Saturday, May 28, 2016

Plastic Brain

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science By Norman Doidge, M.D. Published by Penguins Group (Canada) 2007 This book is about brain plasticity and the miraculous abilities of our brains to compensate for damage, natural or inflicted, to learn or relearn tasks and actually change themselves to adapt without drugs or operations. Norman Doidge is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and researcher at Columbia University and the University of Toronto. He took the time and made the effort to visit many contemporaries he calls “neuroplasticians “.He outlines the history of neuroplasticity, its proponents and opponents. Neuroplasticity: Neuro is for “neuron”, the nerve cells in our brains and nervous systems. Plastic is for “changeable, malleable, modifiable” A lot of wonderful discoveries took place in the 20th Century, yet Norman Doidge says in his preface that brain plasticity is “one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the 20th Century”. The results of experiments with the human brain which lead him to that conclusion are astonishing. In a futuristic science like neurology one would expect a more progressive attitude in its practitioners, but the same old attitudes appeared there too and every scientist-doctor-researcher who bucked the trend and suggested the possibility of plasticity was attacked because the establishment had concluded that the brain was hardwired to certain functions. The notion of plasticity was so revolutionary that those who believed in it wouldn’t dare to use the term in writing for many years. Those who knew brain plasticity was a reality were vilified, ridiculed and obstructed at each step of the way. Doidge pulls no punches when he describes the difficulties these people went through. As usual, the rebels led the way. One of the biggest misconceptions about this book is that it is written only for the super intelligent. It isn’t really. The stories of experiments with monkeys, rats and mice which make up many of the eleven chapters of this book are told clearly and simply. The extraordinary results in humans as well as animals are described in detail in plain language. There is a section at the end of the book, just before the appendix, called Notes and References, in which Doidge includes verifications and explanations of quotes, ideas and concepts, some requiring whole pages. The Brain That Changes Itself is a hopeful book which is well worth the read. This edition has 427 pages including. eleven chapters, two appendices, Notes and References, a forward, an acknowledgements section and an index.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power Blues

Steve Coll PRIVATE EMPIRE EXXONMOBIL AND AMERICAN POWER The Penguin Press New York 2012 685 pp. $36 US $38 Canada ISBN 978 1 59420 335 0 “-the corporation does more to shape our energy economy than our democratically elected government-” Steve Coll I didn’t want to read this book and try to understand its meaning because I thought it would be too depressing but like SELF SERVE: HOW PETROCANADA DRAINED CANADIANS DRY by Peter Foster and SEVERE CONDITIONS: BIG OIL AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF ALASKA by John Strohmeyer, it’s irresistIble to me. I’m interested in the oil business because I worked in the upstream (the exploration and production of raw oil) as a roughneck in Alberta and on the North Sea and in the downstream of the business (the manufacturing and selling of oil and gas on the wholesale and retail markets) as a yardman in the pipeline terminals of Esso (Exxon through Imperial Oil) and PetroCanada in Ottawa. Steve Coll wrote the Pulitzer prize winning GHOST WARS, an account of the CIA’s activities in pre2001 Afghanistan. He has written six others including one called, THE BIN LADENS. He is a serious writer with a talent for telling a story from facts and events stretching over many years. He has written about important historical events in present day America. When you read this book, you realize that he’s doing it again by documenting history as we live it. In 1904 Ida Tarbell published The History of the Standard Oil Company. It was one of the first pieces of investigative journalism and described the ruthlessness of John D Rockefeller’s monopoly. It eventually led to the trust busting laws of 1911 which broke up Standard Oil. One of the pieces of the Standard Oil breakup was Exxon. In PRIVATE EMPIRE Steve Coll has written a meticulously researched book of investigative journalism about it. Exxon had always been shrouded in secrecy but, bit by bit, through the use of over four hundred interviews, more than one thousand pages of previously classified US documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and unexamined court records, the curtain is pulled back by Coll. Exxon and Mobil were both originally parts of Standard Oil. They completed their merger in 2000. Canada’s taken for granted. That was the feeling I got when I read the book. A kind of impotent outrage at being snubbed and the old realization that we in