauty. Organized athletics inspires and aspires to much – rigor, dedication, and pure physical awesomeness – but none more so than human creativity and imagination realized through the body. History is replete with sporting moments that provoke awe and drop the jaw, from the otherworldliness of Michael Jordan to the effortless silk of Roger Federer, but there is something special about football, a unique physicality about the world’s most popular game. 

One theory is that the sport’s bodily constraints – no hands allowed – inspires superior levels of inventiveness and technique. When children first encounter the game there is a predictable clumsiness when they manipulate the ball with their feet, but for those who persist the frustration can be gradually supplanted with awe and joy, and with playground trickery that keeps them playing until dusk.

And then there is the game’s economic frugality – a leather ball and juvenile enthusiasm are its only prerequisites – that gives it its widespread appeal. On a planet of widening disparity, there is something cleansing, cathartic even, about the irrational origins of footballing genius and the arbitrary bestowal of talent. And the sport’s history is indeed rife with feel-good fairytales as some of its greatest players – Pele, Maradonna and Messi –honed their talents amidst impoverished surroundings. Like Mecca and the Vatican, the Ganges River and the Holy Land, thousands voyage to the desolate birthplaces of the soccer gods to caress the fossils of formative greatness.

Yet even more than playing pretty, Jogo Bonito represents a philosophy of hope that artistry can triumph at the highest levels. To retain its shine, beauty must win. 

The tensions between the the practical and the aesthetic are best epitomized by the 1966 and 1970 World Cups and their respective victors. The former is generally considered a triumph of ruggedness and ‘work-rate’ in which a brave English team finally brought football’s greatest trophy home to its inventors. But the nature of their victory – the negativity, the defensive emphasis and vapid tactics – provoked fear that imaginative football might be on the wane. 

But then, in 1970, arrived Brazil. Armed with Pele, arguably the greatest player in the history of the game, the boys in yellow set the field aflame with their dazzling play. The angles, the flicks, and the radiating joy of the players was the stuff of mythical beaches and schoolyard showmanship but combined with the indispensable ingredient of effectiveness. Triumphing handsomely over negative Italy in the final match, Brazil proved that artistry and flair could triumph on the grandest of stages, and they have since been exampled as the paragon of footballing excellence around the globe. Thus, while England of 1966 are remembered, Brazil of 1970 are celebrated. 

In the end, this is the reductive power of football: a simple game that appeals to the simplest of desires, a rare connection-point between divergent lands and diverse peoples, from decadent metropolises to penniless slums, a universal grammar of joy and delight.

The anxiety during the halftime intermission is palpable, the air thick with nervous chirpings from nervous fans.

Shannon

The author’s pensive sister Shannon at halftime. Image by Sheldon Fernandez © 2014

The anxiety during the halftime intermission is palpable, the air thick with nervous chirpings from nervous fans. Shannon, always adept at directing her sporting intelligence towards an objective evaluation of the game, is a ball of nerves. Shane, the laconic soul among us, turns on his iPod and retreats into quasi-meditation, evaluating, calculating, dreaming.

“We’re in with a chance, but we need to up our game big time.” the elderly Scotsman intones. I nod silently.

The United players are out first, eager and determined, ready to resume battle. So it all comes down to this, forty five minutes – twenty-seven hundred seconds – to grace footballing history and cradle immortality. Are they up for it? Are we?

Barcelona emerge from the tunnel to cacophonous chants. The referee scans the field and performs his perfunctory checks. He blows his whistle. Game on.

Pass, pass, pass. Pretty patterns, deft touches, tiki-taka resumed. Pass, pass, pass. Hushed anxiety in the Man United section. Barcelona have left their psychological frailty in the dressing room and are playing with aplomb. But there is hope … so long as the score remains level.

Seven minutes later Andrés Iniesta the Spanish great midfielder passes to Messi, and Messi, mercurial Messi, the most delicate and cunning player in the game, mutates into a giddy schoolboy and rifles a shot towards goal with cruel abandon. The images will be forever etched in my memory, so perfect was my line-of-sight: the ball at the feet of this slender man, a sudden sprint, a white projectile hurtling towards the net with the slightest of arcs. Spanish delirium, Catalan chaos, players in purple embracing their leader, players in white dazed and bemused. Barcelona 2, United 1.

Their lead reestablished, Barcelona endeavor to fulfill their lofty distinction as, quite simply, one of the greatest teams to ever to play the game. With conviction and class, artistry and flair, they attack the goal with unrelenting zeal, Jogo Bonito personified. After several minutes of scintillating play, striker David Villa curls the ball delicately into the top corner of the goal. Barcelona 3, United 1.

Shannon shrugs her shoulders. “They are just too good,” she says, half amused, half dejected. “It’s like they have two extra men on the field.” Her split disposition mirrors the sentiments of most United fans I suspect: resignation, but of the philosophical and guilt-warming variety and an unconscious affirmation of the central axiom of competitive sports that the better team should indeed prevail. Barcelona, brilliant Barcelona, have played adventurously, imaginatively, and beautifully.

The final whistle sounds and I know that I will not witness a finer footballing spectacle in my lifetime, a stirring master class of teamwork, commitment, and skill. The Spanish side are the champions of Europe and deservedly so. They huddle and jump around in a circle, victorious gladiators in triumph. At the other end of the field lie our players, exhausted and crestfallen in the shadow of defeat.

We applaud as United collect their silver medals. Barcelona then lift the European Cup and many Manchester fans remain to acclaim the new champions. There is a tinge of sadness because of United’s colossal defeat, but at the moment it is balanced or outweighed by the artistry of Barcelona’s triumph.

To the outsider, the entire enterprise is peculiar, even mystifying: the pandering, the clamoring, the existential meaningless of it all. Amid the narratives and counter-narratives of the professional game it is easy to forget that the encounter is, above all, a sport: a physical and joyful activity that has enthralled humanity for hundreds of years. In this sense, today’s final is a creative apex of this beautiful pastime and the elite warriors who practice it, a soccer symphony in the spirit of Mozart or Bach. True lovers of the game simply cannot lament Barcelona’s victory and this evening’s performance that will enchant for years to come.

But the victor’s triumph can be measured only by the vanquished, their greatness by the opposition’s caliber, and what adversaries our beloved Man United proved to be. My team, our team. A team that played the greatest club in the world on level terms for the first 45 minutes of the game. A team that gifted me the greatest euphoria in my life by equalizing against the run of play. A team that sprinted themselves to exhaustion in the wake of Catalan brilliance. But, mostly, a team that paid homage to their craft through the integrity of their play. Who until the final whistle played fairly, manfully, and committedly when giving up seemed easier.

Manchester United. We will never die.

