Rank Bigotry

“45% of immigrants to the USA are on welfare”, said my friend. “I got that figure from someone who is very well informed on these matters.”

“And who would that be?” I asked.

“It’s not important. Let me just say that he’s a very intelligent person who has done quite a bit of research in this area.”

“Those numbers seem awfully high.” I said, “I’m sure you won’t mind if I check them out.”

“Go ahead, but you’ll find they’re accurate.”

It turns out he was right. Well, almost.

If you Google ‘percentage of American immigrants on welfare’, the two highest ranked results will confirm his figures. In fact, the subhead under the first result gives even higher levels: “Illegal immigrant-headed households’ use of welfare is high at 62 percent, higher than the 30 percent for households headed by native-born Americans.”

Since two stories repeat this message at the top of the page you might assume they have some credibility. To bolster that impression the figures are also quoted in a USA Today story further down, giving the impression that the mainstream media is on board as well.

But you’d be wrong. Ranking high in Google’s search engine is not a reflection of accuracy. All it means is that someone with a lot of Search Engine Optimization skills has tweaked the site so that it shows up at the top.

The think tank The Center for Immigration Studies that published the study turns out to be an anti-immigration lobby group supported by the Heritage Foundation. Their figures have been debunked by Snopes, Media/Bias/Fact Check and the New Republic. But also, revealingly, by the Cato Institute, that bastion of right wing ideology. If even they think they’re bogus, there’s obviously a problem:

“The CIS study exaggerates the number of immigrants on welfare by using households as the unit of analysis; as long as the head of household is an immigrant, they consider it an immigrant household, and Camarota [writer of the report] counts a household “as using welfare if any one of its members used welfare during 2012.”

This means that a household with an American spouse who therefore qualified for welfare could be counted as “using welfare.” The same would go for a child born in the United States to immigrant parents. If he or she received subsidized lunch at school, the whole household would be categorized as “using welfare.”

Pretty clear. The report was nonsense.

So what should I tell my friend?

This: Extremist websites and fake news outlets are a menace to democracy and rational debate. But there are other forms of insidious persuasion as well. SEO is one of them. The fact that something shows up at the top of the page when you search it has a powerful impact. It’s why companies spend millions on trying to outsmart the Google algorithm to get there. It works.

And it looks like those folks who are willing to contaminate public debate with lies know it, too. So, when you’re trying to find the truth about something on Google, look beyond those first few stories.

Alan King

‘Conrad Black’s Whitewash’ from Private Eye Magazine (June 2019)

“This completes the destruction of the spurious prosecution of me. It’s a complete final decision of a not guilty. That is finally a fully just verdict.”

No surprise that this was the verdict of convicted fraudster Conrad Black on his presidential pardon earlier this month from his old pal, fellow former Palm Beach resident and one-time business partner Donald Trump. Black said Trump told him his 2007 conviction — upheld in part despite appeals all the way to the US Supreme Court — had been a “bad rap”.

The reaction in the US and Lord Black’s homeland of Canada focused more on Black’s recent paeans of praise to the president, especially his 2018 book Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other: Black at least got that right.

Black — unlike his hero and pardoner — has been consistent. Ever since he was forced out of his Hollinger International newspaper empire in 2004, accused of participating in a “corporate kleptocracy”, Black has been pleading innocence, denying all allegations and rubbishing adverse court or regulatory findings. They were, to borrow a Trumpism, fake news.

But the court record was full of unflattering contrary comments from senior US judges on the former newspaper baron who gave up Canadian nationality to become a Tory peer. The pardon means the House of Lords may again soon have the privilege of his presence.

Even before he was was arrested, Black was called a liar in 2004 by the senior judge in the influential Delaware company court over his bid to sell control of Hollinger, owner at the time of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, to the Barclay brothers. “Defendant Conrad M. Black… has repeatedly behaved in a manner inconsistent with the duty of loyalty he owed the company,” declared Vice-Chancellor Leo Strine, blocking the sale. “Black’s statements were, of course, largely false and can only be reasonably construed as being intended to mislead his fellow directors… Black breached his fiduciary and contractual duties persistently and seriously.”

Strine concluded: “It became impossible for me to credit his words after considering his trial testimony in light of the overwhelming evidence of his less than candid conduct towards his fellow directors… I found Black evasive and unreliable. His explanations of key events and of his own motivations do not have the ring of truth. I find it regrettable to say so but it is the inescapable, and highly relevant, conclusion I reach.”

In 2007 Black was convicted in Chicago on three counts of fraud (along with three Hollinger executives) and one of obstruction of justice and was jailed for 78 months on charges related to $6.1 million in bogus “non-compete” payments paid to him and other Hollinger executives following the sale of US and Canadian newspapers. He was acquitted on nine counts of fraud and racketeering.

Black appealed but received no change from the federal appeal court in 2008. “The evidence established a conventional fraud, that is, a theft of money or other property from Hollinger by misrepresentations and misleading omissions amounting to fraud,” declared lead judge Richard Posner in its ruling.

