What's all this Easter Bunny Business Anyway?

Photo of a bunny in a meadow of flowersGlorious spring has finally arrived, and despite the rather mild winter us BC-ershave enjoyed these past several months, (while the lucky ones ice-climb Niagra Falls and dig themselves out of their snow-trapped houses), we can’t help but smile at the induction of spring.  Easter, a hallmark of the season, is just around the corner.  When many of us think of Easter we either think: fabulous, scrumptious brunch buffet, quality family time conversing around the table, pastel colors and festive spring designs or hunting for those notorious chocolate eggs. Oh yeah.  And then there’s the part about the resurrection of Christ.  Yes, there’s something very juxtaposing about this rather peculiar holiday.  For many, Easteris a non secular holiday - an excuse to eat more chocolate (as if we didn’t have get our fair share at Christmas and Valentine’s).  However for others, Easter is one of the most important of all religious holidays.  So how do we, as a society, reconcile the paradoxical idea of a large bunny hoping around delivering chocolate eggs in a made-to-look-like-bird-nest-basket during the night for all the little boys and girls,with the resurrection of Jesus Christ?  While most of us follow and accept these peculiar customs without a second thought, (as they are so well ingrained in our commercial culture), if we were to actually take a moment to think about why, we would find that ironically, bunnies and eggs enjoy a close symbolic relationship with Eastertide.Read more

Weighing In: The New GMO Non-Browning Apple

gmo-appleIn this emerging world of Food Inc.-enthused, health-conscious pundits, (where magazine articles have made experts of us all in one way or another), the demand for more fresh, organic, locally-sourced and naturally-derived products has given birth not just to the hipster movement, (yes, love it or hate it) but to a whole new breed of thinkers and doers.  For the first time in decades, we, the consumer, have regained some kind of control over our food source by choosing to buy or not to buy certain products. In doing so, we bear witness to the vast social, environmental, political and fiscal implications of such power projected on a global scale.  It’s taken a little bit of time, but slowly we’re learning and growing, building our houses out of much stronger materials.  First hay, then sticks, now bricks.  For better or worse, the Information Age, has opened our hearts and minds to the endowment of knowledge, making three very healthy, nut-raised, antibiotic-free porkers out of our three little piggies and one, terrible big bad wolf from the GMO food industry.Read more

A One Way Ticket To Mars. Would you go?

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 7.40.03 AM




Have you ever looked up at the planets and stars littering our night skies and wondered what it would be like to travel among them?  To abscond from the familiars of our Mother’s green and blue cradle, and retrace an interplanetary narrative that began 4.5 billion years ago?  Imagine your life, a rogue earthling, funneling through the starry abyss in an ambit of alien landscapes and bottomless pockets of unknown.  How would you feel, leaving everything behind, without the gravity of correlation or context?  Life, redefined by a whole new set of doctrines and languages would work to redefine you.  The daily, leaping in a weightless state from one exotic to the next, fast becoming a series of inexplicable exploits.  Perhaps you are consumed with a fearful sort of pride.  After all, you were one among a few chosen to participate in a revolutionary, unprecedented human experiment, setting you on a one-way trajectory through space.   Blazing trail for the rest of your species, you are a kind of martyr.  You gave up a lot to be here.  Walks in the rain, breeze on your face, sounds of birds, cars, airplanes - now the echoes of a past life that haunt an endless horizon of undulating rubble.  Prints left in red dust by your space suit mark the successions of your own relativism.  Nothing in space is absolute.  It is the final frontier and the great leveler.  Out here, humanity is not what it used to be.  Instead, it is pared down to a thickening reduction.  The flavour, always on the tip of your tongue, no matter how much hot water you add to the freeze fried mush you’ve been consuming for the past year.  You don’t belong here, and yet, here you are - defying all odds in Total Recall tribute, living outside intuition and common sense by the paradox that gave birth to the dream of the red planet.  The red planet.  Mars.  Your new home.  Named after the Roman god of war, you get the sense he’s never too far away.  Your eyes scan the combat zone of your new life.   From the moment you landed, Mars has challenged you unlike you’ve ever been challenged before.  Perhaps this place may just be your redeemer.  Or maybe your destroyer.  You think about the ones you left behind.Read more

When Broadcast News Journalism Lies: The System That Created The Myth Of Brian Williams

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 11.00.14 AMDistrust in the news media is not simply an extrinsic phenomenon.  Recent shock and awe over false claims of deposed MSNBC news anchor, Brian Williams, is a powerful reflection of a much greater, systemic issue.  Misplaced trust in corporate news journalism and our inherent need to openly credit any powerful institution, (mistaking power for legitimacy) proves symptomatic of a deeper social discord.  The cultural degradation we’ve been experiencing over the last several decades comes with the rising tide of an Information Revolution.  Economic, social and technological trends have propelled globalization into new, freak-show heights.  The internet, microtechnology, mobile technology and reality TV, have altogether successfully blurred the lines between authenticity and delusion, sucking news media and journalism into its black hole.  Personal opinion has made pundits of us all, dominating the news in a need for aggrandizement and melodrama.  Even Hollywood, has poked fun at the political underbelly of this social discord, treating Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir crime thriller, Nightcrawler, as a sort of, inflated exposé behind the dismal reality of news broadcasting.  Dogged by the relentless self-interest of oligarchical media giants, who control 90% of what we read, watch and listen to,  (GE, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS) profit over news serves as sensationalism in an all-out ratings war.  Feeding an addiction to drama by a public jacked up on sports and pop culture, news media distracts from the real, effecting issues of our time, disengaging an otherwise uninformed and ignorant public.  While religion controlled the populous through doctrine, language and institution in antiquity, news media labours to controls the majority through distraction and sensationalism in the 21st century. Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 11.00.48 AM   