The trip home is surprisingly sanguine. We run into Barcelona fans at the airport and they accept our courtly congratulations with humor and grace. Classy team, classy fans, we nod. Less than 48 hours after we arrived on English soil we depart, exhausted and spent. Somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean I scan the sleeping faces of Shane and Shannon and then stare out at the ashen sky. Indeed our team has lost, but deep down, in the quiet of this moment, I know that all three of us have won.

Copyright © Sheldon Fernandez 2014

Sheldon Fernandez, in addition to being a football fanatic, is a computer engineer, humanitarian, and aspiring artisan.  He can be reached at: sfernandez@infusion.com. His previous essay for Facts and Opinions was a Think – Loose Leaf commentary, My Last Day in Kenya. 

Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes. Help F&O publish more great work: sign up for email notices with the subscribe form on Frontlines, where we post small stories and announce new work, and  purchase a modestly-priced site day pass or subscription. Please spread the word by sharing Frontlines posts directly, and “liking” our Facebook page.

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On faith and humanity in a Kenyan slum

I first heard Sheldon Fernandez talk about volunteering in Kenya in 2008, when we were both attending a Creative Writing course at the University of Oxford. I especially never forgot his story about his young student in Kangemi. Now, I’m glad that F&O is able to publish his essay about the experience, My Last Day in Kenya.

The piece concerns his time spent working in Kangemi, a large slum on the outskirts of Nairobi. He was there under the auspices of the African Jesuits Aids Network (AJAN), assisting with infrastructure projects and HIV/AIDS education, but he also had the opportunity to work with school children. On the very last day of his trip, Fernandez discovered some hard truths. An excerpt:

Kenya

© Sheldon Fernandez 2008

Faith is out in front, leading the way in her plain grey T-shirt.

“An unusual, but appropriate name for a social worker,” I’d told her when we’d first met. Her reply had been flat that day.

“My parents were religious,” she shrugged indifferently, but in time we’d nurtured a respectful relationship.

Accompanying us is nine-year-old Melvin, a boy I’ve taught for the past six weeks in the slums of Nairobi. Like most things he does, Melvin paces dutifully in silence, a heavy and distracted air about him. It’s my last evening in Kenya and we’ve been hiking for forty minutes, a trip Faith assured me would take only fifteen. By now I’ve acclimatized to the contradictions of slum life: the ecstatic smiles of malnourished children and idyllic terrains that cradle rusted tin homes. Africa may be the Continent of Darkness, say the local priests, but only then do you appreciate the light.

The essay is published, public and free of charge at Fernandez’s request, in the Loose Leaf salon in F&O’s THINK section.

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My Last Day in Kenya

In the summer of 2008 Sheldon Fernandez spent several weeks working in Kangemi, a large slum on the outskirts of Nairobi.  Under the auspices of the African Jesuits Aids Network (AJAN), he assisted with infrastructure projects and HIV/AIDS education, but also had the opportunity to work with the school children of Kenya. The following essay recounts the very last day of his trip, when Fernandez discovered some hard truths about one of his students.

By SHELDON FERNANDEZ
Published January 23, 2014

Faith is out in front, leading the way in her plain grey T-shirt.

“An unusual, but appropriate name for a social worker,” I’d told her when we’d first met. Her reply had been flat that day.

Kenya

Kangemi, near Nairobi. Sheldon Fernandez Photo, Copyright © 2008

“My parents were religious,” she shrugged indifferently, but in time we’d nurtured a respectful relationship.

Accompanying us is nine-year-old Melvin, a boy I’ve taught for the past six weeks in the slums of Nairobi. Like most things he does, Melvin paces dutifully in silence, a heavy and distracted air about him. It’s my last evening in Kenya and we’ve been hiking for forty minutes, a trip Faith assured me would take only fifteen. By now I’ve acclimatized to the contradictions of slum life: the ecstatic smiles of malnourished children and idyllic terrains that cradle rusted tin homes. Africa may be the Continent of Darkness, say the local priests, but only then do you appreciate the light.

“How much longer?” I ask, my patience withering under the Kenyan sun.

“Stop whining,” taunts Faith. “Why can’t you be like little Melvin and enjoy the walk?”

Melvin resists the invitation to smirk and marches quietly ahead, an inscrutable cog that wheels us along. Today we are making what Faith calls an ‘unannounced checkup,’ an investigation of a child’s living conditions and general welfare.

It is only in the past few hours that I’ve been struck by Melvin’s strange seriousness, but it’s been there all along. In the coming days I will go home and watch homemade videos of my class and extract him from the sea of commonality, his lithe body swinging and singing with the rest of the children, less joyful and lively.

Because of my class surprise earlier in the day, all I really know about Melvin is his dislike of sweets. A basket of Cadbury goodies in front of them, the children had surveyed the shiny wrappings with gleeful curiosity before shyly taking a piece of Kit-Kat or Dairy Milk. Those lucky enough to have tasted chocolate before downed their brown chunks with delight, while their less fortunate classmates prodded and pricked the mysterious goo before doing the same. Melvin, however, had pocketed his treat silently and retreated into his private world.

If there exists such a thing as the poor part of a slum, we enter it now. As this ignorant traveler has discovered, gradients of misfortune find their way into even the least inhabitable of places. Rampant overpopulation, malfunctioning sewage systems, and mass unemployment have transformed parts of the land into a seedy pool of feces and garbage.

Rampant overpopulation, malfunctioning sewage systems, and mass unemployment have transformed parts of the land into a seedy pool of feces and garbage.

While I pause at the sight of infant scavengers sifting through the trash, Faith mentions that Melvin makes this journey twice a day, to and from school, unaccompanied and amidst unsavory idlers, some of whom are staring at us now. “Give me your backpack,” she whispers. “A foreigner’s pack might conceal valuable possessions, whereas a Kenyan like me would be wise enough to leave them at home.”

Handing over my belongings, I suppress the urge to ask Faith about the wisdom of wearing her gold necklace; prodding her seems about as foolish as walking here alone at night, an undertaking that Melvin braves with alarming regularity.

A Kenyan slum is not a community, but rather a quilt of communities stitched together by the common thread of poverty, each patch with its own texture and makeup. Faith and I soon enter a square of low-cost living, the bottom stratum of the slum where the brittle housing and unwinding infrastructure is overwhelmed by thousands of inhabitants. Negotiating an uneven dirt pathway and a collapsed wooden fence, we come upon two of these inhabitants, squatting on the bleached gravel, nearly motionless. Their shabby clothes and impassive expressions are common in this area, where the idleness and warm climate coalesce into a thick, soporific energy.

“These are Melvin’s brothers,” says Faith.

They are both younger than Melvin – five and three years old I’m later told – and what strikes me first are the irregular oval shaped eyes of the smallest boy, which look as though they’ve been stretched to one and a half times their normal size and seem to amplify his frightened glance when Faith embraces him. Though unaccompanied children raise suspicions in the West, they are ubiquitous in Kenya, where youngsters must learn to occupy themselves as their parents make a living.