There was evidence that Black knew that the alleged frauds were being investigated… In the midst of these proceedings [in 2005] Black with the help of his secretary and his chauffeur removed 13 boxes of documents from his office, put them in his car, was driven home, and helped carry them from the car into his house. He later returned them, but no on knows whether the boxes he returned contained all the documents that had been in them when he removed them from his office. For that would mean that he had received them, in which event his denials of knowledge of their contents would be undermined.

Black would have remained convicted on all three fraud counts but for a 2010 US Supreme Court decision in favour of former Enron chief executive Jeff Skilling. It ruled that the test of depriving shareholders of their ‘honest services’ by corporate executives — used by prosecutors in both the Enron and Black cases — was too vague unless there was also corruption.

The Supreme Court held that the appeal court should review again the three fraud convictions, on the basis of the instructions given to Black’s jury. The obstruction of justice conviction remained.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote: “Our decision in Skilling makes it plain that the honest-service instructions in this case were indeed incorrect. As in Skilling, we express no opinion on the question whether the error was ultimately harmless… Black contends that spillover prejudice from evidence introduced on the mail-fraud counts requires reversal of his obstruction-of-justice conviction. That question, too, is one on which we express no opinion.”

Later in 2010, the appeal court duly overturned two fraud convictions but upheld one fraud count, involving a $600,00 payment to Black and others, and the obstruction of justice conviction.

Judge Posner remained unimpressed by Black’s insistence of innocence of any obstruction of justice — just like Trump over the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“The evidence that the boxes were removed in order to conceal documents from the government investigators was compelling,” declared Posner. “No reasonable jury could have acquitted Black of obstruction.”

As to the remaining fraud charge, Posner described it as “a plain vanilla pecuniary fraud”. The Black defence that the payments were legitimate was “decisively unbelievable.” There are no covenants, the defendants concede that none was prepared… The concession fatally undermines their challenge to the convictions on this count.

“The absence of a written record of a $600,000 transaction, the disinterested testimony by the newpapers’ buyers that they did not request covenants not to compete.. and the absence of an economic reason for them… the evidence of pecuniary fraud is so compelling that no reasonable jury would have refused to convict.”

The Supreme Court refused to intervene again. Still Black prefers to point to the 11 counts on which he was acquitted as somehow cancelling out the convictions for fraud and obstruction of justice, claiming that he fought the law and won. He served 37 months of a reduced 42-month sentence and was released in May 2012.

Black sued the Hollinger directors for $1 billion. A settlement was reportedly agreed with Hollinger’s insurers in 2011. They paid Black and his wife Barbara Amiel and four other former directors $12.2 million. “Mr. Black will be dismissing and releasing all of his claims of defamation actions, and neither the company nor the people he sued for defamation are are paying him a penny,” the National Post reported.

Thoses criminal convictions were not the only contradiction to Black’s claims of innocence. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) banned him from being a director of a US public company and fined him $6 million in 2012. It accused him of diverting money to himself and others from Hollinger by way of the “non-compete” agreements, making mis-statements and omissions about the payments and misleading shareholders about selling Hollinger assets for their benefit.

Black naturally appealed, but after arbitration he settled the case in 2013, agreeing to the boardroom ban and paying $4.1 million to the Hollinger successor company. The SEC announced: “Black consented to the final judgement without denying the allegations of the Commission’s complaint.”

A man who loudly protests his innocence, Black took the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and did not answer questions from the SEC. He did not testify at his Chicago trial.

The final forum for Black’s claims of innocence was the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC). It waited until the US courts and the SEC had ruled before moving forward with its own case. In February 2015 the OSC banned Black from acting as a director or officer of any listed company.

“We have concluded the the misconduct for which Bland and [Hollinger co-director John] Boultbee were convicted in the US legal proceedings was sufficiently abusive as to warrant apprehension of future conduct detrimental to the integrity of Ontario’s capital markets,” the OSC declared.

The Canadian regulator’s staff wanted to ban Black from even trading shares locally. The OSC refused to go that far, but “for the purposes of investor protection” it imposed a boardroom ban. “Such prohibitions should be permanent as there is no basis in these specific circumstances in our view for considering that the risk of future misconduct is somehow circumscribed by the passage of time.”

The US Department of Justice website explains that a presidential pardon “does not signify innocence.” Among those previously pardoned are former mob-linked Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa and senior New Jersey Mafia figure Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo (both by Richard Nixon) and fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich (by Bill Clinton) .

Eric Sussman, who prosecuted Black in Chicago, had his own verdict. “Justice in Donald Trump’s America is unapologetically linked to who you know and how much money you have,” he told Canada’s Financial Post. “The pardon of Conrad Black doesn’t simply represent the victory of greed, power and wealth over bedrock principles of justice, it is an open and unapologetic celebration of this victory.” It was, he said, a “mockery that President Trump has made of our justice system.”

Buffoons in Love

“Buffoons in Love” could be the title. A movie about Donald Trump and Conrad Black’s crazy, rollicking friendship would be absolute box office gold, right up there with Dumb and Dumber. Admittedly, it’s — as they say in the business — ‘high concept’, but when you consider the rather implausible idea of a Reality TV Star becoming president of the US, the concept isn’t that stratospheric. It has everything a breakout hit requires: money, corruption, court room drama, and of course Palm Beach mansions.

