The winter of 1709 was a killer. In England it was called “The Great Frost.” In France it was called “Le Grand Hiver.” Over three weeks in early January, temperatures dropped across Europe to levels not seen in 500 years. The Mediterranean Sea froze. Trees exploded. Livestock died in the barns. In Switzerland, wolves prowled…
When I was a kid, there was a Bigfoot movie. I remember this because I saw the commercial for it just once – and slept wearing a hockey helmet for about five weeks afterwards. I remember my dad, sitting at the foot of my bed, explaining that being attacked by a mythical forest monster in…
When I was a kid, my dad would disappear into his study and close the door. From inside, you could hear the steady clack-clack from the old manual Underwood typewriter as the letters slammed against the cylinder, punctuated by the occasional “ping” at the end of each line and a waft of pipe smoke from…
No empire lasts forever. That’s the thesis of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy. Kennedy, a historian, says that all empires have this in common: militaries that make them great and also lead to their downfall. Eventually, the resources needed to keep a military powerful become a drain on the nation, and it begins to decline.
In the politically charged early decades of the 21st century, there is a new term to describe the public performance of righteousness. These days, it’s called “virtue signaling.” Virtue signaling is when you share your opinion on a social or political issue simply to get praise or acknowledgment from people who share that point of view. It’s the social media equivalent of praying in public.
There’s a reason Jesus told stories. We human beings are hardwired to see the world through the lens of stories. A couple of psychologists, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel of Smith College in Massachusetts, proved this in 1944. They showed 36 college students a short film, which showed two triangles and a circle moving across a two-dimensional surface.
You’ve probably never heard of Richard Demsick. On May 9, 2020, Richard Demsick went for a two-and-a-half mile run in his neighbourhood in Vero Beach, Florida. Demsick was running shirtless, with a ball cap on backwards and was carrying a flat-screen television under his arm. Although the neighbourhood had recently had a series of break-ins, no one stopped him to ask what he was doing. You’ve probably heard of Ahmaud Arbery.
When phones first came along, people didn’t say “hello” to start the call. In fact, Alexander Graham Bell suggested using the word “ahoy” as a greeting. In the 1920s, people in Britain were advised to skip the greeting to save time. I remember when email was first becoming a big deal back in the 1980s. In university I sent an email to a fellow student in Holland, and actually sat and watched my computer for an answer to come back. That seems silly now, of course.
As I write this, I am sitting in my house with my wife and dog and son. We have not been outside for a few days. We are watching a lot of Netflix. We are taking a lot of video conference calls for work. It’s not so bad yet, but cabin fever is going to set in soon. And we are healthy, so far. This is what life has been like for us, in Canada, in the first few days of the social distancing phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the early 1990s, Neil Postman – an American writer and media critic – pointed out the problem with pictures. He said that images short-circuit our ability to separate truth from lies, because “true” and “false” don’t apply to pictures. If you see an advertisement of a happy family eating at McDonald’s, for example, is that “true”? It’s probably not – because photos like that are always staged – but the question itself doesn’t seem to make sense. We don’t think of images that way – they just “are.”
To paraphrase Luke Skywalker: “Amazing: every word of what I wrote there . . . was wrong.” Looking around at social media just five years later, there’s more division, more arguing, more yelling than ever before. People are not breaking down walls, they’re reinforcing them. Isolating themselves in echo chambers where the only ideas they encounter are the ones they agree with and where every voice is a familiar and reassuring one.
I used to be a cat person. When I was a kid, I always owned cats. There was Frank*, the orange tabby we adopted in Kingston. There was Sinbad, a slightly psychotic white Persian barn cat that we unsuccessfully tried to rehabilitate. And when I was in grad school studying Reformation history, I had cats named Calvin and Zwingli – something even my professor thought was pretty nerdy.