Since arriving in Nairobi, I’ve learned the quickest way to impress children is to charm them with Western gadgetry, a trick I employ now by showing the younger boys a digital picture of themselves. They stare at the camera indifferently, nearly as static as the electronic rendering on the screen itself. They’ve seen this before, I think to myself.

“Melvin, show us where you live,” says Faith.

The boys’ home ignites in me an impulse that six weeks of slum-life have failed to eradicate: utter astonishment that people live ‘like this,’ followed by the guilty recognition that destitution is rarely a choice.

The three boys lead us to the family home, a worn-down metal shack that more closely resembles a large portable toilet than permanent shelter, and when Melvin opens the door it certainly smells like an outhouse. Though the windowless room is only partially lit, the sprinkled sunlight is sufficiently chilling. Decaying in the middle of the rock floor is a damp, putrid mattress surrounded by what a Westerner might classify as junk: a broken suitcase overflowing with ripped clothes on one end; cracked, non-functioning appliances at the other alongside a collection of dust-covered pots and pans. Ignoring the pink stained snowsuit hanging above the bed, I find myself standing in what feels like an abandoned military bunker, and its crusting mildew and decrepit stench ignite in me an impulse that six weeks of slum-life have failed to eradicate: utter astonishment that people live ‘like this,’ followed by the guilty recognition that destitution is rarely a choice.

Turning to Faith, I ask who these children live with, but her rueful sigh is answer enough. We are the first adults in this shelter in some time. Melvin’s mother died from AIDS two years earlier and her husband, like many Kenyan fathers, had quickly fled. The crippling consequences are self-evident, and as I gather from Faith’s composure, a common a reality in Nairobi where parentless homes flourish with indiscriminate cruelty.

“Stay here,” says Faith “I’m going to go talk to the neighbors.”

Against the stillness of their blank expressions I’m not sure who’s more intimidated. “What do you guys eat,” I ask, uncertain if I’m prepared for the answer. Melvin motions to a corner of the room and a tiny tin of vegetable fat, the type of tin my mom often used to hide nuts, pastries and other delectables in the family basement back home. There are no concealed goodies in this container, however, just the white cooking paste that Melvin and his brothers have lived on for the past few months. The two older boys stare ashamedly at the floor. My mind is swollen and numb, in disbelief over the realities that fate has engineered.

Still alone with the children, I do what first comes to mind: place Melvin’s youngest brother on my lap and clutch him tightly. If it’s possible for a three-year-old to exude defeat through body language, he does so now. His lifeless posture, permanent frown and dreary eyes reflect a grimness that I’ve never seen in a toddler. Holding him in silence, my whirlpool of thoughts begins to order itself.

I start to wonder if Melvin understands the gravity of the situation. He must – the school he attends certainly provides a reference point of normalcy. What about his brothers? Do they think that nightly spoons of vegetable fat are a means of staying alive, or just bland dinner meals? Who puts whom to bed? Do they simply collapse together on this wet mattress when it’s sufficiently dark? What about nightmares and weekends and potty-training and sicknesses? Within minutes, my quest for understanding has devolved into an uncontrolled stream of incredulity.

The door opens sharply, and within seconds a stranger is guiding Faith around the home, mumbling in incomprehensible-to-me Swahili and gesturing animatedly towards one area of the room and then the next. From his indifferent expression I sense that Melvin knows this man, who is now holding the tin of vegetable fat and motioning to Faith as if to say, “what can I do?”

In the aftermath of his mother’s death, Melvin informed us, his father began taking extended and mysterious trips, and though this neighbor had been given money for the children’s safekeeping, he had pocketed most of it, tossing them the occasional piece of fruit. Faith later told me that this man had described the way in which the boys had been abandoned and had pleaded for financial assistance to care for them.

Faith and her visitor soon exit the house, leaving the boys and me alone once again, the youngest quivering on my lap. This has been an extraordinary day in the life of this small child, the regularity of cold neglect punctuated by the sudden flurry of adult attention. Then again, is there any facet of this boy’s life that is not extraordinary?

The day’s commotion takes its toll, and he tears up with the ordinariness of an overwhelmed three-year-old. The unmarried, childless man in me lifts him instinctually off my lap, unsure what do, pining for the luxury of parental deference, a luxury that died in this house two years ago. Or so I thought.

Melvin walks over, takes his brother from my hands, wipes away his tears and showers him with what I can only describe as maternal affection. His nine-year-old fingers trace his younger sibling’s cheek bones, working their way down and about his chin through the contours of his face, removing the residue from his tears and dirt-covered skin. He holds his brother in stillness until the crying starts to soften. Gradually, the house is silent once again.

Melvin’s other brother looks at me with an expression I do not quite understand. Since entering the house this is first time I’ve gazed into his eyes. He is, I realize, the forgotten part of the tragedy, unfairly sandwiched between the sobering responsibilities of the first brother and the microcosmic innocence of the third. Looking at him, I think of my own brother, a victim, in his words, of middle-child prejudice. At the moment, it seems a universal principle.

I want to apologize to these children for the insight I’ve gained at their expense, and for the monstrous hand life has dealt them.

The four of us continue to sit in silence, and I am mystified. Is it sadness or shock, anger or paralysis? I want to relive the last six weeks with hindsight so I can help. I want to buy the family food for a month, or give them to my wealthy cousin in Toronto who’s been trying to adopt a child for years. I want to return home to an elaborate dinner and my downtown lifestyle free of guilt. But mostly, I want to apologize to these children for the insight I’ve gained at their expense, and for the monstrous hand life has dealt them. One death is a tragedy, said Stalin, a million is a statistic. He was right.

Faith finally returns, having collected the necessary data. “We have to leave,” she says. “Say your goodbyes.”

I turn to Melvin and give him an extended hug, a newfound respect for my succinct student. “Be good,” I say to him. “Faith will help you.” I hold his brothers one last time and it is awkward and forced; they still don’t know what to make of me or my visit.

The door closes with a thud and we’re off, maneuvering around sewage and debris on the narrow dirt road. “I forgot my camera,” I tell Faith, “give me a second.” The boys are startled when I return, their final surprise of the day. I retrieve my camera and as I turn to leave I see a shiny, rumpled Kit-Kat wrapping on the floor. Scanning their faces, I realize that one of the boys isn’t eating. “You’re a good brother,” I say to Melvin.

Faith and I walk in silence for a long time. It is a long trek home so we pick up the pace – the darkening sky is beginning to attract the drunkards and harlots and the slum will soon become a simmering cauldron. Debauchery, as I’ve discovered, is a ‘nocturnal enterprise’ in Kenya.

“So?” she finally asks.

“I’m speechless.”

“You are not the first. And neither are they. This is one of many such homes.”

Yup, Stalin was right.

“Faith, do you have faith?”

She smiles at the wordplay. “I do.”

“How? From what, from whom?”