The proposition that Trump is a buffoon hardly needs explication. But Conrad Black? Well, he is by all accounts a highly intelligent, engaging companion and a best-selling non-academic historian. He is also much loved by the journalistic community, at least by those with an affection for Macauleyesque locutions and big words that long ago fell into disuse.

But why he has pursued a public career as a purveyor of preposterously inane ideas is a puzzle. The only equivalent figure resides at the far end of the political spectrum. Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm whose opinions were clearly utterly bonkers managed to retain his aura of academic respectability until his death at 95. He held to his defense of Stalinism with unshakeable conviction, even in the face of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, even after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Abandoned by most of his British party comrades after the post-Khrushchev revelations he remained infatuated to the end. It’s a mystery.

Why Conrad Black holds to opinions that are equally easily and convincingly disproved is similarly mystifying. Martin Amis has a couple of handy terms for people like these: “high IQ cretins, Mensa morons”.

If you think this judgement harsh, consider some of the positions he has held over the last half century. In the early 1970’s he was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the war in Vietnam. So fervent was he that when Richard Nixon read his pieces in the Sherbrooke Record he sent him on a junket to South East Asia. His reports were odious agit-prop of the kind one associates with the Webbs’ rhapsodic reporting on the Soviet Union in the 30’s.

In the 1980’s he wrote regularly about the terrific things the Contras and paramilitary units were doing in Central America, ignoring of course the dirty money, the shooting up of operating rooms and the murder of nuns.

Most recently he has written about climate change. True to form, it’s all a myth, fake news. Jim Hansen, the first scientist to draw the world’s attention to this looming existential catastrophe, comes in for particular condemnation. The piece is so rife with factual errors that are so easily repudiated you wonder whether he has an internet connection.

Do these opinions (and many others) make Conrad a buffoon? Not quite. The clincher is the ‘guilty’ verdict in that Chicago court room in 2007.

After the subprime mortgage meltdown of 2008 the US legal system couldn’t convict a single Wall Street scammer or manipulator, but Conrad ended up getting a three-year residency in a Florida prison after smuggling financial records out the back door of his office.

The Wall Street guys stole billions. Conrad just fiddled with the books. All that money, all those connections, all those expensive high-profile lawyers and still Conrad still couldn’t beat the charge?

But perhaps the worst thing to happen to Black has been his slide into irrelevancy. When he was pardoned by Trump last week hardly any Canadian news outlets took notice. The one newspaper that did was the The Guardian in the UK whose headline, ”Trump pardons fraudster Conrad Black after glowing biography” pretty much nailed it.

His only public outlet now is a Saturday column in The National Post where last week, in response to his pardon, he bleated about how the American judicial system is terribly unfair. Only to someone who has lived an entire life in a bubble of privilege and exclusion would this come as a surprise.

The US legal system has serious enforcement, judicial and incarceration problems. But not normally for rich white guys. To read Black conflating his situation with those who are genuine victims of a cruel, profoundly inequitable system is enough make one hope that right now, in a studio in California, a producer is packaging a comedy about a couple of rich, powerful men with “Buffoon” somewhere in the title.

Edmund Burke at Miami Basel

A couple of quotes:

“Art is a conspiracy between artists and rich people to make poor people feel stupid.”

That’s from Kurt Vonnegut.

And this from Robert Hughes, the late, great art critic for Time magazine:

“Art prices are largely about voyeurism and toxic snobbery. They are what you see when you peer up the anus of ‘culture.’”

So, it turns out, you aren’t alone if you think contemporary art has some explainin’ to do.

I’ll get to the quotes in a minute. First let me say something about the title: Edmund Burke at Miami Basel. It refers to the 18th century British politician Edmund Burke who had some interesting ideas about art and politics. He was born in Ireland and, rare for an Irishman, he wasn’t a troublemaker or a rebel. He believed in order and reason.

He’s remembered mostly for his defence of parliamentary democracy in Britain. The French Revolution in 1789, and the blood-soaked anarchy that came with it, shocked him. France’s ancient monarchy and political system had been demolished in very short order. He worried that Britain could be next. He thought that the revolution was a prelude to an era of chaos and disorder.

His legacy was this simple idea: Rather than destroy a political system and start from scratch, it’s better to get rid what doesn’t work, keep the things that do work and build on them. It’s the fundamental idea of conservatism.

Miami Basel refers to the annual art show in Miami where super-rich collectors, the so-called 1%, go to see and buy new work. It’s also a huge social event and it’s an exciting venue for the not-so-rich as well. There’s a huge range of work – large, small, traditional, cutting edge, bizarre. Some of it, to me at least, is incomprehensible.

So I wondered what someone like Burke who believed in a steady, historical progression would make of it because some of the art in Miami, and in contemporary galleries around the world, is the product of another revolution. Unlike the French Revolution it was an artistic one.

It happened in 1917 and it turned the art world upside down. It left it unmoored, without an agreed-upon system of aesthetics, without agreed-upon standards of quality. It was a prelude in other words to a period of disorder.