Canada aren’t that important even though Canada is by far the single biggest supplier of imported oil to the US, 1.9 million barrels per day in 2008. It’s pretty clear that if the CEO of ExxonMobil can ignore, consult with or demand attention from the US government at any time, he isn’t too worried about what Canada’s government thinks. PRIVATE EMPIRE is a book of 624 pages, with 61 pages of acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography, a complete Index and a Table of Contents into which the twenty eight chapters are divided into Part One: The End of Easy Oil and Part Two: The Risk Cycle. There are maps of Exxon’s and Mobil’s upstream investments before the merger, of the countries of Indonesia, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, and Venezuela and of the Exxon spill in Jacksonville, Maryland, where a gas station leaked 25,000 gallons of gasoline into a community’s water supply. It also contains a Cast of Characters listed by country; dictators, despots and enemies of the American government among them. Canada and Alberta are dealt with in four pages. As Coll puts it, “Canada’s politics concerning the oil sands were complicated, but as a practical matter, there was virtually no chance that Alberta’s provincial politicians or the country’s national leaders in Ottawa would seriously limit Canada’s production in the years ahead.” At the time of the writing and publishing of this book, ExxonMobil was trading places with Walmart as the biggest company in the US and with PetroChina as the company which was most valuable in the stock market. It was the most profitable corporation headquartered in the US. The corporation’s K Street lobbyists in Washington DC spent more millions than everyone else except GE and Pacific Gas and Electric shaping, influencing, and stalling regulatory legislation after 1998. ExxonMobil, whose income dwarfed that of most countries, used the USA’s military and diplomatic channels to ensure smooth operations and ignored the politicians when they wanted to. Rex Tillerson, who replaced Lee Raymond as the Chairman and Chief Executive of ExxonMobil in 2005, told the State Department, ” I had to do what was best for my shareholders.” after a $3.1 billion deal was announced between Vladimir Putin and ExxonMobil to develop oil beneath the Kara Sea in Russia. The deal could grow to $500 billion. The State Department was usually told first. Steve Coll catalogues, in exhaustive detail, ExxonMobil’s refusal to take responsibility for the social and physical damage it caused in places like Aceh, Indonesia, the Niger Delta and Nigeria, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea. Places far away and unlikely to interest the American population. But, to be fair, as Coll is, painstakingly, through this book, they were the only places on earth where the oil and gas supply was vast and available. Lee Raymond, the CEO of ExxonMobil until he retired on January 1, 2006 with a four hundred milllion dollar package, was a midwest product, an engineer for 30 years at Exxon, an old time oil man. He was Machiavellian in that he didn’t hesitate to manipulate governments, politicians and their military power, regulators and environmentalists to his advantage. He was stubborn and short sighted in that he never believed in the science which claimed that climate change was due to the burning of fossil fuels. He employed many ethical scientists whose non disclosure contracts were tied up with pensions and retirement bonuses. No one really questions the character of the scientists but Coll and others point out that the management of the science is dubious. Raymond’s tough style kicked in with the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 when the company’s reputation was in shreds and the regime of safety he instituted included how employees parked and required reporting of paper cuts. He personified the arrogance of ExxonMobil and was disliked by many but was an undeniable success in the business world. ExxonMobil, extracting oil from tar sands in Alberta at Syncrude since 1978 through its Canadian affiliate, Imperial Oil, has Canadian contracts there reaching into 2035 and other interests in the tar sands. ExxonMobil would never use the American military, the consular services or the Washington lobbyists to force Canada to be the oil spigot for the American consumer, would it? It’s a question that needs to be asked. As unlikely as it seems, history shows otherwise. The author is scrupulous in presenting both sides of the arguments, explaining ExxonMobil’s activities, good or bad, from their point of view, through their eyes. Coll says, “Oil from Alberta, barrel for barrel, contributed one of the highest gas emissions of any source in the world” but the message Canada was getting from the American government under Bush was “ Produce as much of this oil as you can-we’ll buy all of it” There was never a problem with the environment and global warming when Bush and Cheney were in power. Cheney and Lee Raymond were close personal friends, both, like Bush, from an oil background, who met