No longer a safe house for receiving instructional, illuminating information about local and global current affairs, news broadcasting has become a petrie dish of the latest silver screen gossip, crime, and the kind of personal anecdotes one would associate with Reader’s Digest.  Instead of galvanizing the public with facts, news broadcasting has turned everything into a hyperbolic human interest story, falling victim to our current cultural shift from realism to surrealism.  Where do point the finger in this cat and mouse game?  Is it Brian Williams’ fault?  MSNBC?  Microsoft?  Time Warner?  Mark Zuckerberg?  Or is it us?  In this funnel of supply and demand, we are all siphoned into caricatures of our selves; our lives simulated by social media platforms, endless data streaming and the constant uploading of information.  Within this divide between dream and reality, there arrives a frightening conclusion: We are no longer able to reconnect.  Politics, current global affairs, education, the environment, food, friendships, relationships, ourselves - the world of senses and intellect is fast becoming lost upon the breakwater of our cheap information addiction.  We don’t care how we get it, or what we’re getting, so long as it stimulates our central nervous system into a feel-good frenzy.  Animated gifs of hamsters playing on pianos, blogs about the latest smoothie diets, viral Youtube videos of men dancing in women’s underwear- this is what we want.  After all, what could be more of a downer than hearing about the details of federal election platforms, the global warming crisis, foreign policy, and the war in the middle east?  News networks have their work cut out for them.Read more

Valentine’s Day: The Invention of Love?

8bde4317f6c08e3331cbf1dcb9c667afCue the fuchsia, the roses, the heart-shaped boxes of chocolate and candies and themed teddy bears.  Strike up the jewelry store sales and advertisements, the feverish restaurant frenzy and commercial hoard.  As is modern day mercantile tradition, when the opportunity strikes, holiday spectacle intercedes a furious greed.  We, the shopper, the consumer, in typical fashion, stuff ourselves sick with Valentine’s Day commercialism in a frantic tender to qualify ourselves with “things” and “doing.”  The puppeteers of industry, pulling strings, move hastily and with purpose.  They line their pockets with as much holiday gold as they can muster.  And so we revisit a familiar Valentine’s montage year in and year out: everyone trying to capitalize on the aftermath of Christmas climax in a bid to escape the post coital tristesse of the New Year.  The grace period given between Christmas and the advent of Valentine’s is all but non existent.  While shops and store fronts remove Christmas trees, holiday lights and tinsel, pink and red hearts are carted in to swiftly replace them.  It’s hard not to grimace.  Not to turn away and focus on a solitary point somewhere beyond the blur of mulberry.  This unfolding cyclic procession is draped in synthetic livery, like the bitter aftertaste one gets after consuming Pepsi White.  It leaves you with a metallic tongue, as if you just sucked on a quarter - (a quarter with lots of lovely heart shapes loitering its head and tail).  Why do we always have to turn something beautiful into something so ugly?  Perhaps more poignant is our authentic vivacious love for the ugly.  Why are we attracted to the manufactured devolution of meaning?  It’s clear that part of our nature demands a certain amount of kitsch.  We need the shiny wrapping paper, the bows, the pomp and circumstance, the cartoonish caricature of life.  Holiday commercialism, as a kind of philosophical, emotive narcotic, helps to ease our suffering within the narrow boundaries of its own religion.  For a brief moment in time, it reduces the impossible proportions of reality into small, manageable pieces.  The “high” we get from holiday commercialism endeavors to condense all that we don’t know into something we think we can comprehend.  But isn’t there something more subtle, more sensitive and thoughtful to behold on Valentine’s and during other commercial holidays a part from the proselyting malarky?  Something less cynical, less fabricated and more organic? Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 3.14.04 PM

No one denies the importance of celebration and festivity.  For as long as human beings have been present in the world’s consciousness there has been occasion for revelry.  Human awareness has been and continues to be made manifest by the celebration of life as it is experienced by us: the movement of moments, the rites of passage, the marking of time, the evolution, the progression.  Within the arch of our journey that take us up over the rainbow and beyond, we remember and we reflect.  These observations of past, present and future, have been our way of adapting and configuring the world without to fit comfortably in a world within.  Historically, St. Valentine’s Day takes root in liturgical celebration, coined after one or more early Christian saints, Valentinus.  Despite there being numerous Christian martyrs by that name, the Valentine’s Day we celebrate today commiserates more specifically, Valentine of Rome, a martyr priest, buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14th, AD 496.  The site, along with the date, February 14th, remained an important day of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages in celebration of sacrifice.   However when poet and writer, Geoffrey Chaucer emerged on the literary scene in the High Medieval Period, fanciful association by poetic meter converted Valentine’s Day into romantic alchemy, propagating the then, current tradition of courtly love.  Many poets and writers were quick to follow suit, denoting the mating of birds and love with St. Valentine’s Day.  The earliest description of February 14th as an annual celebration of love, appears in the Charter of the Court of Love, at the turn of the 15th century.  Allegedly issued by Charles VI of France, the charter illustrates lavish festivities to be attended by several members of the royal court, including a feast, romantic song and poetry competitions, and jousting and dancing.  By the 18th century, circulated published works had captivated British audiences with scores of suggestive sentimentality, while “Mechanical Valentines” were being printed in limited number as cards, transcribing romantic and provocative thoughts and sketches.  These “Mechanical Valentines,” so appropriately named, foreshadowed a mid-19th century Valentine’s Day trade, which heralded the proliferation of commercialized holidays in North America that were soon to follow.