Up until then, art had developed as a series of styles and ideas about how to represent the visual world. One movement was a reaction to the one that preceded it and on and on. Prehistoric art was followed by the Classical period, followed by the Medieval. You know the drill – the Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Neo-classical, Impressionism.

This all ended in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp submitted his ‘Fountain to a show in New York City. His mass-produced urinal was rejected by the judging committee, sadly. I know what you’re thinking – another insensitive jury pissing on an artist’s work. But that’s not the case here. They were actually pissing into his work.

Over the years, a lot of copies were made and by the 1960’s it had became an icon of the modern movement.

In 2004, Duchamp’s Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 British art world professionals. The Independent newspaper noted that with this single work Duchamp invented conceptual art and “severed forever the traditional link between the artist’s labour and the merit of the work”.

After that, anything could be called art unless of course it was realistic painting. That wasn’t considered serious art by collectors and curators. And with a few exceptions — Ron Bolt, of course being one of them —  that’s still the case.

To understand what art is about today it might help to come at it with an open mind. Here’s a thought experiment. Transport yourself a thousand years into the future. There has been another long, dark period, like the Middle Ages in the interim – not exactly a remote possibility given the current state of the world  – and you’re on an archeological dig looking for treasures from the past.

It would be the equivalent of what the Italians did in 1400 or so when they started digging up ancient Greek and Roman sculptures — the discoveries that stimulated the Renaissance.

So here you are. It’s 3018 and you uncover a masterpiece from the early 21st century. A piece of art that represents the pinnacle of creative expression in what was then known as the Postmodern period. You dig down, pulling up clumps of earth. Finally you see something glinting in the rubble.

What treasure, what priceless creation  have you uncovered? Jeff Koons’ Golden Poodle. You haul it out and stand it right side up. You try to imagine what this earlier civilization was like. What were the principles that this culture was built on? What was important to it?

Well, looking at this gigantic poodle, it’s clear what was important: huge, shiny objects — replicas of children’s toys. But why? Was it really a culture obsessed with trivia and mindless entertainment?

You keep digging. What do you see next? Damien Hirst’s famous shark in a tank. What to make of this one? Well, first you might ask, what kind of people would keep enormous pet fish in such small aquariums?

But since you’re digging on the site of a former art museum you assume that it must be a piece of sculpture. You would probably think that the shark must’ve been an important symbol, maybe representing predatory capitalism. And you would be right.

But you would miss the joke. You would miss the postmodern irony of it. This is art that seems to criticize the excesses of capitalism but at the same time is a perfect example of that same excess. Let’s face it. If you were really a critic of capitalism, you’d give it away rather than sell it for $8 million like Damien Hirst did.

You might notice something else. That these pieces are similar to a lot of public art through the centuries.

They’re expressions of power. The power of the church, the power of the state and, in our age, the power of money. What’s interesting is that this kind of work never holds its value in the longterm. Good, short term but not for the long game. To last, it has to be something more than just an expression of power. It has to touch us on a deeper level.

Let me give you a couple of examples. This painting The Campaign of France, 1814 by French artist Meissonier sold for 840,000 francs in the 1880’s. At the time it was the most expensive painting in the world. This one by Lawrence Alma Tadema The Finding of Moses was bought in 1908 for around 5,000 pounds, a huge sum for the time. At the peak of their careers these two were the richest, most famous painters in the world.

Does anyone remember them now? Some art historians, I guess. What happened to them? Well, Meissonier’s painting is tucked in a corner of the Musée D’Orsay but people hardly notice it as they rush by to see the Impressionists. The Alma Tadema painting which, by the way, is 7 feet wide, sold for 252 pounds in 1960— about the price my parents paid for their color TV. Then, amazingly, in 2010 the price skyrocketed. It sold for $36 million. Why?

My theory is that these paintings reflect the economic and political climate of their time. Alma Tadema mainly painted idyllic scenes of people lounging at their villas during the Greek and Roman Empires. He sold his paintings when the British Empire was at its peak. The buyers saw themselves as imperialists reflected in the mirror of Greek and Roman history.

The same for Meissonier. He painted mostly battle scenes at a time when France was trying to recapture its lost glory on the battlefield.

The value of Tadema’s paintings dropped drastically through the beginning of the 20th century because the British Empire had fought two world wars and was shedding its colonies. Then in 1960 their value went through the roof. It was bought by an American buyer when the US was at the height of its powers and the subject of empire was attractive again.

Artists like Koons and Hirst are essentially riding the same wave. They reflect a period in history when capitalism is triumphant, when vast inequality is the norm. Their sculptures are celebrations of acquisitiveness.

Here’s a prediction. As the US as a great power declines the value of Koons’ and Hirst’s sculptures will decline along with it.

OK. Back to the quotes.

That bit about peering up the anus of ‘culture?’” You might think that Robert Hughes was indulging in hyperbole.

But, if you look, for example, at the work of Italian postmodernist, Piero Manzoni, you would see that what he said was literally true. Here’s one of his pieces of, yes, a can of the artist’s excrement. It’s exactly what you would see – minus the can – if you looked up the artist’s anus. You probably don’t need other examples but excrement does seem to play a big role in modern art. Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary using elephant dung, Serrano’s famous Piss Christ, Tracy Emin’s bedsheets and of course Duchamp’s urinal.