frequently in Cheney’s office. When Obama took over, the oil industry was angry with his attitude and at the new California emission standards. They rallied some of the population with patriotic fervour, saying that if Canadian oil wasn’t sold to the US, it would be sold to the latest threat, China. ExxonMobil was so confident in Canada as a friend and risk free oil source that it thought the many efforts of oil company lobbyists when Obama returned to Washington from his traditional first visit to Ottawa were a waste of time and money. Their attitude was that if the US government cut itself off from Canadian oil, they would sell it elsewhere. The problem is that exploiting the tar sands is more like strip mining than drilling with even higher costs to the environment and local people. The time horizons of ExxonMobil’s investments far outlive the politicians who hold power for a few years and are gone. In some countries there might be war for years and changes of unstable governments or no governments at all. It is no wonder that ExxonMobil had more influence in Chad than the US government. Where the American government gave $3 million to the country, ExxonMobil invested $4.1 billion. ExxonMobil has been compared to the East India Company and the Dutch East India Company who set out four centuries ago to colonize the New World. The irony is that four hundred years later, these gigantic multinational oil companies may be responsible for raising the very seas upon which the early explorers sailed, through global warming. The corporation is compared to a Frankenstein monster in the statesman.com where Bruce Watson states, “Nowhere has ExxonMobil bullied the world more than in the global warming debate” The Exxon Valdez disaster happened in 1989 and dumped 257,000 barrels of oil into Prince William Sound, more than had ever been spilled in American waters before. Lee Raymond instituted reform and Exxon produced an admirable safety record and record profits. One would think a huge company investing gigantic sums in oil and gas plays all around the world would be vulnerable to the resource nationalism, partisan movements and blackmail which is commonplace in many countries but through an uncompromising array of legal action, shifting responsibility for human rights violations to militaries or to the World Bank and outright influence peddling, ExxonMobil has managed to avoid any Exxon Valdez type disasters so far. In 2005 Dick Cheney personally called the UAE government to enable ExxonMobil to win a contract to develop a field which held ten percent of the world’s oil and the fifth largest gas reserve. Whether using the Indonesian military in Aceh (whose methods included torture, summary executions and burying insurgents’ bodies in mass graves with company equipment), the military torture chambers of Equatorial Guinea or the security forces in the craziness and piracy of the Niger Delta, ExxonMobil built its own foreign policy without the US government’s concern for human rights. It was there on the surface, they said all the right things and did their best to protect the corporation legally, but they knew about the human rights abuses and, for the most part, carried on anyway. ExxonMobil Chemical is also dealt with in PRIVATE EMPIRE. About a quarter of American oil imports are used to manufacture commercial chemicals annually. A chapter of this book outlines the fight ExxonMobil and their spokesman-congressman, Joe Barton from Texas, waged to avoid having DINP (phthalates- See Ottawa Sun Aug 27, 2012 page 8) banned from children’s toys. It is a softener which makes vinyl more pliable but is suspected of being carcinogenic. Consumer advocates got some DINP banned but not all thanks to ExxonMobil’s lawyers and politicians. The premise of it all, of course, is George Bush’s long awaited pronouncement that the US was “addicted” to oil. There has been no doubt about that for a long time and as unpalatable as it is to the oil industry to hear put that way, they can rest assured that they are safe in the short term and, judging from the performances of the governments of North America, equally unthreatened by long term solutions. To understand the power of ExxonMobil, another George Bush quote is helpful. When the Indian prime minister asked why he didn’t just tell ExxonMobil to buy into an oil play in India, Bush replied, “Nobody tells those guys what to do.” The debate about climate change is something which Tillerson mulled over and investigated through ExxonMobil’s specially hired astrophysicists for three years. ExxonMobil finally admitted that global warming, at least in part, was caused by human activity, probably the burning of fossil fuels, when, for the first time in the company’s hundred year history, Tillerson supported a carbon tax in 2009. When the Deepwater Horizon blowout happened to competitor, British Petroleum, in 2010, it was estimated that five million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico. Rex Tillerson commented, with a typical ExxonMobil attitude, “We would not have drilled the well the way they did” The “energy independence” drum is being beaten as it is in every election and the “Drill, baby, drill” proponents are searching for a congressman or senator like Joe Barton. ExxonMobil has unprecedented power in governments world wide. Canadians who are happy that we’re in such a helpless position, can take comfort in knowing that ExxonMobil is in our oilpatch. They were ten, if not twenty years ahead of PetroCanada in the Ottawa pipeline terminals when I was there in 2000. It means that we have someone technologically brilliant and wildly successful businesswise, exporting our oil. On the other hand, it is depressing.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Work