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 3.14.38 PMSo what do take from the history of Valentine’s Day?  An evolution of love and sacrifice played out throughout the centuries in our churches, our royal courts, our literature and our homes.  A need to celebrate and reflect - to rejoice in the bounty of friendship and connection that love gives us, and to pay respect to the determination and sacrifice that is required of us when we love.  Amorphous and sometimes vague in all it’s glaring clarity, love assumes any shape we assign to it - be it a rose or heart-shaped box or teddy bears clad in pink and red, its meaning is transcribed in thought and being that presupposes any material “thing.”  Not just reserved for lovers alone, Valentine’s transcends all manners of love - the love of a pet, the love of our children, our country, our mothers and fathers…our families.  So rather than be shameful of its habit, why not revel in its glory, and take heart to honor Valentine culture and meaning as we should do with other holiday traditions.  Regardless of whether or not the commercialism of any holiday is warranted, it is important we are aware of its purpose and make informed choices through insight.  Consciously controlling the flow of commercial superfluousness as something that enhances rather than defines, we can take joy and satisfaction in its gimmick.  Whether we’ve planned that luxurious weekend getaway, or dinner for two or four, or simply choose to sit in one another’s company and share a laugh and good cheer, on February 14th, we have the opportunity to pause and reflect, and to honour our love.

The Real Price of Oil? The Conspiracies Behind The Numbers

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 2.12.39 PMMany of us fill up our 4000 pound earth-bound steel rockets at the pump each week, watching the numbers tick by like a rolling slot machine - illusive and liquidic.  Liters, gallons, miles, kilometers, fuel efficiency, fuel costs, fracking, barrels, crude oil, dry oil…the wash of information coming at you is like the innumerable waves of radiation emanating our smartphones, iPads and laptops.  It’s enough to befog any real acumen - what the hell is actually going on?  In truth, we have little control over what goes into our vehicles and what comes out, (primarily the stack of dollar bills emptying our money clips and making the shine on our plastic a little less shiny).  Sure we can choose to buy smaller vehicles, more environmentally-friendly electric, battery or flex fuel alternatives, but at the end of the day, the majority of drivers worldwide, (even those self-professed “petrol heads,”) are vulnerable to those political magnets creating currents of economic attraction and repulsion. So what’s the truth behind the oscillating oil prices?  Where does our oil come from and who decides how much it will cost us every time we reach for the nozzle and begin fueling? Given the dramatic decrease in gas prices over the past several months, its probable, and not without reason, that one might be inclined to utter that cringe-worthy, hackneyed word - conspiracy.  After all, something about the whole gas and oil industry wreaks grotesquely of ulterior motive, (we all remember those weapons of mass destruction?).  Covert always lends itself well to paranoia and tin foil hats.  There’s a reason something needs covering up, isn’t there?  So while most of us can appreciate on some level that not everything we read about or hear about in the news is completely the whole truth and nothing but the truth, what does that leave us with?

The petrol narrative is rooted in political and economic maneuvering coupled with market speculation based on market trends, market value and consumerism.  And if that doesn’t mean a whole lot to you just think: it’s all about YOU.  You are the euphemism.  You are the cause and the effect.  As a consumer, you’re not just “in the mix” but at the very centre of it, holding up the house of cards comprised of jacks, queens and aces bedecked in price movements, currencies, investors, and a whole other whack-load of sticky icky implications you probably didn’t want to get your hands dirty with in the first place.  The domino effect of the price of oil can be drastic and far-reaching, resulting in either significant revenue shortfalls or gains for many energy exporting and importing nations.  So before we dive into conjecture and theory, let’s review the facts.  For nearly five years, world oil prices have remained relatively stable, at around $110 a barrel.  However since June, 2014, oil prices have fallen exponentially, dropping a staggering 40%, resulting in US crude falling below $50 a barrel.  While many political pundits and economists will tell you that market prices rely on supply and demand and speculation, this might be the time when you eyebrows meet each other in a confused stupor.  Don’t worry.  You’re not feebleminded.  Oil prices that drop at the speed of sound, (the sound of SUV drivers uniting and rejoicing that is) can’t just be the result of current supply and demand.  Tesla is good, but not that good.

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 2.12.58 PMOPEC, (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) which accounts for roughly 40% of global crude oil production, was recently quoted by its secretary general, Abdalla Salem el-Badri saying  that declines are largely due to speculation by traders in the market, rather than an oversupply.  However many Westerners are more inclined to believe that an increase in global oil, primarily competition from the United States shale oil production, has forced OPEC’s hand.  That is, to keep oil prices down in a, “starve them out” siege and conquer stratagem.  This tactic would also extend to one of its chief member’s regional rivals, Iran.  While some estimates posit that Iran needs oil at $136 a barrel to finance its spending plans, others contend Saudi Arabia only requires the price of oil to be at $99.20 or less a barrel to break even.  Moreover, with a multibillion-dollar reserve on the back of budget surpluses, the Saudis and other OPEC nations can easily hold out for several years if the price of oil drops well below these figures.  Last month Saudi Arabia and its OPEC allies announced it will not decrease its rate of oil production, despite steadily decreasing global oil prices. Following the announcement, the U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude oil benchmark price fell below $66 per barrel - right in the sweet spot that OPEC hopes will check U.S. oil production.  However it’s not just Iran or the US that could feel the brunt of this price spiral.  Russian President, Vladimir Putin was recently quoted saying, “at some moments of crisis it starts to feel like it is the politics that prevails in the pricing of energy resources.”  While neither the United States nor Russia are a part of OPEC, it is plausible that OPEC is engaging in a two front attack, targeting its biggest competitors in the hopes that it will force higher-cost shale producers out of the market.  While many non-OPEC countries, Canada included, are guilty of stealing some of the Saudi’s market share, it may very well be argued that OPEC is simply trying to stay relevant in a rather volatile global market with increasing oil production and supplies.
Another conspiracy theory posits revenge politics: the Saudis and Americans joining forces to deliberately target and take down Vladimir Putin for his support of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and it’s unilateral involvement in Eastern Ukraine, (the 1973 oil crisis comes to mind here).  For every dollar fall in the price of oil, it is estimated Russia loses roughly $2 billion in revenue, and the World Bank has cautioned that if oil prices do not recover in 2015, Russia’s economy will shrink by at least 0.7%.  Despite this, Russia, like OPEC, has also confirmed that it will not cut oil production in a bid to retain its niche market. With dramatic spikes in interest rates, a troubled rouble, and global economic sanctions, Russia could be in serious trouble, which means serious trouble for Mr. Putin.

