September 22, 2017

Wiki Friday: Oliver Sacks and the periodic table

Oliver Sacks

"a kind of poet laureate of contemporary medicine," says the New York Times.

Was a member of the Fern Society of New York.

Swam almost every day of his life.

During medical school in California, became a bodybuilder and held a record for weightlifting.

Did a lot of drugs, and actually had an amphetamine-induced epiphany about what to do next: become a chronicler of neurological diseases and oddities.

I had heard the name–Oliver Sacks–but only became interested in the person through the wonderful book Insomniac City, which I learned about through the Brain Pickings essay. The book is really beautiful. Bill Hayes writes about everything with tenderness, but in particular his romance with Oliver Sacks, and I like how he moves between clips of journals and essay-like chapters, sprinkling in his own black and white photos from New York.

Bill often quotes Oliver, or writes close observations:
“I like having a confusion of agency, your hand on top of mine, unsure where my body ends and yours begins…”

“I say I love writing, but really it is thinking I love–that rush of thoughts–new connection in the brain being made. And it comes out of the blue.” O smiled. “In such moments: I feel such love of the world, love of thinking…”
Oliver often said that but was his favourite word, a kind of etymological flip of the coin, for it allowed consideration of both sides of an argument, a topic, as well as a kind of looking-at-the-bright-side that was as much a part of his nature as his diffidence and indecisiveness.
“But” is my favourite word, too, when I am learning a new language. Even uttered on its own, it shows that you have a second thought about the topic. I think it was my friend Liam who quipped that if I had a drink named after me, it would be “mixed feelings.” This word indeed flips a coin.

When Oliver Sacks is on his literal deathbed, breathing his final breaths in his New York apartment, Bill Hayes takes the following excellent actions:
I looked around the room, crowded with bedsheets, towels, Depends, pads, medications, an oxygen tank and other medical equipment, and I began clearing it out, all of it. First, I brought in stacks of all of O’s books, cleared a bedside table, and put them there. I brought in a cycad plant and a fern. Kate joined me, and we cleared more space, making room on another table for some of O’s beloved minerals and elements, his fountain pens, a ginkgo fossil, his pocket watch. Elsewhere, a few books by his heroes–Darwin, Freud, Luria, Edelman, Thom Gunn–and photos–his father, Auden, his mother as a girl with her seventeen siblings, his aunts and uncles, his brothers. We brought in flowers, candles.
Cycads, not to be confused with palms

A cycad plant, a ginkgo fossil, books, minerals and elements... better objects than an oxygen tank.

This takes me to the periodic table of elements, with which Oliver Sacks was fascinated. As someone with a tendency toward structure and compartmentalization, I suspected I would understand this interest, given more insight.

The periodic table

Ok, in truth Wikipedia gave me nothing to get excited about.

No meditations, poetry, or art related to the topic.

I had to go back to Oliver Sacks, in this Radiolabs podcast about the table.

My first love of chemistry had to do with the sensuous…

The elements themselves are organized in a very special way.

Oliver talks about Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian scientist and inventor, shuffling cards with the elements on them–shuffling, shuffling, shuffling, for years, trying to find a pattern. He has a dream, and awakes, "with a vision of the period table," which he, "wrote on the back of an envelope."

Oliver asks:

Is the periodic table a discovery or an invention?

Is it God’s abacus?
Great questions.

May 7, 2017

Margaret Mitchell

Local lineage

I picked up Margaret Mitchell's autobiography this spring after Glen Sanford gave a touching testament in the campaign office to her being a great person and a "great boss." She died on International Women's Day. The autobiography's title refers to her being laughed at in the House of Commons when, as the NDP MP for Vancouver East, she brought up the prevalence of domestic abuse in Canada. "Can you imagine?" as Glen said. People in the office who knew her teared up. I looked around and recognized for the first time a lineage.

“The Militant Mothers of Raymur” (great local case study in campaigning)

Raymur Housing Project, located in the Downtown East area, is one of the city’s oldest and largest public housing projects. It was imposed on the Strathcona community to replace demolished houses as urban renewal took place. It had no amenities and was often referred to as “the snake-pit” by poor people who felt trapped there and longed to escape. 

Children who lived at Raymur Housing Project had to walk across busy railway tracks to go to school. About twelve mothers who previously had been strangers formed a strong group, determined to gt an overpass over the railway to protect their kids. Mothers lobbied politicians and city officials for an overpass, but with no results. Finally they decided to take direct action. 

For a week, twenty mothers camped in their tents on the railway tracks, stopping train traffic to the Port of Vancouver. Activists from across the city swarmed to applaud and support them. Half of the women agreed to go to jail if necessary, while the other half agreed to look after their kids. Along with the other activists, I supported them each day, but we did not interfere with their decisions. My little red car carried a wine bottle and food for refreshment. 

Caroyln Jerome, the sister of the famous runner Harry Jerome, agreed to be on duty when officials came to serve an injunction to make the protestors insist. Each time they arrived, she tore off up the tracks and they were unable to catch her. Eventually the protesting women were taken to court by the powerful Great Northern Railway, which had several lawyers representing them. The Militant Mothers had none, until a sympathetic lawyer volunteered to represent them as a “Friend of the Court.” He eventually won on a technicality. There was great rejoicing! The city agreed to build an overpass. 

A strong sense of community resulted from this action, and tenants in Raymur organized many more improvements including a food co-op and recreation programs staff by people in the neighbourhood. They eventually negotiated to take over the Housing Authority offices, and the Ray-Cam Co-Operative Community Centre was built.  
Margaret outlines other examples of local campaigns, including the building of solidarity between Italian and Chinese communities in East Vancouver building together with existing associations to fight against evictions and housing destruction. The creation of CRAB Park. The fight for Chinese Head Tax redress.