We were driving around Kanata. Tension was building for Belinda as the end of my unemployment benefits approached. There was a similarity between Belinda with a thirty four year career, one federal government job, and me, whose longest job had been two years: work meant the same thing to both of us, money to pay the bills. Being without a job was unknown to her, familiar to me. My employment was on our minds. Belinda pointed out the ‘Hiring - Part Time’ sign in front of the grocery store at Kanata Centrum. I had never worked in a grocery store but in one of those damn grand gestures, I pulled into the parking lot and ran in to get an application. These gestures were made in mild anger. They were meant to go along with Belinda, to demonstrate that I was doing everything she suggested. She thought she knew how I should conduct myself better than I. She is often wrong but that doesn’t bother her at all. It was just another whim for her, a help wanted sign seen through the window of a moving car. Belinda’s been in management for many years and I have worked for very few places with good management. Most big companies, in my experience, have terrible management with no self respect or ethics. Morality doesn’t even enter into it. She and I have a fundamental disagreement. One advantage of living with a person who is in management is the opportunity to look at things through management’s eyes. Over a long, painful process, I learned to ask Belinda’s advice. She had heard there was a union at this store, that the jobs probably paid ten dollars an hour minimum. All of my life I’ve had self appointed experts telling me what to do about work. Like her, most of them have never had to do the jobs I have. I appreciated their concern but seldom found a job because of their help. I’ve often thought that stocking shelves, arranging vegetables, wouldn’t be bad work, but it was hard to believe that you could get ten bucks an hour for it. I dropped off the application at the Kanata Centrum store. Belinda couldn’t let it go. She was using guilt to motivate me. She knew that I wanted to work, but resented the fact that I was taking the time to try to find a decent job. This seemed to indicate that I was lazy and that I didn’t want to work. The next step in that reasoning is that all unemployed people should happily stampede Macdonald’s to take the jobs there. I was sending Belinda off at five - thirty in the dark every morning. She was squeezing every ounce of guilt out of it. Iris, from the grocery chain, called. She said that they had my application and asked if I would be available for an interview. She said that it was a union shop, that the starting pay was a few cents over minimum wage per hour. Their policy was that they only hired part time workers for a maximum of twenty-four hours per week. When I shopped at our grocery store in the next few days, I watched the staff out of the corner of my eye. The vegetable department didn’t look too bad. The shelf stocking and pricing looked downright pleasant compared to many of the jobs I’ve had. Inside, warm and dry, radio music drifting through the store, nice smells, downright pleasant. It wasn’t until I emerged into the parking lot in the driving rain that I stepped aside for the older guy pushing a line of shopping carts in the door. He had a wet, red face. I realized that this was probably where you started in a grocery store. You were the guy pushing carts around. What would former school mates and friends think, if they saw me pushing carts around a grocery store parking lot? When I told Belinda about my revelation, she started calling me “Bubbles”. I found the store in the mall on March Road and parked in the lot. I didn’t really want to work for a company which automatically enrolled me in a union but paid minimum wage to start. I watched a young guy with a stubble cut pushing some shopping carts toward the store. It was time for the interview. My attitude toward all paid work was the same. I figured most jobs were possible for me to learn. I had proved that to myself travelling around the world. “If they can do it, I can do it” had worked so far. I found the customer service desk, waited while a woman behind the counter used a phone to call someone on the p.a. system. I notice several white haired men in grocery store uniforms. The lady phoned Iris and directed me back into the lobby where there was a park bench. She