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 2.12.19 PMSo what does this all translate into?  A game of chicken or chess for these political leaders at the expense of their government’s economies and oil companies?  Perhaps.  Market speculation based on an estimate of over-supply or a drop in consumer demand?  Perhaps.  Revenge politics?  Maybe.  The truth?  Found betwixt propaganda, self-interest, tolerance and conspiracy.  Increased efficiency, smaller, more fuel-efficient and economic cars and a lesser demand on the global market.  Competition from the United States, Russia and other non-OPEC nations.  The Saudis and their Gulf allies maintaining their market share and relevancy.  A bid to gain political global primacy and hegemony.  Although the future economic effects of the plummeting oil prices on particular oil-reliant countries remain unclear, what is certain is that the consumer, (you) - the one driving the market, the supply and demand and paying or not paying for the oil in the first place, will have more money to spend on other sectors of the economy with higher confidence.  But this doesn’t mean now that we all jump on the Cadillac Escalade bandwagon and go petrol-happy.  Instead, we should take time to understand what’s behind our supply and demand, make smarter consumer choices, educated ourselves on what exactly drives us to buy and not buy, and where the actual truth lies- within the mainstream media and the backdoor conspiracy theories, in this case, the truth is rooted somewhere in them all.

Our Dirty Little Secret: Love of Commercialism During the Holidays

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 5.18.04 PMDespite the festive hymns and carols serenading our radio waves and those paradoxical heartfelt messages from cinematic and media mainstream, the holiday season continues as a hallmark for consumer commercialism.  Events like Black Friday, (recently imported to Canada from the United States) and Boxing Day are, in many ways, indicators of what Christmas has become.  And yet, at the same time, we must reconcile that Christmas would not be the same without the hustle and bustle of our malls and stores, the chanting of cash registers cha-chinging our gingerbread lattes into the night, and the emotional and fiscal investments in holiday hoopla from music albums, to clothing, to kitsch decorations and thematic paraphernalia.  Let’s face it.  Deeply intertwined with the spirit of Christmas is holiday commercialism.  Its market hangs the bows, strings gleaming lights, decorates trees, cooks and bakes, and dangles those stockings by the fire.  As much as we might not like to admit it, living in the throws of a commercially-driven society, much of what we do and who we are is influenced by the marketplace.  Christmas is no exception.  From the big to the small, the rich to the poor, all of us, consciously or subconsciously collectively agree to this cyclic arrangement of spending, buying, receiving and giving.  It is arguably, part and parcel of our social contract, something that extends to all facets of our lives, from education to the workplace, to healthcare and the home.  And yet, there is an obscenity about consumerism during the holidays that we all observe.  A profane indecency that takes away from the gleaming display of Christmas in our windows and our hearts, mocking the very essence of what it’s all about. 

Identifying commercial boundaries may be more about personal, intuitive checks and balances than about creating Big Brother government surveillance over holiday spending.  Of course this does not just pertain to Christmas, but to an all season way of life.  How far do we allow the coy underbelly of marketing, advertising, media and pop culture to affect our daily lives?  When and where do we draw the line?  That thin line between safe spending and obscene consumerism looks very differently for all of us.  While many are perfectly fine with the frenzy of Boxing Day, embracing the shopping hysteria, others believe Boxing Day to be a vulgar misuse of the holiday spirit, exploiting the worst aspects of our nature.  So what can we collectively concede about the presence of Boxing Day and other spectacles like it within the context of the holidays?  Is it just as vulgar as opening the hoard of presents on Christmas Day, or is holiday shopping for Christmas Day reserved for a special, privileged judgement, (being that it is in celebration of Christ, the spirit of giving, good will, and hallowed saints)?   One way or another, it’s important to understand the origin of holidays like Boxing Day within a historical and modern day context, to decide whether it serves to hinder or uphold the holiday spirit.Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 5.17.28 PM

The exact origins of Boxing Day are not decisive.  As with many historical customs that we continue to observe today, such as Halloween, holidays like Boxing Day are likely a culmination of several historical events and practices that have evolved over time to take their own shape and place within the lexicon of modern day society.  Etymologically speaking, the term, Boxing Day may derive from a common European practice dated to the Middle Ages, when employers, masters and benefactors would give servants, subordinates and tradesmen gifts known as “Christmas Boxes” on the day after Christmas.  Likewise, the term, Boxing Day may be in reference to the Alms Box, which was given to places of worship in order to collect donations for the poor.  A similar connection may even derive from a late Roman/early Christian custom where placing metal boxes outside churches would help to collect special offerings in relation to the Feast of Saint Stephen, (a religious holiday, which in the Western Church, falls on the same day as Boxing Day). 