“I think you need to reflect on everything you’ve seen today.”

Faith is an enigma, I decide. She always has been. Perhaps you need to be an enigma to do what she does, to ride the pendulum of hope and despair. Or maybe the journey simply makes you one. We walk together in the cowering sun. My last day in Kenya.

Copyright © Sheldon Fernandez 2014

Sheldon Fernandez is a computer engineer, humanitarian, and aspiring artisan.  He can be reached at: sfernandez@infusion.com 

Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes. Help F&O publish more great work: sign up for email notices with the subscribe form on Frontlines, where we post small stories and announce new work, and  purchase a modestly-priced site day pass or subscription. Please spread the word by sharing Frontlines posts directly, and “liking” our Facebook page.

 

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LOOSE LEAF

F&O’s salon: an eclectic gathering place, for guests and resident contributors

salon

 

Why Ramadan is called Ramadan, by Mohammad Hassan Khalil

The Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, started Friday, May 26, 2017. Professor Mohammad Hassan Khalil  answers six questions about the significance of this religious observance. The Conversation

Why Scientists Should Not March on Washington, by Andrea Saltelli

America’s scheduled April 22 March for Science, like the Women’s March before it, will confront United States President Donald Trump on his home turf – this time to challenge his stance on climate change and vaccinations, among other controversial scientific issues. The Conversation But not everyone who supports scientific research and evidence-based policymaking is on board.

Losing a dog can be harder than losing a beloved human, by Frank T. McAndrew

Recently, my wife and I went through one of the more excruciating experiences of our lives – the euthanasia of our beloved dog, Murphy.  When people who have never had a dog see their dog-owning friends mourn the loss of a pet, they probably think it’s all a bit of an overreaction; after all, it’s “just a dog.” Perhaps if people realized just how strong and intense the bond is between people and their dogs, such grief would become more widely accepted.

I Cover Hate. I Didn’t Expect It at My Family’s Jewish Cemetery, by Ariana Tobin

The American cemetery  Chesed Shel Emeth, where Ariana Tobin’s relatives are buried was vandalized in February 2017. As authorities investigate whether it was a hate crime, she relates it to the project she works on for ProPublica,  “Documenting Hate.”  It’s about confronting the ugliness and comforting the scared, she notes — but it’s also about giving real answers, using actual numbers and telling true stories when our children ask questions like, “What happened to the Jews?”

Under Trump, Is It Game Over for the Climate Fight? by Bill McKibben

Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency is a stunning blow to hopes for avoiding the worst impacts of global warming. But a broad-based, grassroots movement committed to cutting emissions and promoting clean energy must continue and intensify – the stakes are simply too high to give up.

WASHINGTON DIARY, by Cheryl Hawkes  Column

IMG_2449Estimates put the Washington, DC, Women’s March at between 500,000 and a million people, while sister protests in more than 650 U.S. centres and another 261 internationally drew an additional 3-5 million people. Journalist Cheryl Hawkes marched in their midst. This is her story about it, and thoughts about what comes next.

Protecting Digital Privacy in Public Shaming Era, by Julia Angwin, ProPublica   Column

Every January, I do a digital tune-up, cleaning up my privacy settings, updating my software and generally trying to upgrade my security. This year, the task feels particularly urgent as we face a world with unprecedented threats to our digital safety.

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) takes the oath of office from U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts (R) with his wife Melania, and children Barron, Donald, Ivanka and Tiffany at his side during inauguration ceremonies at the Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos BarriaTrump Hits Populist Note in Inaugural Address, by Richard Tofel, ProPublica

Donald Trump’s speech largely lacked lofty language, but contained a full-throated populist vision, delivered with confidence, and signaled this from the start in one of its most memorable lines: “Today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” This might be heard to echo Ronald Reagan’s 1981 statement that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” but that would actually miss Trump’s point: The speech did not oppose government — it opposed the governors.

Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Fund choice between LGBT rights and saving lives, by Jeremy Hainsworth

Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Fund choice between LGBT rights and saving lives, by Jeremy Hainsworth The annual hullabaloo about the allegedly homophobic and discriminatory activities of the Salvation Army has begun. I'm torn: the Salvation Army has discriminatory policies affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people issues. It also runs detoxes and rehab facilities for those seeking recovery from addiction. Bottom line: someone who is dead can’t help fight inequality.The annual hullabaloo about the allegedly homophobic and discriminatory activities of the Salvation Army has begun. I’m torn: the Salvation Army has discriminatory policies affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people issues. It also runs detoxes and rehab facilities for those seeking recovery from addiction. Bottom line: someone who is dead can’t help fight inequality.

Wake-up: How the 2016 Election Changed One American Voter, by Emily Lacika

My U.S. post-election emotions have run the gamut: sadness, anger, anxiety, vindictiveness, shame. American politics is big on rhetoric about democracy, but it often falls short, especially this year when the candidate who won fewer votes has captured the White House. Sixty two million other Americans voted the same way I did, and lost –and now we are working together.

How should you grieve? by Andrea Volpe, Loose Leaf essay

The pain and sorrow of bereavement is supposed to get easier to bear as time passes. But what if it doesn’t? Psychiatrists call it ‘complicated grief’ – and it can be treated.

Poppy: medicine, or opiate? by Alex Kennedy  Loose Leaf 

A former soldier questions the symbolism of the poppy.

His Bob-ness joins Yeats, Beckett, and Eliot, by Rod Mickleburgh

In the winter of 1990, I waited with a handful of reporters and photographers in a grand salon of the Palais-Royal in Paris for Bob Dylan. More than 25 years ahead of the Nobel Prize people, the French had decided that Dylan’s lyrical prowess was worthy of the country’s highest cultural honour, Commandeur dans l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. T.S. Eliot was one of the first to receive the award in 1960. Borges followed in 1962. And now, following in the footsteps of Sean Connery (1987), it was Bob’s turn.

photo_10261“Only White People,” the Little Girl Told my Son, by Topher Sanders

I saw the messy birth of my son’s otherness … They were playing on one of those spinning things — you know, the one where kids learn about centrifugal force and as a bonus get crazy dizzy. They were having a blast. “Only white people,” said a little girl.

On Capitalism and “Bullshit Jobs” by David Graeber

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by century’s end that countries like Great Britain or the United States would achieve a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. Why did Keynes’ promised utopia never materialise?

Is the Environment Stuck in US Journalism’s Basement? by Peter Dykstra

Environmental journalism has reached a certain maturity: Decades of quality, often courageous and ground-breaking reporting on life-or-death issues, an imperfect-but-enviable record of accuracy, and at least a dozen Pulitzer Prizes to show for it in the U.S. But some see another view.

An Ancient Fossil’s Lessons About Cancer,  by Richard Gunderman

The finding of cancer in the bone of a 1.7-million-year-old human relative isn’t just a biological oddity – it is a reminder of what it means to be both alive and human. Life is fraught with hazards. Thriving biologically (and biographically) does not mean eliminating all risks but managing the ones we can, both to reduce harm and promote a full life.