“Canada’s First Woman Leader” (oh yeah)

Although women’s rights were high on the NDP agenda, caucus decisions were dominated by men. Several power-hungry men dominated executive positions, assigning duties as well as privileges, such as trips. 
When female representation increased to five, Audrey McLaughlin, Lynn McDonald, Mario Dewar, Pauline Jewett, and I decided it was time to have a great impact. We were actively recruiting women to run in the next election. When we began to caucus around the table in the Opposition Laounge, the guys began to wonder what we were plotting. When we moved into the “Ladies Lounge,” things got serious. (This lounge was originally provided for the sole use of wives of MPs–much to Claude’s disgust.) 
We realized that to have a greater say in decisions we would have to undertake leadership roles. The first step was to pass a motion recognizing “parity,” which was party policy requiring gender parity in key positions. This passed in caucus. To implement this with a minority of women, we decided to each run for a senior position on the executive. Audrey was elected chair and I was elected whip. The other three women also took on senior roles. And so the feminist revolution took place.
It was a little while before our colleagues recognized that a coup had taken place.  However, they soon began to feel the impact as we feminized the agenda and the style of operation with more group consensus and less belligerence in the House. 
…We decided to work within the party for nomination of a woman leader. 
[Audrey McLaughlin became the first leader of a Canadian political party with representation in the House of Commons, as leader of the NDP from from 1989 to 1995.]

Finally, a sweet clip from the chapter "Romance in Vancouver and Vienna", in which her Australian love Claude proposes with a list of things to look forward to

Later Claude wrote, “We will have a great life to live together with understanding, tolerance, a sense of humour, idealism, concern for our fellow man, music, work, discussion, a future to build together, our house that I want to build with your help. We will have children. We both love children so very much.” I was very moved, and when I wrote back, added to his list: “friends we both love, a love of nature and all things beautiful.” 
Margaret had ovarian cancer in her thirties (most women died of this at the time; the medical treatment involved radioactive gold), and couldn't have children, and she and Claude eventually separated, but she refers to him as being steadfast in her support of her. 

January 23, 2017

Let Our Fame Be Great

"Isn't it terrible about Chechnya?

Going into this book, I was about as informed as Bridget Jones in the 2001 film, when she's preparing to meet Salman Rushdie and wants to sound smart, so practices asking, "Isn't it terrible about Chechnya?" Chechens came up for me again recently in the fantastic and frightening show Okkupert (Occupied), when the Russians want to extradite and kill a Chechen man for terrorism.

But who does know that much about the Caucasus, that in-between region east of the Black Sea?

Oliver Bullough, for one. He grew up in Wales, chased a passion for Russian into the field of journalism, and pursued his curiousity to write this massive mix of history and personal stories, published in 2010 as Let Our Fame Be Great. Maps, long quotations, statistics, and some notes of travelogue make it into this book. He continues writing for The Guardian, most recently a profile of Putin, and is working on a book called Moneyworld.

The title

Apparently the original people of the Caucasus region were asked by their god if they wanted a life of plenty but in relative obscurity, or a life of absolute struggle in which they would be tested and damaged, but famous for their courage – held up as emblems of heroic humanity. "Let our fame be great," was their defiant answer. Their god failed on his end of the bargain, though, because how many people know the history, and the decimation by the Russians/Soviets, of the Circassians, the Ingush, the Balkars, the Chechens?


By one estimate, around the time of the 1864 exodus, 400,000 Circassians were killed, 497,000 deported (a third or more likely died in transit or upon arrival, mostly in what is now Turkey), and only 80,000 allowed to remain.

Americans and Brits visiting Circassian villages were scandalized to learn about the widespread slave trade, of sorts, in which poor villagers would sell their daughters to Ottoman harems and their sons to the Ottoman military, in exchange for goods and weapons that they could use to defend the homeland. The foreigners wanted to be enraged, but couldn't help but notice that the children were largely comfortable with the arrangement and understood the necessity.

Did you know that Circassians make up the Jordanian royal bodyguard?

Hearty, unreliable, and good

A traveler to the Caucasus, Florence Grove, who may well have been the first to climb Europe’s highest mountain – Mount Elbrus – wrote of the Katachai-Balkars:

Strong, healthy men as most of them are, well capable of doing a long day’s work without the slightest distress, it is wonderful how they loiter on a journey, and what frequent and protracted halts they may. Most irritating, too, is their procrastination. It will be seen then that, though the Caucasians are not always to be relied on, and at times try the traveller’s patience largely, the good much predominates in their character, and I think that those who have sojourned among them cannot fail to carry away a most pleasant pastoral remembrance of this simple pastoral race...

The importance of a literary movement

Before the events of the 1990s and 2000s, including the hostage taking and killing in the school in Beslan, a literary and cultural development bubbled up in the city of Grozny.

The shows that Zakayev’s theatre in Grozny put on in the 1980s had titles like Freedom or Death or There is Only One God, and these were to become slogans of the nationalist movement that was to explode at the end of the decade. The generation that the literary movement was to create would stand on the barricades with them.

What constitutes, I wonder, the current literary movement that will create the generation that will stand on the barricades–real or metaphorical–to come? Not for a nationalist movement, but for a movement for a world that we and our descendants can survive or even thrive in? Who is jumping in? Naomi Klein? Micah White? Zadie Smith? 

Although the number of people involved in these groups was small – just a handful really, compared to the mass of the nation – their influence would be disproportionately large.