Despite the secular and religious connotations associated with the Bank holiday, in the Commonwealth countries, Boxing Day is primarily renowned as a shopping celebration.  A time when most stores post sales with drastically reduced items and discounts that generate overwhelming crowds and impossible queues, Boxing Day is favored by social media and news outlets as an opportunity to relay a melodramatic tale of commercial hysteria.  Recent years has seen Boxing Day grow to include an entire “Boxing Week”, where sales extend several days before and after December 26th.  In a last ditch effort to try and preserve the true purpose of Boxing Day as a Christmas holiday for family time, relaxation and recuperation, regions in parts of Northern Ontario and Atlantic Canada have prohibited retailers from opening on Boxing Day, either by provincial law or municipal bylaw.  Likewise, in the Republic of Ireland, most shops have remain closed on Boxing Day, (observed as St. Stephen’s Day) since 1902. Sales however are, in most cases, postponed to December 27th, to continue the commercial hype of what has become an annual shopping day mecca. Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 5.18.22 PM

In light of excessive holiday spending, in the form of Christmas commercialism and Boxing Day delirium, perhaps we need to rethink and redraw our boundary lines.  While we cannot deny that commercialism is in itself, a catalytic engine for progress, a force that drives not just economies, but people, lifestyles, families, technology and even evolution itself, there may be a better approach.  It’s incredible effect on the exchange and spreading of ideas, the show of love and affection, and perhaps even as a manifestation of the human spirit, altogether demonstrates the teeter totter effect of commercialism.  While Boxing Day may prove to be a beneficial day for our economy, allowing greater access to a wider spectrum of commercial items, it also demonstrates our continuing reliance and dependency on “stuff” that at times, fills our homes, creates redundancy and clutters our lives.  For the sake of our own mental health, it is important to keep stock of what’s significant, the meaning behind our purchases, and the emotional and spiritual investments it provides.  If shopping and the whirlwind of commercialism, especially during the holidays, brings joy, happiness and a sense of peace, then this is simply what we take from it.  The process.  The experience.  But if it brings stress and confusion and a long list of credit bills, we must retrace our steps and redraw our lines, making certain not to step over them, no matter how big the yellow tags appear, and how enticing those sales may be.

The Rosetta Mission: To Boldly Go Where No Man or Woman Has Gone Before...

1893081rIf you haven’t been hiding under a rock these past several weeks, you’ve probably heard about the the Rosetta Mission.  Wasn’t that about some kind of satelite?  Something to do with a comet?  Maybe even the name of J.J. Abrams’ next space odyssey blockbuster.  If you don’t know the particulars, let us refresh: in truth, it sounds like something from an L. Ron Hubbard novel, and indeed the galactic quest of an enduring space probe, is nothing short of science fiction.  An extraordinary summit of mankind’s innovation and acumen - a beacon for posterity - the landing of Rosetta, a robotic space probe, on a 10 billion tonne rock, 4 billion years old, hurdling through space at 40,000 mph, should be hailed as one of the most prolific accomplishments of our generation.  Brilliantly pioneered by the European Space Agency, Rosetta is a 20-year project in the making, that brought together generations of people, many of whom dedicated their entire lives to the probe’s incredible journey.  Launched the 2nd of March, 2004, Rosetta reached comet 67P on the 6th of August, 2014.  It is the first spacecraft to orbit and successfully land on a comet.  And yet, when put into context, despite the sensational reality of such a feat, to many, the Rosetta mission at face-value may appear superfluous, a waste of precious resource and money, especially in light of the current global financial climate.  Could its 1.4 billion euro cost have been spent on something more economically advantageous or profitable?  Perhaps something more philanthropic such as world hunger?  For those unscientifically-inclined minds, Rosetta may seem like a simple garish display of human mastermind.  A vainglorious gesture.  The cache: Why do we do it?  Because we can.  It’s true.  Billion dollar budgets are notoriously easy to scrutinized, just for the sheer magnitude of their figures.  The Sochi Olympics cites the perfect example.  A heinous mockery of global deprivation, democracy and inequality in the face of billionaire blasé.  But surely Rosetta is not even in the same region, let alone the same ball park.  Science has its very real and true place in humanity’s ambitious development, with significant, profound, far-reaching effects to boot.

The unprecedented Rosetta mission endeavored to complete the most detailed study of a comet ever attempted.  Appropriately named after the Rosetta Stone, a stele of Egyptian origin featuring a decree in three scripts that revolutionized our understanding of the past, likewise, the European Space Agency’s protégé, will allow scientists to unravel the mysteries of comets: indeed, the oldest building blocks of our Solar System left intact from it’s birth and infancy.  Still thinking PR Gimmick by the scientific community?  Think again.  Rosetta may have generated more likes and upvotes on social media, raising the public profile of science, but it is definitely no artifice.  In fact, Rosetta may very well be the next biggest leap for mankind, one that leaves an imprint on industry, technology, social science, philosophy, history, and perhaps even the very evolution of our species.  But before we get ahead of ourselves, for those economically-mindful critics, let’s talk dollars and cents.  Or in this case, euros.Juno_space_probe