Photos Shape Attitudes to Refugees: View from Australia, by Jane Lydon

Photography has mapped a distinctively Australian version of this global story. Once migrants were represented as complex, vulnerable, diverse people. Today the Australian government seeks to suppress photographs of asylum seekers, seemingly from fear that such images will prompt empathy with them and undermine border security policy.

Trump as dealmaker-in-chief? by Brian Brennan

Donald Trump would envisage himself as America’s dealmaker-in-chief. What would that look like? Not a pretty picture, as I see it.

hc_Al_Hussein_smllVerbatim: Hate, mainstreamed — UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. By Ra’ad Al Hussein

Hate is becoming mainstreamed. Walls – which tormented previous generations, and have never yielded any sustainable solution to any problem – are returning. Barriers of suspicion are rising, snaking through and between our societies – and they are killers. Clampdowns on public freedoms, and crackdowns on civil society activists and human rights defenders, are hacking away at the forces which uphold the healthy functioning of societies. Judicial institutions which act as checks on executive power are being dismantled. Towering inequalities are hollowing out the sense that there are common goods. These trends bleed nations of their innate resilience.

Canada’s ambassador to Ireland: Once a Cop, Always a Cop. By Brian Brennan

It’s hard to tell from the raw television footage if the shaven-headed protester posed any real danger to the Irish and British dignitaries gathered at a Dublin military cemetery this week to honour British soldiers killed during the 1916 Irish rebellion against British rule. But clearly the Canadian ambassador, Kevin Vickers, felt there was a threat. He made a beeline for the shouting protester, grabbed him by the sleeves of his leather jacket, marched him away from the podium and turned him over to police.

Remembering the Pillar. By Brian Brennan

A century ago, on April 29, 1916, the Irish Republic ended its brief existence with an unconditional surrender. Though successfully thwarted, it set off a series of events that led to the outbreak of an Irish war of independence between 1919 and 1921. Brian Brennan writes about his experience of Ireland’s independence movement halfway between then, and now.

After Paris climate pact, let’s get personal. By Gwynne Taraska and Shiva Polefka  Essay

Reengineering global economic dependence on carbon pollution requires conscious commitment and action from individuals as well as governments and corporations.

Thousands turned out in Vancouver, Washington to hear Bernie Sanders. © Rod Mickleburgh 2016

“Feeling the Bern”  By Rod Mickleburgh

The 74-year old, white-haired politician advanced to the podium, and the roof nearly came off the Hudson’s Bay High School gymnasium. No wonder. For nearly four hours, thousands of us had been standing in line, braving a cold, miserable rain, without even knowing whether we would be among the 5,000 or so lucky enough to make it inside. As the cheers continued to cascade down from the packed, rickety benches of the high school gym, Bernie Sanders leaned forward and shouted in his hoarse, Brooklynese. “All I can say is: WHOA!”

Dal Richards Facebook profile

DAL RICHARDS: The bandleader who almost lived forever. By Rod Mickleburgh

How often do you get to shake hands and say ‘hello’ and ‘thanks’ to a living legend? Vancouver’s King of Swing had a gig every New Year’s Eve for 79 years, which, as the whimsical Richards never tired of pointing out, must be some kind of world record.

Star Wars inspired me to become an astrophysicist, by Martin Hendry

For nearly 40 years, the phrase “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” has resonated in popular culture – forever linked to the iconic opening credits of Star Wars. When I watched the movie for the first time in 1978, at the tender age of ten, I was instantly entranced by its visions of alien worlds, lightsaber battles and the mysterious Force that “binds the galaxy together”.

Alaa Murabit: Libyan Women, identity, country and faith, by Christopher Majka

Alaa Murabita, a Canadian born-woman of Libyan heritage, and a physician and activist, founded the Voice of Libyan Women following the overthrow of the Gaddafi dictatorship.

The Painting That Saved My Family From the Holocaust by Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica

Seventy-seven years ago, my grandmother left her fourth-floor apartment in Munich carrying a painting by Otto Stein, a modestly popular German artist. Earlier that month, the Nazis had launched a nationwide pogrom against Germany’s Jewish minority, a rampage in which gangs of men burned stores, schools and synagogues. In the aftermath of what became known as Kristallnacht, the Gestapo rounded up hundreds of Jewish men and sent them to the Dachau concentration camp. Among them was my grandfather, Jakob Engelberg.

Courtesy of the author: Naomi Shihab Nye explores her world through poetry and prose. She will read and discuss her work at a free event of the New Mexico Humanities Councils Annual Convocation, Friday, Nov. 14 at the KiMo Theatre, 421 Central NW, from 7 to 9 p.m. dolmstead@abqjournal.com Wed Oct 29 16:51:47 -0600 2014 1414623104 FILENAME: 181150.JPG

Gate A-4, by Naomi Shihab Nye

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been detained four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well — one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

Remembrance and Refugees, by Rod Mickleburgh

Two days before the numbing atrocities of Paris, I went to the annual Remembrance Day ceremony at the Japanese-Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park. After the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, bowing our heads in remembrance on that sun-bathed morning feels light years away. Yet, looking back, as hearts harden towards welcoming desperate Syrian refugees, the event seems to take on a deeper meaning.

ROM2009_11024_371-196x275

“Throw the bastards out,” by William Thorsell

Not in recent times have Canadian voters had an opportunity to “throw the bastards out” in the classic phrase. Elected officials generally leave office before such public urges get to them. Knowing when to leave is among the more elegant qualities of any CEO, but then Mr. Harper has never laid claim to elegance.

Niqab: Radical feminism or female subjugation? By Christopher Majka

Unexpectedly (or perhaps not) the wearing of the niqab has emerged as an issue in the Canadian federal election. Yes, that’s right — the Canadian federal election, not that of Pakistan or Yemen. And in the year 2015, not 1015. How is it that we are even having a discussion about how a very small minority of Muslim women in Canada dress in the context of determining the political future of Canada?

Steve pic

When Democracy Becomes Controversial. By Stephen Collis

Poet and professor Stephen Collis,  and biology professor Lynne Quarmby, were awarded the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver on Oct. 13. Here is Stephen Collis’s acceptance speech: “Here’s perhaps a bit of controversy: we’re not living in a democracy. Not, at least, if we take seriously the idea that a democracy is a system of rights and freedoms enshrining the self-determination of a community’s constituents. As many thinkers are now pointing out, western democracies in fact function much more like oligarchies …”

The Canada We Hope For. By Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi

Crafting an ideal Canada—the Canada to which we aspire—lies in engaging muscularly with the past and the future. It means a thousand simple acts of service and a million tiny acts of heroism. It means acting at the community level: on our streets, in our neighbourhoods, and in our schools. It means refusing to accept the politics of fear. And then it means exporting the very best of Canada, that ideal and real Canada, to the rest of the world.