told me to take a seat, Iris would be right down. How many people did you see sitting on those benches inside the automatic doors at the grocery store? I sat for a moment, got up to check out the bulletin board. Next to it was a board showing snapshot sized photos of the management team with their names and titles. There, at the top, was Eddy Laval, Assistant Manager. I knew Eddy and his older brother, Frankie, when they were kids at the rink where I worked in high school. They were rink rats like I was at their age. I had seen Eddy, years ago, stocking shelves at a grocery store. He must have stayed with the company all this time to become an assistant manager. Iris arrived while I was looking up at Eddy’s smiling mug, his tie befitting his position. Iris was an attractive young woman, polite and friendly.. To make conversation, to skate over the first few painful moments, I indicated the picture, explained that I knew Eddy when he was a little kid. We climbed the stairs to the offices. Iris asked what Eddy was like when I knew him. I told her that Eddy and Frankie were good kids, quiet, nice guys. At the top of the stairs, Iris opened a door, we stepped into an office with a big window looking out over the store. Iris stopped. “He says he knew you when you were a little kid” She spoke to the two people sitting at the table with lunch bags and newspapers. Eddy looked up from the paper with a worried frown. He had white and grey patches in his hair and moustache. He wore a look of bored exhaustion. Seeing me didn’t seem to help. His expression remained blank as he sort of nodded or blinked in recognition. I’m not sure if he said “Yeah” or “Hey” or just grunted. I didn’t notice him jumping across the table to pump my hand, welcoming me to the family. Then again, the way he looked, I didn’t hold it against him. Maybe he was trying to do me a favour. Sensing embarrassment, I followed Iris into another room. “But he was a good kid though” I managed. It was directed at the young guy, another stubble cut, who sat across the table from Eddy smirking at him. Iris remarked that she guessed Eddy wasn’t the same as when I knew him. She pointed me to one of two chairs in a tiny, cubbyhole office. She was probably twenty years younger than I, Eddy, ten years younger. I couldn’t remember the last boss I had who was older than me. A slim, white haired woman in a business suit sat at the only desk in the room sorting through piles of job applications. She smiled pleasantly, three feet away. “I’ll be quiet” “OK” I smiled. Iris got her papers ready. She wanted to ask me a series of questions. I indicated that I was ready. She asked me why I applied for the job. I appreciated Iris’ manner, it wasn’t intimidating or judgemental. I felt I could be sincere with her, but I couldn’t just laugh out loud. I glanced at the white haired lady. She gave me a reassuring look with a twinkle in her eye which meant that all three of us knew how stupid that question was. “I was looking for a job” Relief swept over us all. Iris went on to the next question. “Think back, to other jobs where you’ve had a conflict with someone, say a customer, over something. How have you resolved it?” I’m past being too honest in job interviews. For my jobs they wanted to hear you say the right things. I told her I’d never had a problem with a customer. It wasn’t a big lie. The next question was about multi - tasking. How would I cope with a lot of things to do at once. I had no answer so I referred to the last job. As it was outlined in my resume, a yardman in an oil terminal has a million responsibilities. I glanced at the lady with the white hair who was beginning to look more like a management type. She had the piles of applications all over the desk but the shuffling quieted when I gave my answers. Thank goodness it wasn’t a big, important job. I still couldn’t believe that they were going to these lengths for a buggy man. The final question was, even Iris admitted, a little strange. “Think of a product, any product from any store, which you bought and you’ve found it’s the greatest. Tell me about it. Explain why it’s so great” I was getting the feeling that the other woman was actually in charge here. Even if I graduated to sorting tomatoes I wouldn’t need to know anything like this. I wondered if they had me mixed up with a management candidate. All three of us knew that these were Human Resource questions which had to be asked because they were on the list which Iris was consulting. She was taking notes too. She was probably an ex cashier with a degree training to be a Human Resources person. Good for her. Someone in the human resources department had decided that these questions were necessary so that these jobs wouldn’t be squandered on just anyone. The only thing I could think of was my water barrel. It was a great acquisition. I recommended it to anyone with an eaves trough. Iris said she had an eaves trough. I did a double take when Iris straightened her papers and told me that I would be contacted in the future if I advanced to the next level. Another level, I