The 1.4 billion euro cost of the Rosetta mission covers development and construction of the spacecraft and all of its instruments, including the lander, its launch and operations.  To put it into context, if we were to divide that number by the 20 years of development, from its inception in 1996 to its completion in 2015, contemporaries such as physicist Andrew Steele, have calculated the cost has put European citizens out 0.20 cents per year.  That is a fraction of what most spend on movie tickets and magazines.  But who can put a price on scientific knowledge?  Comparatively, while the same cost may comfortable pay for four A380 jumbo jets, it would barely cover half the price of a modern submarine, and when considering that the total cost of USA’s military budget, when including external funding directly connected to American military spending, is closer to $1 trillion per year, these expenditures should really be put into some kind of perspective.  Canada’s conservative government has spent nearly half a billion on outside legal fees since it came into power in 2006 and more than $450,000 to defend the Prime Minister, his staff and ministers.  If we take these kinds of figures into consideration, skeptics of the Rosetta mission may want to be slightly more lenient on the European Space Agency’s stringent budget.  It’s true that frugalities and economies have been made when considering missions like Rosetta by the ESA.  Due to the extensive length of the mission project, much of Rosetta’s components were designed and manufactured near the beginning of the decade or earlier, at a time when materials were somewhat inexpensive due to inflation.  In addition, while the initial objective for Rosetta was to be a sample-return mission, surmounting costs meant that scientists had to be satisfied with simply landing a spacecraft on a speeding comet.  Indeed the incredible low cost of the mission when compared against the vast lexicon of government spending, serves as a reminder that sending probes into space is much cheaper than sending people.  Earlier this year, for less than the cost of the film, Gravity, India successfully put a probe in orbit around Mars.Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 5.37.11 PM

So while you may still be inclined to believe that funding subscriptions of the 20 member states of the European Space Agency to it’s space projects is a waste, you may want to look at the particular benefits of the Rosetta mission.  Studies show that government funding into scientific research has a direct effect on the economy, in some cases, helping it to grow by a staggering 20%.  Despite all this space jargon, the monies don’t go to comets or asteroids or other such cosmic “debris,” rather it is spent here on Earth, creating thousands of jobs, new technologies, (more specifically in Rosetta’s case, Low-intensity Low Temperature Solar Cells, temperature controlling systems, and other highly innovative subsystems, some of which have been reused in other ESA missions), and industries throughout Europe.   Probing forms of scientific inquiry about the world around us are vital to initiating change in our society and to our quality of life.  Whether a downstream effect of the building blocks of basic research, or in a more deliberately applied way, parallels can be made from science across all factions industry.  For example, one can't design a new cancer drug unless one understands the mechanisms that cause cancer in a cell. Another such example is the World Wide Web, which developed out of a system designed to help particle physicists communicate more efficiently.  Similarly, a recent increase in numbers of A-level students taking physics at university is no coincidence.  Missions like Rosetta, generate a higher profile for science in the media.  Television programs made widely available, such as The Cosmos, and celebrities such as Bill the Science Guy and Niel Degrasse Tyson, are apart of a greater think tank that labours to get people talking and engaged.  Rather than thinking about Rosetta and its contemporaries as gimmicks, like most of the reality TV which litters our cable, these people and projects awaken the youth to newfound sympathies - to stir the brewing cauldrons of imagination.  The youth, who may one day become our world’s leading scientists and engineers, are first inspired by the introduction of Rosetta and like projects.  Of course, while the directly applied research of the Rosetta mission is to find answers to very fundamental questions about the history of our planet, how it evolved and if life really emerged on earth or rather was brought to earth by comets like 67P billions of years ago, (by detecting water, ice or complex carbon compounds found on the surface of these relatively unchanged chunks of space rock) the trickle down effect of such an innovative scientific feat is not something to be overlooked by critics, skeptics, tax payers and economists alike.  It is important that we all understand the offshoot effects of what may initially appear as pure science, or knowledge for knowledge sake.  Scientific research and understanding contributes to the stockpile of human awareness and insight that consecutively and consequently, turns over the engines of our innovation and evolution.  The advancement of knowledge always holds relevance and applicability to everyday life, in the practical and profound.  1.4 billion euros.  What is it worth to you?


The Christmas Tree: A Beacon of Holiday Culture Past & Present

eb02c640225a2b424ad75e6528431324Christmas.  What does it mean to you?  Perhaps it is a smell.  A memory.  Faith.  Tradition.  The kitsch.  A collectivization of many little things coming together to form that golden interlace threading the holiday season in shimmering splendour.  Born out of a cosmic nursery of love and goodwill, Christmas is contextualized by the rich history, custom, and philosophies it imbibes, ordained by the baroque of religious pageantry.  Inasmuch as it is an action, Christmas is a feeling; manifesting the greatest aspects of humanity’s nature.  It’s regalia plays just as important a role as the idea of Christmas itself, giving form to its nebulous nature in droves of colour to contrast the opaque underbelly of nature’s seasonal landscape.  It takes shape in our homes and hearts by the garland along our railings and mantles, the lights that adorn our houses, the decorations and the music, the food, drink and narratives.  But one of the more important and iconic symbols of Christmas, besides of course the Nativity and Saint Nick himself, is that of theChristmas tree.  As the calendar rolls through November to December, we can’t help but get excited about its process and unveiling.