My favorite though is by the famous graffiti artist, banksy, who once sold a painting called, “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit.”

What Hughes was basically saying was, that the top end of the art market has been corrupted by money. It’s a world of secret deals, quick flips, conflicts of interest, tax dodges, fakes, price fixing and dirty money.

Unfortunately, all this has an affect on the work of other artists. It trickles down. When the only criterion for quality is price, thanks to Marcel Duchamp, the other criteria are no longer valid. You end up with art that’s meaningless and crude.

Here’s some work by the really big names in contemporary art:

Mathew Barney .

Christopher Wool . Apocalypse Now – it sold for $26 million in 2013

Ed Ruscha – OOF

Having said that, I have to qualify it somewhat by saying that out of all this mud some roses do grow. There is some great modern, non-objective art. Some of it is brilliant and beautiful.

David Smith

Gerhard Richter


Gia_091007 012

Ulla Nystrom 

Judy Raymer Ivkoff

I can’t explain why I like them. I just do.

But one of the things that separates theirs from the other work is that you can see a human hand and mind at play. There’s evidence of a brush or squeegee or blow torch, manipulating the material, expressing a personal vision. They’re doing what artists should do: making art that touches us emotionally, forces us reflect on our humanity and makes some sort of connection to the physical world.

Now I’d like to show you some work that I think Edmund Burke, and anyone interested in keeping the good and chucking out the bad, would appreciate.

These are pieces by young artists working today producing that I think speaks with a contemporary voice. They use traditional media like oil on canvas or tempera on wood to create images that have much more to say to us than some of the stuff displayed in public art institutions.

I’m not arguing that abstract and conceptual art shouldn’t be admired and respected. What I am saying is that a lot of it, especially at the top end, is not worthy of serious attention. And I’m also saying that some of realistic art being done today is relevant to our time and has interesting things to say. It should have a place in modern museums alongside the rest.

Here are some paintings by American artist, Leah Chapin that do something unusual. They portray and celebrate the aging human body. For all their playfulness and theatricality, I find them quite moving. There’s no attempt to hide the depredations of the passage of time. They revel in the unvarnished truth.

These are by Julio Reyes. They show young people in blighted industrial landscapes. The beautiful colour and paint handling is very traditional and belies the subject matter. They speak to the prospects of their generation and the next one. And ask an important question. Why is our natural environment being swallowed up and desecrated by industry?

Aron Wiesenfeld. Some of these have the innocence and naiveté of a children’s book but they’re much darker. They’re often about a journey, one where the territory is strange and ominous. The vegetation is overgrown and threatening. The subject, always a fragile young woman is lost and disoriented. They’re different from Reyes’ work but they reflect the experience of many people around the world today.

There are lots of artists like Daniel Sprick who paints portraits and still lifes, but he brings an astonishing level of precision to them. And his subject matter and compositional sense are very much of their time.

This kind of art is the culmination of a long history of humankind making marks on a surface. We’ll probably never stop doing that.

We started with this 14,000 years ago. We got to this , then to this . Realistic painting is a hand that reaches out from the past and shakes our hand in the present. It reminds us that we really haven’t changed very much and that the important questions about the human condition haven’t changed either: How do we deal with our mortality? Will we always wander in the dark and struggle to understand our place in the universe? How can we find meaning in our lives?

A lot of people think the greatest artist who ever lived was this man – a painter of religious themes, landscapes and his own face in the mirror. In many of his self-portraits — you can see it in his expression — those were the questions that were on his lips.

I think Rembrandt and some of the painters who have followed in his footsteps have more to say to us than gigantic, chrome poodles.

Thank you.

Arts and Letters Portrait

The unveiling at the AGM
The unveiling at the AGM

This year I was chosen by the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto to paint the portrait of Marianne Fedunkiw, 2015’s outgoing (in both senses) President. It was a great privilege because I joined a long list of notable Canadian artists, including members of the Group of Seven, who have created images of former presidents. My portrait will hang on the wall in the club’s Lounge along with the others.

Fossil Hunters by Alan King

At the site
At the site

Science fiction writer H G Wells didn’t know the half of it. Time travel sometimes takes more than just imagination and clever engineering; it can take a lot of arduous footwork, the kind that gets you up to 7,500 feet above sea level.

Unlike Wells’ lucky Time Traveller who was effortlessly zapped millions of years into the future, my son Christopher and I hiked half a billion years in the other direction to the Burgess Shale an ancient fossil bed. It’s location is a swath of scree 11 km up the side of Mount Wapta, a spectacular hunk of geology looming majestically over Field, BC.

The fossils here are from the Cambrian Explosion an era that began 542 million years ago when simple life in the sea erupted into a huge array of species, all of them vastly larger and weirder than anything that had come before. It was an extraordinary event in the earth’s history but what made it really unusual was that it was mostly soft-bodied creatures — squids, worms and cactus-like sponges — that ended up as fossils, not the usual specimens with hard shells and skeletons.

They were buried in an underwater avalanche of fine mud that sealed and preserved them so well in some cases that their inner organs are clearly visible. The mudslide took these aquatic bizarreries by surprise as they swam along the continental shelf and today, amazingly, they reside a mile and a half above sea level.