thought. I left after shaking hands, saying polite thank yous. I was glad that Eddy wasn’t in the next room. Maybe I banned him from the rink for a week, but I couldn’t remember doing it. He and Frankie were good natured, dedicated rink rats. I know they coached little kids’ teams. Never any trouble that I could remember. Iris called again a few days later. She wanted to know if I was available for an interview at the Kanata store I had applied to. Of course I was. I mentioned Eddy’s non response at the interview. She laughed it off, said they didn’t pay much attention to Eddy, he was probably “in a mood”. When the day came, I parked in the lot. An older guy with a goatee pushed long lines of carts toward the door. He wore a hood against the wind but no gloves. I’d wear gloves if I was doing that. I followed a cashier toward the upstairs offices. I shook hands with a pleasant chap wearing a brown shirt and tie, no jacket, Mr. Fisher. His back was to the picture window which looked out over the store. I tried to be pleasant and interested, but he knew that I didn’t understand the system. I couldn’t figure out what Iris was talking about when she explained the part time, permanent, job status. In a nutshell, the only obstacle that he had with hiring me, on the spot, was availability. I had emphasized that my availability was wide open, nights, weekends, anything except graveyards. Iris had checked this twice. I thought that it was an advantage. It wasn’t. If you really wanted a full time job, it would take years there, so you would probably leave. It was a disadvantage to be too available. Mr. Fisher emphasized that they only hired permanent part time employees, not temporary. When you signed on, they paid for training and orientation, you committed yourself to certain shifts. If you wanted to change those shifts to nights or weekends for another job, you couldn’t. All the other workers in the store had seniority, students needed nights and weekends. You were responsible for your shifts, out of a job if you didn’t do them. He made it clear that it was the union who forced you to sign the commitment to your designated shifts. After a year’s worth of hours, the employees get some benefits. He said he needed people in the produce department from now till Christmas from six a.m. to noon. It would probably take two years for me to qualify for the benefits which sounded like they were designed to attract single mothers. Mr. Fisher had middle management hair and glasses. He steepled his fingers, read from the notes Iris had written on my application. “It says here you’ve haven’t dealt much with customers. Here, what we do with customers is make their shopping experience the best it can be” We both knew he could say nothing else. I wanted to look out of the big window behind him but kept remembering the interview tips I’d seen: books, magazines and newspaper columns all advised the interviewee to give good eye contact. The fact that Mr. Fisher was being nice while reeling off the cliches, made me feel better. The trouble was, we were in a serious discussion about a minimum wage job, maximum twenty four hours a week, minus union dues and taxes. He told me that he had no problem hiring me if I was willing to go along with the conditions. I had repeated to Iris several times that I was looking for a full time job. That didn’t seem to faze her. She said that, if I got one, I could still come in on weekends. I admitted to Mr. Fisher that I probably wouldn’t be able to continue the shifts which I took at the beginning when I got another job. He made it clear that the company didn’t want to pay for orientation and training only to lose the employee as had happened with one girl last week. I could see his point. He wanted a definite commitment. I couldn’t give him one. Even if I could do the job, I couldn’t live on the money. We shook hands. I rose to leave. There was a tiredness behind his pleasant smile. Probably, aside from the money, the buggy men and produce clerks were feeling better than this guy. Doing what he did all day must have been exhausting. He said he had a few more people to interview. Later Belinda told me that I should have lied and taken the twenty four hours a week for the moment. I don’t think even she believed that. I left the store after picking up a green pepper and some pita bread. I felt relief and gave a cheery nod to the stubble cut pushing carts past my truck. He looked miserable, hood up. That evening, I stepped outside to say goodbye to Belinda and her girlfriend as they left for the Bingo. She looked up at me from the driver’s window of her Mazda. She said I looked tired, no, depressed. “You don’t turn down a buggy man job, every day” I smiled. They drove off, laughing. The grand gesture was a waste of time. Belinda had long forgotten that she started it when we were driving past the grocery store in Kanata Centrum. I turned on the kitchen radio. A news break interrupted the drive home radio show: drivers, warehouse people and some cashiers were on strike at another local grocery chain. The issue: part time workers.