Traditionally decorated with edibles such as apples, nuts, and other foods, the custom of the yule tree, or as it was later known as, the Christmas tree, originated in early, modern Renaissance Germany, with predecessors traced as far back at the 16th and possibly 15th centuries.  Diverging speculative theories about its ultimate origin however, maintain the abstruseness and allure of the Christmas tree.  Often times traced to the symbolism of evergreen trees in the popularized story of Saint Boniface and pre-Christian winter rites, clearly the Christmas tree lends part of its custom to pagan ancestry.  Tree worship was common among pagan Europeans for example,  some of which survived the conversion to Christianity.  Contemporaries also concede the use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands in ancient Egyptian, Chinese and Hebrew cultures, as symbols of eternal life. Today, Christmas trees are available in many different types and forms, be it artificial plastic, or shades of coniferous - spruce, pine or fir.  They are offered in many contrasting colors, shapes, sizes and designs to suit every manner of personal taste, preference or specialized theme and event.  Indeed the Christmas tree is as representative of the culture of the individual as it is society itself, and can reflect a particular time, place or circumstance in someone’s life.  Coinciding with an acute growing awareness of our carbon footprint and a temperamental global economy, the debate on artificial or realChristmas trees, has become somewhat of a hot holiday topic. Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 10.13.02 AM

Studies conducted on both sides of the argument have paradoxically proven each school of thought correct.  However, taking into account the interests of the commissioners of such studies, the interpretation and the end goal, this seems a likely outcome. For avid artificial tree supporters, or those predisposed to allergies, a study conducted by a researcher in Connecticut for example, demonstrating the potential harmful effects of spores released by real trees in the home may prove favourable.  Spores aside, while the lack of fresh pine scent may be amiss, perhaps the guilt of cutting down a new tree each year is simply enough to put you off the whole Christmas tree custom altogether.  Moreover, cost and convenience favours the artificial tree.  In lieu of a current, strong market economy, artificial trees may be especially appealing for their investment value when compared with the recurrent, annual expense of a real Christmas tree, and their relatively low maintenance is another reason not to sweep the floor of pine needles or constantly worry about watering.  On the contrary, many older artificial tree varieties may contain lead, (which was once used as a stabilizer in the manufacturing process and can easily disperse into the home), whereas most present day artificial trees, are typically manufactured with metal and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a non-biodegradable, petroleum-derived plastic.  PVC releases harmful dioxins overtime, which are not only extremely toxic to both humans and animals, but will also end up in landfills at the end of the tree’s life cycle, contributing to the growing global pollution and refuse crisis.  The majority of artificial trees bought and sold in the U.S. and Canada are mass-produced in China, which means not only are we not spending money on our local economies in support of its workers and tree farmers, but we are also adding to our carbon footprint.  Despite the aforementioned pro et contra, artificial trees have nonetheless become increasingly popular, with sales jumping to a staggering 17.4 million in the U.S. alone in 2007. 

The argument for real Christmas trees teeters on the love of tradition, and a green thumb commitment to sustainability.  According to the U.S. EPA, roughly 33 million realChristmas trees are sold in North America each year, 93 percent of which are recycled through more than 4,000 available recycling programs. “Tree-cycling,” an easy way to return a renewable and natural source back to the environment, supports the recycling ofChristmas trees into mulch, which is thus used in gardening, landscaping, or chipped for playground material, hiking trails, paths and walkways.  Recycled trees can also be used for lake and river shoreline stabilization, fish and wildlife habitat and beachfront erosion.  Moreover, an acre of farmed Christmas trees produce enough oxygen for the daily needs of 18 people.  Likewise, a single farmed tree absorbs more than one ton of CO2 throughout its lifetime.  With more than 350 million real Christmas tress growing in U.S. tree farms alone, one can only surmise as to the annual amount of carbon retention associated with such groves.  Sustainable farming techniques are essential in safeguarding a healthy supply of Christmas trees each year, whereby for each tree harvested, one to three seedlings are planted the following spring.  Lastly, the Christmas tree farming industry employs over a hundred thousand workers each holiday season across North America, which is no small economic feat.  However, while Christmas trees are farmed as agricultural products, the repeated applications of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers may be used throughout their lifetime.  Ideally, farmed Christmas trees, like most other agricultural products, would be grown organically using integrated pest management techniques, and some tree farmers are in fact, offering this alternative.  It is also important to take into consideration the offshoot carbon effects of long-distance travel.  Depending on where you live, (especially for those climates where coniferous trees don’t grow), yourChristmas tree may have travelled hundred of miles to get from its home to your home.  An ideal substitute for both the real and artificial tree this Christmas, may very well be a living potted tree, which can be brought into the home temporarily over the holidays and then replanted after Christmas in your yard, or donated to local parks.   

Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 10.11.49 AMDespite the Christmas tree debate, it’s important to note the significance of the tree itself, and why we have it in the first place.  The Christmas tree may very well be emblematic of the Christmas spirit, retaining within its process and decorative splendor, a concentrated sentiment of the holidays.  The trinkets it carries, exemplary of good cheer and endearing memories.  The bedeck of lights, waves of warmth and security, shining by the glow of blazing hearths, or simply warming a reflection of winter’s scene yonder.  A shimmering mimic of snow and frost in its flocked tips and tinsel, an angel or star to light its crown in devout majesty, and the symbol of nature itself - the tree that gives life to our planet and species.  And so the feeling of Christmas resides just as much in the reality of faith and the abstract, as it does in the concrete, while the Christmas tree remains our beacon of holiday culture.  What it really comes down to, is what that culture means to you, and what it needs to looks like in order to suit your circumstance, beliefs, values and lifestyle.  Clearly, in order to preserve what Carl Sagan once so brilliantly coined, “the pale blue dot,” - the only home we know and may ever know - we must always be aware of the cause and effect of our actions, especially in today’s tumultuous geopolitical climate and amidst the global environmental impasse we face today.  However Christmas nevertheless continues as a season of celebration and togetherness, despite the harsh realities that abound.  Perhaps it is reminder of what prevails - the better aspects of our nature - and the Christmas tree, a symbol of light, prosperity and intimacy, which helps bind its culture.  So let us embrace a solution that suits us all, albeit artificial or real, while insight breeds wisdom and a newfound hope for a better tomorrow, we do the best we can with what we have in the spirit of giving.  