How they got there is no secret. Continental drift and plate tectonics did their slow-motion bump and grind, eventually pushing them heavenward.

But the question of why they suddenly blossomed is still a subject of fierce scientific debate. One thing’s for sure: it’s a very big deal in evolutionary history. There isn’t a biologist or palaeontologist anywhere who doesn’t know about it and isn’t mystified by it.

Discovered in 1909 by the Smithsonian director Charles Walcott while exploring on horseback (no hiking for him) it has become a mecca for geologists and palaeontologists from around the world not just for its scientific importance but because the view from the site — as well as the hike — leaves you breathless.

That’s Emerald Lake at the bottom of the valley

At the bottom of the valley lies famous Emerald Lake, whose water is so turquoise and luminous it looks like a CGI-enhanced illusion. Across the valley at eye level sparkles the glacier of Michael Peak with an outlet stream plunging into a series of astonishing cataracts.

Along the way our walk is punctuated with stops for brief lectures by Annie our guide from the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation (access to the site is restricted to those on guided tours). She riffs excitedly about the history of the planet, mountain building, plate tectonics, the discovery of the site and the life forms we can expect to see. And mercifully, once in a while she lets us stop to soak our feet in a cold, crystalline lake and to photograph marmots, alpine flowers and butterflies.

The last killer kilometre is a series of steep switchbacks but worth the effort. There are fossils underfoot everywhere if you know where and how to look.

Trilobites – those creatures that look like big, aquatic cockroaches — are the easiest to spot. You can also find the wonderful marella another arthopod with two elegant, swooping appendages that resemble the hood ornament on a 60’s Cadillac. If you’re very lucky you might even see the bizarre and appropriately named hallucigenia. This guy sports a worm-like body with seven pairs of legs and an equal number of long spines running along its back — part garden hose, part porcupine.

If you can’t find the precise critter you’re looking for, Annie will haul prize samples out of a permanent steel cabinet all carefully labeled. Not that everyone needs her help. The rest of the group includes a brain trust of geologists and academics who wear their knowledge as lightly as their knapsacks and happily explain who ate whom, who didn’t make the evolutionary cut and who is still around, lurking in the ocean today.

Takakkaw Falls

As it began so it ends, with a long, exhilarating trek down to the parking lot across from Takakkaw Falls, (‘It is magnificent’ in Cree) at 300 metres one of the highest waterfalls in Canada. This glacial stream bursts from the cliff face as if it has been fired from a huge water-cannon, turning into a misty rainbow near the bottom. Magnificent indeed.

Exhausted and hungry we head for dinner and a glass of wine at a restaurant in Field to ponder the origins of complex life and to toast the indisputable fact that some its secrets are revealed at one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Continue reading “Fossil Hunters by Alan King”

The Man Who Mistook His Life for a Notebook

Sacks-bodyI have a confession to make. I’ve read just about every word Oliver Sacks ever wrote and, God knows, the man wrote a lot. Yes, I know it sounds like an unhealthy interest in medical literature — borderline OCD. But it’s not like I’ve read all of Sherwin Nolan or Jerome Groopman or Atul Gawande — just Sacks. I read him endlessly, page after fascinating page.

You could think of it as a mental disorder or a ‘cerebral deficit’ if you like. My doctor certainly does. In fact he has a name for it: florid non-sackistic verbo-dysplasia. It’s a rare, somewhat  disabling affliction. There are maybe 50 people on the planet who have it and sufferers typically live only on beautiful, faraway tropical islands, hilltop Tuscan villages or have been institutionalized for decades without ever seeing the outside world.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve been able to live a fairly normal life, albeit hiding my condition from friends and colleagues.

Fortunately my doctor is concerned about my welfare and happy that he can be of help. He says this is just the kind of disorder he signed up to medical school for — non-contagious, non-life-threatening, pain-free. Patients just wander about in a daze and stare vacantly at books with weird titles.

He would love to discover the source of my mysterious ailment and perhaps find a way to alleviate the symptoms. There’s also the possibility that his research might have an impact on the larger world. Understanding my condition might shed new light on the mind/brain duality and answer some very important questions about perception and consciousness. If I forgo the confidentiality and financial compensation clauses he might even write a book about me!

Since the only thing I do with my brain is read Sacks he thinks there may be another part of it that’s working overtime to compensate. He calls it neuroplasticity and he may have a point. Those parts of my brain that could’ve been thinking about Daniel Dennett or A R Luria have probably either atrophied through lack of use or developed enhanced capabilities.

And you know something? I have noticed lately that I do have some unusual abilities, usually when I’m in the grip of a powerful emotion. I’ve never studied music or played an instrument but recently I read a sentence that reeked of grandiosity and filled me with a profound sense of inadequacy — “I received a letter from W H Auden telling me my new book, Awakenings, was a ‘masterpiece’.” I suddenly found myself sitting at the piano, playing a very creditable rendition of Who Let the Dogs Out!