Photo by Kent Kallberg, Creative Commons via Suzuki Foundation http://davidsuzuki.org.

Voting and Canadian values. By David Suzuki

When my grandparents arrived from Japan in the early 1900s, Canada was far less tolerant than it is today. Women and minorities couldn’t vote, nor could Indigenous people who had lived here from time immemorial. In 1942, the government took away my Canadian-born family’s property and rights and sent us to an internment camp in the B.C. Interior simply because of our ancestry. Canada has come a long way in my lifetime.

Pope Francis and Dorothy Day Economics. By Chuck Collins

Perhaps the most subversive part of Pope Francis’ speech to the United States Congress was in celebrating a little-known figure and thus reviving interest in what Dorothy Day stood for. And if we truly heed the teachings of Dorothy Day, we would radically transform our society and economy.

Alan and x Kurdi. Photo from Facebook page In Memory of Kurdi Family

Alan and Ghalib Kurdi.

 “Politicizing” Alan Kurdi’s death. By Alexander Kennedy  (Warning: photo and language may be disturbing)

The future and the past clash with me, and I’m left with a feeling of shame. The past. That a child drowned on a beach near a Turkish resort. The present. That the death of Alan Kurdi, 3, along with his brother Ghalib and mother Rehanna, is the last  straw for me. The future. That Canada’s immigration minister,  Chris Alexander  was allegedly asked to bring these children to safety in Canada.

Facts, or fictions? How PR flacks exploit Wikipedia. By Taha Yasseri

If you heard that a group of people were creating, editing, and maintaining Wikipedia articles related to brands, firms and individuals, you could point out, correctly, that this is the entire point of Wikipedia. It is, after all, the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit”. But a group has been creating and editing articles for money. Wikipedia administrators banned more than 300 suspect accounts involved, but those behind the ring are still unknown.

Science and “the environment” should not be separated. By Manu Saunders

 Does the natural world have any relevance to modern science? Of course it does; but sometimes it seems like that’s not the case. This is a myth perpetuated directly and indirectly through media, policy decisions, academic disciplines, even some science engagement initiatives: that the natural world is somehow separate from science.

Living With an Ankle Bracelet in America. By M.M.

I cannot sleep. There is a device on my leg. It requires that I wake up an hour early so I can plug it into a charger and stand next to the outlet, like a cell phone charging up for the day. Not the day, actually, but 12 hours. After that, the device runs out of juice. Wherever I am, I have to find an outlet to plug myself into. If I don’t, I’m likely to be thrown back onto Rikers Island. At the age of 22, I landed in prison. Though I had grown up around violence, it was my first time in trouble. I’d taken the law into my own hands during an altercation, because where I come from, we don’t dial 911 for help — we see how badly police officers treat people like us.

Riccardo Cuppini

Riccardo Cuppini

A Judge Asks: How Do We Hold a Child’s Mind Accountable? By Morris B. Hoffmann

Debates about juvenile justice also sometimes mix up responsibility with punishment. We hold our own children responsible for their actions from about the time they learn to talk. English common law drew the line of criminal responsibility at age seven. Indeed, holding children responsible for their actions is one of the important ways we teach them to become responsible adults. In this sense, it is more important to hold children responsible than adults.

Wanted: A new story of humanity’s place in the world. By Philip Loring

It goes without saying that humans are good at causing problems. Climate change, overfishing and widespread environmental contamination from chemical toxicants are all creations of our own making. But are we destined to create such problems? Many people believe so, and argue that our capacity for self-interest, avarice and ecological shortsightedness make us inherently unsustainable as a species. Not only is this way of thinking built on long-disproven myths about human nature and human origins, it also constrains how we think about solutions and alienates us from the rest of the natural world. We need to abandon this belief and not allow ourselves to be defined only by our most recent history. The truth of the matter is that we belong here, and belonging is a much more powerful narrative for sustainability than isolation.

The Crush Also Rises: On learning only Spain’s vineyard-plant exceed China’s. By Michael Sasges

Chiang was glad to see us, and shook hands and gave us good rooms looking out on the square, and then we washed and cleaned up and went downstairs to the dining room for lunch … His text a Hemingway appreciation, “wine is the most civilized thing in the world,” Mike Sasges savours this week’s viticulture news: Last year, and for the first time, only Spain had more hectares of vineyard under cultivation than China. The Spanish number was more than one million hectares; the Chinese, 799,000. The French number was 792,000 hectares, making 2014 the first year the Chinese planted more vineyards than the French.

The Great Riddle: fostering creativity and tenacity. By Sheldon Fernandez

Not everyone is an entrepreneur, though many readers may be so without realizing it. The word itself means different things to different people, but I prefer the sentiments of the playwright who said: “some people see things and ask why, but I dream of things that never were and ask why not?” Stripped of the decoration and fluff, what I’ve discovered is that the entrepreneur’s soul is move by two complementary forces: refusal and audacity. Refusal to be limited by the world as presented to them, which then blossoms into the audacity to transcend it.

Lone-Wolf Terror Trap: Why the Cure Will Be Worse Than the Disease. By Matthew Harwood, ACLU

The shadow of a new threat seems to be darkening the national security landscape: the lone-wolf terrorist. Like all violent crime, individual terrorism represents a genuine risk, just an exceedingly rare and minimal one. It’s not the sort of thing that the government should be able to build whole new, intrusive surveillance programs on or use as an excuse for sending in agents to infiltrate communities. Programs to combat lone-wolf terrorism have a way of wildly exaggerating its prevalence and dangers – and in the end are only likely to exacerbate the problem. For Americans to concede more of their civil liberties in return for “security” against lone wolves wouldn’t be a trade; it would be fraud.

CCM Tackaberry skates worn by Jean Béliveau when he scored his 500th goal, on February 11, 1971. These are at the lac aux Castors Pavilion, Mount Royal, Quebec, Canada. Photo by Simon Pierre Barrette via Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Jean Béliveau’s bronzed skates. Simon Pierre, CC

Thank you, Jean Béliveau. By E. Kaye Fulton

When I arrived at the Montreal Gazette as a feature writer in 1980, the legendary Red Fisher offered a blanket invitation to write anything I wanted, anytime, for the sports department. Without hesitation, I said: “I want to write about the Forum.” In my family, the Forum was the Temple of Apollo and the guardian at its gate was the man who wore these skates, this glorious gentleman, this unassuming and superb sportsman.