Halloween: Our Past, Present & Future

shutterstock_61882039-92255_238x238Praise be to Halloween!  Our one night only, get-out-of-jail-free card, in which we can senselessly indulge in our own mystery and utter ridiculousness.  Perhaps the most paradoxical time of the calendar year, Halloween is fraught with irony and strange implication.  A break from conventional thought and practice, its customary observances miraculously cross boundaries of faith, race, language, age, gender and culture, embracing the kind of freedom we have always desired: to be who we are not, or to be exactly what we are, in a spectacular display of self-discovery and imagination.  Favourite super heroes, comic book villains, legendary creatures and our most beloved celebrities, help to blur the lines between reality and fantasy.  Stepping outside the comfortable orbit of our lives, Halloween challenges us to rethink the concrete by ways of the abstract, within a framework of mockery and frivolity.  However despite the fun and fancy of Halloween, many parents today view the macabre spectacle with cynicism, believing its traditional practices unfit and ultimately unsafe for our children.  Gone are the days of giving away candied apples and home made treats, pillow-case-costumes and going door-to-door knocking on strangers houses for treats without parental chaperon.

If the question is whether or not Halloween remains relevant in 21st century society, the answer may very well be a resounding, yes.  When taken into the context of reality, (which in itself is obscure, subjective, changing and arguably illusory), Halloween doesn’t seem all that kooky.  Why not dress up in costumes depicting all manner of crazy?  After all, Halloween may be one of the only openly discernible contemplations of mortality in Western society, a reflection of the berserk and unknown that has surrounded us for centuries.  For children, Halloween helps to validate their imagination, giving value to their hopes, dreams and fears.  But to truly understand the relevance of Halloween, particularly in a modern context, we have to take a careful look at its origins, its exercise and its evolution throughout history.

Although the academic world diverges slightly between several different schools of thought when it comes to the origin of Halloween, a culmination of historical observances in several different countries, across diverse cultures over time, may be the most plausible narrative to explain the modern day custom we observe today.  For example, October 31st marks the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day.  This particular date connotes a special time in the liturgical year.  Dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all those faithful departed believers,  All Hallows’ Day is thematic of using comedy and ridicule to confront the power of death.  Although the name, “Halloween” most certainly derives from a Christian source, as a mutation of the Scottish colloquial, “All Hallows’ Eve,” (which overtime evolved into Halloween), the academic world, however, is divided on the origin of the festival itself.  Some concur that All Hallows’ Day borrowed its influence from Celtic harvest festivals, with possible pagan roots, (particularly as a Christianized version of the Gaelic Samhain).  Others however, argue it originated independently.  Folklorists have even detected its provenance in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, and in the festival of dead, called Parentalia.  It is tenable to believe that all of these together formed our familiar, modern day observance of Halloween.  The affects of Roman Britain, followed by the invasion of the Saxons and Normans, produced a kind of cultural alloy in ancient Britain, attributing to a blend of customs, traditions and beliefs.  What is certain however, is that Halloween must be understood within a sacred and non-secular context.  For example, the most recognizable historical custom is the observance of Samhain, held on or around October 31st.  Marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or the ‘darker half’ of the year, Samhain marked a particular time in the year, when the forces governing the spiritual and tangible conflicted, whereby spirits or fairies could cross more easily into the human realm.  These spirits were both feared and revered.  Offerings of food, drink, and portions of crops were left in appeasement, so to ensure livestock survived the winter.  Likewise, Samhain also marked the time when the souls of the dead were believed to revisit homes.  Places were set at dinner tables and by the fire to welcome them.  In several countries, including Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the festival included "mumming" and "guising" as a way of interacting or indeed safeguarding oneself against such spirits.  Going house-to-house dressed in costume or disguise, typically reciting verses or songs in exchange for food, became a customary observance, while turnips were hollowed out as lanterns, often carved with monstrous faces representing spirits or ghouls.  This practice later spread to the rest of England, known as jack-o’-laterns.   Mass Irish and Scottish immigration to North America during the 19th century imported the holiday’s celebrations, gradually assimilating into mainstream society by the first decade of the 20th century.

Today, Halloween involves an array of festive activities, including trick-or-treating (or the related “guising”), attending costume parties, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, decorating, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, visiting haunted house attractions, playing pranks, and telling scary stories.  Although street safety, safe costume-wearing, costume-handling and treat-collecting may be more prevalent a threat today than it was historically, due to the increase in population, technology, traffic, pop culture, news and media, the ancestral roots of modern day Halloween continues to provide the kind of shock and awe, reverence and mystery that inspires and transcends.  If just for one night, Halloween allows a glimpse into the unknown, exploiting the darkest secrets of our past, present and future by demonstrating our willingness to submit to the absinth of phenomenon in a powerful game of truth or dare.  So before you chalk up Halloween to some childish exploit geared toward marketing candy to small children and horror movies to adults, or an unsafe customary practice that ultimate holds little applicability in the 21st century, take a moment to rethink what Halloween really is about.  The gathering, the get-togethers, the laughter and fun.  The sharing and caring.  In doing so, you  may just discover that its value can be found in both the sinister and the silly.  After all, what is more real?  Reality or imagination?  And who is more naive?  The child or the adult?   Happy Halloween!