And then there was the time I read in the same book about someone who figured he had a photographic memory when he was a young man because he had memorized a seven-digit phone number scrawled on the wall of a phone booth. “Photographic memory”? I’ll show you a photographic memory. And in an instant I was able to memorize nine numbers in a row. Incredible!

That’s not all. Reading about someone who sat through an entire orchestra concert scribbling in his notebook I thought, ”Well I’m sure glad I wasn’t sitting next to that narcissistic nincompoop”. Then suddenly I was able to draw a vividly idiosyncratic interpretation of Munch’s The Scream on my iPad with just my little finger. Go figure!

My doctor tells me this is exactly the kind of compensatory behaviour he would expect. My brain is reconfiguring itself to deal with an insidious intruder that has robbed me of normal human consciousness.

As a first step in his treatment regime he has decided not to employ his usual course of powerful SSRIs. He wants to try something much more radical and he feels it’s necessary if I’m going to get my mind back.

Next week, he says, I’ll be starting on the complete works of Anthony Trollope.

Bach and me

Bach200I’ve been learning Bach’s Goldberg Variations recently. I know that sounds absurd. It’s the piano music Glenn Gould dazzled the music world with in 1955 and it’s famous for its technical and interpretive challenges. If you didn’t have the chops or the months or maybe years to commit, you’d have to be nuts to even try.

I’ve sight-read them over the years, learning 4 or 5 to performance level, but thought it would be too much effort to learn them all. Then I thought, well why not? At least I could say I gave it a shot.

Of course, not all the variations are finger-breakers. As well as the evocative aria and final recapitulation, there are quite a few simple, relatively non-contrapuntal bits that let you focus for a while on interpretation rather than technique.

The difficulties arise from the fact that Bach wrote them not for the piano —  which had only just been invented — but for the two-manual harpsichord. In fact he identifies which variations should be played on one keyboard and which on two.

The ones played on two have parts where the hands overlap. The right hand, normally playing alone at the top of the keyboard, suddenly heads south towards the bass clef and the left hand, normally playing alone on the other keyboard, heads north. It’s not a problem when you’re playing on a two keyboard harpsichord. But on the single keyboard of the piano the fingers can get hopelessly entangled. It’s a bit like ten people all playing hopscotch on the same patch of sidewalk at the same time. They have to land on a different square one after the other in perfect synchronicity.

This bit of fingered choreography requires a huge amount of practice and decisions have to be made about whether right should go over left or vice versa. Be assured, if you’ve heard a performance of the Goldbergs played well, the pianist had to play certain bars in the fast movements thousands of times to get them right.

One of the reasons I love them is because they were sort of Bach’s neglected step-child. They lay gathering dust for a couple of centuries, relegated to a pedagogic limbo. Then along came Gould who discovered there was gold buried in them thar Goldbergs. He dug out the nuggets, then hammered and burnished them into a string of glowing pendants.

To me they’re a microcosm of Bach’s biography. Neglected after his death, it wasn’t until the young Mendelsohn conducted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion that musicians started to take him seriously. Since then, and certainly at this moment, there isn’t a single second where Bach isn’t being performed somewhere in the world.

Part of this is a result of his almost incomprensibly huge output. Hänssler Classics put out a collection of CD’s a few years ago of his complete works — 155 disks. If you do the math it means if you put the first disk in your player on a Sunday and play them one after the other, you wouldn’t take out the last one until the following Sunday. And the amazing thing is that nearly every minute of it is worth hearing. Much of it is truly great music.

The other daunting aspect of this is that Bach probably wrote the Goldbergs in less time than it’s going to take me (or anyone else) to learn to play them.

I’d better get busy.

The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy (Book review)

The AnatomistI finished reading Oliver Sacks new book On The Move: A Life this week and towards the end he writes about his late-blossoming relationship with Bill Hayes, author of The Anatomist. It reminded me that I’d written a review of it for the CMAJ. You can see why they might be drawn to one another — medicine, writing, San Francisco… 

Pity Bill Hayes, writer of the new biography of Henry Gray (The Anatomist, Ballantyne Books) the British surgeon who gave the world Gray’s Anatomy. A fitness buff,  magazine freelancer and writer of two popular medical books, Hayes noticed there had never been a biography of the writer of the world’s most famous anatomy textbook. He must have thought he heard the knock of opportunity tapping out ‘bestseller’ on his laptop. But after a few library enquiries and search engine marathons it became apparent why the book had never been written: the good doctor had left a very cold trail. There was about as much personal detail about him in the archives as there was about the anonymous cadavers laid out on the pages of his textbook.

While a few photographs of Gray survive, nearly all of his papers were lost in a fire that destroyed his publisher’s archives the year he died and a mere handful of published scientific papers grace the shelves of medical libraries. Worse, he lived a tragically short life. He died at 34 of smallpox after treating his 10-year-old nephew for the disease, meaning a potentially interesting life swept along on a wave of early fame wasn’t available to be written about.

What to do? Faced with same dilemma that bedevils biographers of Shakespeare, Hayes resorts to similar strategies to plug the gaps: he mixes personal experience with imaginative fantasies of what his subject’s life might have been like in the social and scientific context of his time — mid-19th century England.