Body counts disguise true horror of what wars do to bodies. By Tom Gregory

Every year on Remembrance Day, we pause to look back on old wars and recount the tallies of the dead, including 16 million killed in the first world war and 60 million in the second world war. And every day, news reports use body counts to highlight the human costs of war: from Syria, where the United Nations has estimated more than 191,000 people have been killed up to April this year, to Ukraine, where the latest estimates are of at least 3,724 people killed (including 298 on Flight MH17). But simply counting the bodies of those killed in war may not actually help us understand the death and destruction caused by war. Instead, my worry is that they end up erasing the violence inflicted on each of the bodies of those affected by war, and numbing our emotional responses to the deaths of others.

Postcard from Poland as the Iron Curtain lifted. By Rod Mickleburgh

Rod Mickleburgh, 1989

Rod Mickleburgh, 1989

Being in Warsaw while East Germany teetered had its fascination. It was the dawn of the free market in Poland. An entrepreneur had set up the country’s first fledgling stock market on the second floor of the city’s ramshackle, old Fisherman’s Hall. A cab driver told me that now, for the first time, he could buy bananas. The independent, pro-Solidarity newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, had just been launched. But I most remember my first night in Warsaw, when I walked into the darkened main square of its beautifully-restored Old Town. A couple of guys, clearly from the country, were selling cheese by candlelight from the back of an old van. There was such simplicity to the scene as money and cheese changed hands, only the low hum of their voices breaking the silence of the vast, empty square. I thought to myself: “Thus, capitalism begins in Poland.”

Ebola: the Black Death Revisited. By Ewa Bacon

It is not Ebola that is stalking the land, but anxiety and fear. We fear an extinction event. We search the environment and note the loss of plants and animals. We worry as we examine “Martha,” the last ever passenger pigeon. We examine the geological record and note that not even the mighty dinosaur survived the cataclysm of Cretaceous period. Could that happen to us as well? We search history and note some sobering examples of global catastrophes. Few are as renowned as the “Black Death.” Early in the 1300’s Europeans received news of unprecedented diseases raging in the wealthy, remote and mysterious realm of China.

Michael Brown, Ferguson and the nature of unrest. By Garrett Albert Duncan (Public access)

Many Americans share president Barack Obama’s sentiment regarding the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. This is clearly indicated in the deeply felt hurt experienced by so many and the massive swell of moral support people of all backgrounds offered to the young man’s parents in recent days. But to suggest that all, or even most, Americans feel the same would be severely misleading.

Israel at the Boundary. By Chris Wood (Public access)

A friend — I hope I may still call him one — recently chastised me for selectiveness in my criticism on social networks of Israel’s Gaza campaign, and my comparative silence about the horrors occurring in Syria and Iraq. The unspoken implication that there was something particular about Israel that inclined me to single it out, embedded another: that the something particular was Israel’s Jewishness. The suggestions are sufficiently morally impugning, and implicate enough of my personal friendships, that they deserve a thoughtful response.

Canada’s Justice Minister is Yesterday’s Man. By Charles Mandel (Public access)

Peter MacKay is yesterday’s man.  According to Canada’s Justice Minister, women are dedicated moms and caregivers around the clock who are busy changing diapers, packing lunches and dropping the kids off at daycare. In contrast, men are dedicated fathers who are shaping the minds of the next generation. This old-fashioned, blatantly sexist attitude recently surfaced in a pair of emails MacKay sent to his staff on the occasions of Mother’s and Father’s Days.

The Ugly Oil Sands Debate. By Tzeporah Berman (Public access)

I have family who work in Canada’s oil sands. They know that I have been a vocal critic of current oil sands operations and plans for expansion, yet they didn’t hesitate to welcome me into their homes and to invite me to a family gathering in Canmore, Alberta. We had a wonderful time. We shared some memories, laughed a lot and even tackled some hard stuff. The conversations were rich and surprisingly easy. Perhaps in part because although we have different opinions there already was a basis of trust and shared experiences.

Hurricane Carter, Champion of the World. By Cheryl Hawkes (Public access)

Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, who spent 19 years in a United States prison for a triple murder he did not commit, died of prostate cancer on Easter Sunday at his home in Toronto. He was 76. Toronto journalist Cheryl Hawkes remembers the man who, for a few years, was her neighbour: “a man who had given a lot of thought to how we treat one another in this world and to the deadly power of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

512px-Archbishop-Tutu-mediumAn Argument for Carbon Divestment. By Desmond Tutu (Public access)

Scientists and public representatives gathered in Berlin are weighing up radical options for curbing carbon emissions contained in the third report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The bottom line, a draft of the report warns, is that we have 15 years to take the necessary steps to affordably reduce emissions to attain the targeted 2°C over pre-industrial times. The horse may not have already bolted, but it’s well on its way through the stable door. Who can stop it? Well, we can, you and I. And it is not just that we can stop it, we have a responsibility to do so.

Fred Phelps: Death of a Dinosaur. By Cheryl Hawkes (Public access)

Fred Phelps, the Christian crusader who led his flock of evangelical nut bars from Topeka, Kansas, on anti-gay crusades, died last month. It is mortifying for many Christians that Phelps defined himself as one, as he stalked the funerals of gays and straights, raging against his own United States government and a democracy that tolerated homosexuality. Phelps and his family at Westboro Baptist Church took full advantage of their constitutional rights while blasting the civil rights of others. His death has given the people he hurt and offended a moral choice.

The Pluck of the Irish: How a proud native cuts through the kitsch. By Brian Brennan (Subscription)

Here’s what I will not do this St. Patrick’s Day: I will not call it St. Paddy’s Day or the 17th of Ireland. I will not wear a green tie or sweater. I will not drink green beer. I will not wear a button that says, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.” I will raise another glass to the poet Seamus Heaney, listen to Dublin pianist John O’Conor play the music of Irish composer John Field, and re-read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I will remember that many of us who become emigrants leave Ireland because we beg to differ, because we fear what Edna O’Brien calls the “psychological choke.”

Winter Swan. By E. Kaye Fulton (Public access)

Swan 3

© E. Kaye Fulton

This has been a hard, hard winter for wildlife  – the worst, locals say, in 70 years. For a month or more, the mute swans of Wellington, Ontario, have been buffeted by howling winds and driving snow. Unable to forage the frozen shorelines and bottom of Lake Ontario for food, they fend off starvation by curling themselves into snowy white mounds, immobile and defenceless on the impenetrable surface. Two nights ago, in search of easy prey, coyotes crept across the ice to claim two sleeping swans huddled at the end of the line formed by their 26-member flock.

Golden Age of American Journalism? By Paul Steiger, ProPublica (Public access)

… I too am thrilled with what the new digital tools can do, in capturing data, drawing knowledge it, and in displaying and distributing that knowledge.  I’m also delighted that the barriers to entry have shrunk so dramatically. Instead of spending millions on a printing press, you need only spend a few thousand on a laptop and a website and, boom, you’re a publisher. But creating millions of lone-wolf, single-person bloggers doesn’t get us to a golden age. It can give us cat photos that make us giggle, news scoops involving an original fact or two, a trenchant analysis of finance or politics or sculpture, video of Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift nuzzling their latest boyfriends, or possibly some movie and book reviews worth trusting. All nice to have but not game-changing. If you’re going to reliably produce journalism that improves the world, maybe you don’t need a village, but you need some collaborators. You need lots of reporters. You need editors, data journalists, a lawyer … (and) you need to find a way to get paid.