Starting with an examination of a photograph showing Gray surrounded by his students in the pathology lab, Hayes moves quickly to its contemporary equivalent. In San Francisco he signs up for a course in anatomy at the University of California, joining medical students in performing dissections and prosections.  Much of the book is a first-person account of Hayes’ experiences in the dissection lab and his reactions mirror that of Western civilization’s conflicted relationship with post-mortem examination since Leonardo da Vinci first started hauling bodies out of the Arno. Fear is his initial reaction, then revulsion, curiosity and finally amazement and delight. In his final days at the lab he is almost gleeful as he peels back the skin and rattles off the names of the muscles attaching to the pes anserinus.

Hayes then goes to England, where he takes us along on research expeditions to Gray’s home, St. George’s Hospital in London (now a luxury hotel) and a small museum dedicated to his work.

If this were the extent of the story, this small volume might exude the faint odor of formaldehyde. Fortunately, Hayes finds another way to enliven and expand it. Gray’s Anatomy is not the product of one mind, but two. Henry Gray wrote the text. Another Henry, artist/surgeon Henry Vandyke Carter, did the woodcut illustrations. And when Dr. Carter wasn’t engraving woodblocks or wielding a scalpel in the pathology lab, he kept a diary. Little of it was about the writing and illustration of the book but it does provide a glimpse into the life of a young doctor at the school where Gray taught and insight into Victorian medical education. It also shines a light into the soul of an introspective, deeply religious young man, struggling to find a direction for his life and career.

In many ways it’s the most interesting part. As Hayes points out, ”The sprawling paper trail left behind by H.V. Carter would lead me… into the troubled heart of a gifted man of science.” It’s easy to forget in a secular age that 150 years ago the best science was being carried out by researchers who held strongly to the traditions of mainstream Christianity. Confronted, as Carter was, with the wondrous mechanics of the human body, he struggled to find a philosophy that reconciled scientific practicality with religious belief.

His relationship with Gray was far less burdensome than the one with God.  As a student four years behind the gifted, fast-tracked Gray, he expressed an admiration that verged on awe. By the time Gray was twenty he was already the equivalent of an MD, by twenty-five, a Fellow of the Royal Society and head of the anatomy museum. In a burst of intense activity that lasted a year and a half these two young men produced the magnificent volume that turned  the interior of the human body into a work of art and the learning of its parts into a pleasurable ordeal. It became the standard reference manual for generations of medical students. The irony is that Henry Gray whose name is forever identified with it, is a near total mystery. The artist, Henry Carter, whose name is all but forgotten, left a fleeting but penetrating sketch for us to remember him by.

Ron Bolt, artist

For the past little while I’ve been co-chair of the Art Committee at the Arts and Letters Club here in Toronto. This month there’s a one-man show by Ron Bolt, a renowned landscape painter and print-maker. If you want to see the show, call me and we can do a walk through. At the opening night dinner I introduced him with the following:


Evening Surf by Ron Bolt
Evening Surf by Ron Bolt

I want to begin this introduction with a quote from Alain de Botton, a British author who writes about the modern world. It expresses today’s conventional wisdom. I’ve changed the tense but it goes something like this,

“But then came a transformation to which we are still the heirs…. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the dominant catalyst for that feeling of the sublime has ceased to be nature. We are now deep in the era of the technological sublime, when awe can most powerfully be invoked not by forests or icebergs but by supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators. We are now almost exclusively amazed by ourselves.” Amazed by ourselves…

I think Ron Bolt might disagree with that sentiment and looking around this exhibition I see a powerful rebuke to that notion.

You’ll notice that there are few human figures in his work. Ron doesn’t seem to be terribly amazed by modern humanity or in the thrall of technology. What he is amazed by is the gift of the natural world. He will take a patch of Canadian wilderness or rugged shoreline and transform it into something akin to a religious icon — an exquisitely constructed object that mainlines the viewer right to the emotional core of its subject matter.

There’s a lot of discussion these days about ‘mindfulness’, about heightening one’s awareness of the world around us. Ron Bolt does that and more. He directs our attention to the sacred places on our planet and hopes that our attention will not only give us aesthetic and spiritual sustenance but perhaps help to protect these places from exploitation.

I won’t list the scores of awards and honours he has received over the years. I’ll just mention that this is just one of 100 one-man shows he has had in a 50 year career. His paintings, prints and limited edition books are in the collections of public galleries and libraries across Canada. He has collaborated on books with some of the finest writers in the country. And he has played a prominent role in the development of a positive work environment for Canadian visual artists, serving as president both of the Royal Academy of the Arts and the Society of Canadian Artists, among other roles.

And just as a by the way, he’s also a fine pianist and, for an artist, an exceptionally modest person. I asked him at lunch on Friday whether he still played. He said, ‘Yes, once in a while. I’ll fumble my way through something.’ Then, before people showed up for the Sunday Opening he sat down at the Steinway and gave a note-perfect rendition of some very difficult Albeniz.

The fact that he can make the very difficult look easy doesn’t mean that he is amazed by himself. Far from it. He works hard to produce works that are brilliantly crafted, unmistakably his own and that connect us to the miraculous beauty of our planet. It’s left to us to be amazed…. Please welcome Ron Bolt.

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