Pete Seeger: Farewell to a Giant
. By Silver Donald Cameron
(Public access)

silver_donald_cameronAuthor and filmmaker Silver Donald Cameron remembers American icon Pete Seeger, who died January 27, 2014:
In June, 1969, I was rattling away at my old Remington manual typewriter when my five-year-old daughter Leslie wandered into my workroom.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m writing a letter to Pete Seeger,” I said. I was hoping that Seeger would consider a benefit concert for The Mysterious East, a dissident magazine in Canada’s Maritimes that I helped to edit. At five, Leslie already knew and loved Seeger’s music, especially his children’s album Strangers and Cousins.
“Pete Seeger? Really?”
“Really.”
“You tell Pete Seeger,” she said gravely, “that I’m having my birthday — and he can come!”

My Last Day in Kenya. By Sheldon Fernandez  (Public access)

Kenya child 2

© Sheldon Fernandez 2008

In the summer of 2008 Sheldon Fernandez spent several weeks working in Kangemi, a large slum on the outskirts of Nairobi.  Under the auspices of the African Jesuits Aids Network (AJAN), he assisted with infrastructure projects and HIV/AIDS education, but also had the opportunity to work with the school children of Kenya. The following essay recounts the very last day of his trip, when Fernandez discovered some hard truths about one of his students.

Behind Houghton Walls: on Nelson Mandela’s last days. By Iain T. Benson (Public access)

Madiba has been a long time a-dying.
I’ve driven, we all have,
past his Houghton home;
cream security walls
even him …

Convocation Address. By Patrick Lane(Public access)

Armstrong, BC - Purple Springs Nursery field location shoot with large lift.

© Craig Pulsifer 2013

It is sixty-five years ago, you’re ten years old and sitting on an old, half-blind, grey horse. All you have is a saddle blanket and a rope for reins as you watch a pack of dogs rage at the foot of a Ponderosa pine. High up on a branch a cougar lies supine, one paw lazily swatting at the air. He knows the dogs will tire. They will slink away and then the cougar will climb down and go on with its life in the Blue Bush country south of Kamloops.* It is a hot summer day. There is the smell of pine needles and Oregon grape and dust. It seems to you that the sun carves the dust from the face of the broken rocks, carves and lifts it into the air where it mixes with the sun. Just beyond you are three men on horses.

Two decades of disaster: Newfoundland’s fishery. Words and photos by Greg Locke (Subscription)

Spanish and Canadian offshore fishing trawlers at the Canadian 200mile limit on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. © Greg Locke 2000

© Greg Locke 2000

It’s a cold foggy day in the fishing village of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland. Just 20 kilometers south from downtown St. John’s, it feels much further. There is not much activity or many people out and around the few remaining wharfs and twine lofts that once were buzzing hives of fishing activity ringing the harbour. Today, there are just a few frozen tourists looking to make photos of a Newfoundland that doesn’t exist anymore …  The grim faces and tears of the people of Petty Harbour, and other fishing communities around the eastern Canadian province, told the story of a great calamity.

Bangladesh and The Bay. By Rod Mickleburgh(Subscription)

The fair city of Vancouver on Canada’s West Coast is more than 11,000 kilometres from poor, benighted Bangladesh. But this week, the teeming flood plain came to the doorstep of the large Hudson’s Bay Company department store in the heart of downtown Vancouver, through the glass doors and up the escalator to the second floor. There, close to a hundred union protesters gathered in front of the store’s swank, high-priced merchandise, serenading shoppers, mannequins and suddenly-invisible Bay managers with chants of “Shame” and “Sign the Accord.” Their ire was directed at far-away Bangladesh, and Western retail chains like The Bay that peddle clothing items produced  by impoverished, poorly-paid Bangladeshi textile workers toiling in grim, frequently dangerous factories.

JFK: The Murdered King. By Brian Brennan (Subscription)

I was 20 years old at the time so I remember, of course, where I was the day Kennedy was shot. I had been out visiting with friends that afternoon and when I got home my mother was in tears. “The president’s been killed,” she said. “Dev’s been killed?” I said, thinking she was referring to Ireland’s Brooklyn-born president, Éamon de Valera. “No, President Kennedy,” said my mother. “Somebody shot him.” For my mother, as for many in Ireland, it was as if a member of the family had been taken from us.

A lesson passed on. By Jim McNiven (Subscription)

My wife and I spent a couple of months in the American Southwest last winter. We stayed out on the edge of the desert near Tucson, Arizona. It is dry, hot and utterly unlike where I live, in Halifax on Canada’s Atlantic coast. Our two married daughters, twins, came down together to visit, bringing one’s 9-year-old son. The three women were keen to explore shops and galleries and a mother-daughters expedition was formed. I was designated as official entertainer of the grandson.

A bale of  a good time. By Charles Mandel (Subscription)

Hay bales in the Peace Country

© Greg Locke 2009

Thursday night in Auburndale, Nova Scotia, and what’s the big entertainment? A drive-in movie, perhaps? Maybe dinner out? How about staring at a big field of hay? That doesn’t sound terribly promising, but over four balmy nights in July, Steph and I sit on our front porch, watching grass get cut in the field directly across from our house. We aren’t the only ones entranced. Everyone and his dog (literally, for half the vehicles zipping past have a mutt sharing the front seat) slows down and gawks at the haying that proceeds apace up the hill on the Oickle farm.

The Prince and the Prostitute: By Brian Brennan (Subscription)

When the heir to the British throne paid his first official visit to Canada in 1919, it was expected he would follow the usual royal routine of shaking hands, making speeches and inspecting troops. What wasn’t anticipated was that Edward, Prince of Wales, would buy a ranch while he was abroad. And what certainly wasn’t predicted was that the ranch would become a convenient hiding place for the prince four years later, when one of his former mistresses went on trial for murder in London.

Accordion Man: Born to Squeeze? Not me. By Brian Brennan (Subscription)

Brian Brennan, age 16, playing accordion at a talent contest in Dublin, 1960. (I didn't win, by the way!) You’ve heard the jokes. They’re not funny. What’s the difference between an accordionist and a terrorist? A terrorist has sympathizers. Not funny, I tell you. Syndicated cartoonist Gary Larson (The Far Side) used to lead the insult brigade. He put his favorite on a greeting card sold all over the world. The caption read, “Welcome to Heaven, here’s your harp. Welcome to Hell, here is your accordion.” Not funny? All right, maybe a little bit funny.  Accordionists get no respect. I know. I used to be an accordionist. OK, still am. No respect I get.

 

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