Natural Resources

Autumn leaves have transformed into beautiful colors before making way for snow!

If the weather is looking uninviting, remember that board games are very popular. You can play at this board game bar

or rent games at the uOttawa library

Visiting the Royal Canadian Mint, I learned that Canada’s mining industry has a large impact on the national economy. The mint turns gold and silver into investment coins, and uses a high-tech Bullion DNA system for laser-engraving a unique pattern into each.

I also found out that many countries actually outsource their coin production to Canada!

The Winnipeg facility is also responsible for producing the circulation currency of other nations. Since opening its doors in 1976, the Mint’s Winnipeg facility has produced coinage for over 70 countries: centavos for Cuba, kroner for Norway, fils for Yemen, pesos for Colombia, kroner for Iceland, baht for Thailand, and a thousand-dollar coin for Hong Kong. Other client nations include Barbados, New Zealand and Uganda.

The 99.999% pure “Five 9s” gold was the highest of any mint in the  world.


A quick visit to Quebec, just across the river, reveals a very different place!Back in Ottawa, Strathcona Park has an  art installation made to look like ruins constructed from “adult-size” building blocks

Curling on TV Ottawa has the feel of a Tallahassee or Sacramento. Capital of approximately the same number of people. A small town with a very educated workforce and big city amenities.  Like the  Sens! I also got to see my first Canadian rules football game!
Ravens football game vs McMaster.The House of Commons has moved to it’s new temporary location (for 10 years).

Many of the customs are borrowed from the UK. In fact, the Queen is still the head of state. It has been said that Canada is made of the colonies too polite to rebel from Great Britain, and instead asked for independence nicely. Speaking of which, the word “eh” is not used here nearly as much as outsiders think, but when it is, it has an important purpose. “Eh” at the end of a statement can turn it into a question, for the purpose of consensus building!

As in: “This door is wonky, eh?

Neanderthals are people too

Ever wonder how the US Ambassador to Canada starts his or her day? This is a pretty amazing view to savior before heading from the Residence to the Embassy!


As part of our Fulbright Orientation, we visited the Canadian Museum of History (by walking all the way from Ontario to Quebec!) and saw the excellent Neanderthal exhibit.

Neanderthal (publication)

In addition to displaying a huge array of fossils, the exhibit was very clear about how our view of Neanderthals throughout history has often mirrored our view of the “other” in general. The issues raised are also prominent in the Amazon Prime show Carnival Row, which is a very thinly-veneered allegory about discrimination, identity, and acceptance.

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Not only are the fae in the show taken from Celtic mythology, their story adapts the real-life experience of many Irish refugees, as detailed by the EPIC museum in Dublin.

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The tool of using mythological races as a way to have a nuanced conversation about the very sensitive issues surrounding prejudice is often found in the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett.

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Perhaps you could say that this method goes all the way back to Johnathan Swift, whose Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians also stand in for specific people and attitudes.


Here in Ottawa, I saw a statue that provided a religious perspective on welcoming strangers, making reference to a particular passage:

“I was a stranger and you invited me…Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you a stranger and invite you in?’…The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ -Matthew 25

Parenthetically, in fact Neanderthals ARE us, since almost all living humans have some Neanderthal DNA , which you can measure with genetic tests like 23andMe. Some of these genes have important functions:

“The disappearance of the Neanderthal population is an exciting subject — imagine a human group that has lived for thousands of years and is very well-adapted to its environment, and then disappears,” study senior author Silvana Condemi, a paleoanthropologist at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France, told Live Science. “For a long time, it was thought that Homo sapiens had simply killed the Neanderthals. Today, thanks to the results of genetic analysis, we know that the encounters between Neanderthals and sapiens were not always so cruel, and that interbreeding took place — even today’s humans have genes of Neanderthal origin.”

The orientation also took us to the Canadian Supreme Court:

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In contrast with SCOTUS, in Canada the gallery is open to public and video is available online. The Justices are appointed by commission, and there is a mandatory retirement at 75. As a big fan of Art Deco Architecture, I was very impressed by the building. In the downstairs Appeals court chamber, there was even a fake jury box for symmetry purposes.


Since there is an election campaign going on right now, the prime minister is referred to as “Justin Trudeau, leader of the liberals” by the media so as not to give an unfair advantage to the incumbent.

I was also very impressed by the public infrastructure. For example, when you check out books from the public library, there is no need to scan barcodes individually. Rather, batches of five can be read using their RFID tags. And when you return the books, they are immediately sorted and logged by this impressive contraption:IMG_20190918_101832.jpg

And there is nothing like the “new train smell” the first week of the Confederation Line




This year, I am on Sabbatical from NSU to be a Fulbright Distinguished Chair at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

My research will involve studying how antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria can diffuse throughout an environment, and how that can change the likelihood that the resistant bacteria will be able to outcompete the normal strains.

The Fulbright program was established by Congress right after the end of the second world war for “the promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.” It was initiated by Senator Fulbright from Arkansas, who based it on his own study in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

The Fulbright Program aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship. – Senator J. William Fulbright

I’m planning to record some of my experiences here in the blog. During our orientation, we were told about this quote from President Kennedy:

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Who ordered that? Wonder in Science

For celestial objects that are millions of years old, Black Holes are having a pretty good decade. Physicist Kip Thorne shared the 2017 Nobel Prize after gravity waves from two colliding black holes were detected on Earth. Dr. Thorne had already brought computer simulations black holes to the masses as the executive producer and scientific consultant for the 2014 movie Interstellar.

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More recently, scientists did what was long thought to be impossible. Using complex algorithms that combined data from telescopes all over the globe, they were able to obtain an effective aperture as big as the Earth. This allowed the black hole (or, or accurately, the light that barely escaped from just outside the event horizon) to be imaged directly.

Although the picture was not a surprise, the fact that humanity was able to accomplish this feat should be a cause for celebration. Science is awe-inspiring, even though it is not always a series of shocking discoveries. In fact, many experiments are done to verify existing models. When experiments in the 1930s uncovered an particle that had not been previously predicted, theoretical physicist  Isidor Isaac Rabi said “Who ordered that?”

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The media widely shared this picture of Katie Bouman reacting the very first image. But here she is two years earlier explaining the science and what they expected to see.

One Small Step for (a) Man

“And the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.” – Genesis 2:18 (King James Version)

“That’s One Small Step for [a] Man, one giant leap for mankind.” – Neil Armstrong

Instead of a triumphal, feel-good NASA movie like The Right Stuff, or even Apollo 13First Man is really a biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon. The theme of isolation is very strong. Neil is an “egghead” who would rather work alone, and leaves a social gathering to stare at the Moon from his backyard.

The tension between Neil’s individual journey, and the immense National undertaking that required a huge team of scientists, engineers, and astronauts to essentially invent a space program from scratch can be symbolized by the mangled famous quote from Tranquility Base – The “a” got lost in transmission, almost completely changing the meaning. He is just “a man” taking a “small step”, but one that represents the culmination of a incredible scientific, economic, and social accomplishment of the Human race:

The movie does not shy away at all from the personal and collective hardships that Armstrong faced on his way to the lunar surface. Neil chooses to deal with tragedy by turning inward and closing himself off emotionally. This is contrasted with the reactions of Buzz Aldrin, who likes to deal with horrific events by blurting out unconformable truths.

More than just being historically accurate, the movie takes viewers inside the claustrophobic cockpits, rattling rivets and all.

The complete isolation of Neil is starkly shown with the famous “Earthrise shot”. Every human to ever lived, besides Neil, Buzz, and Michael Collins (whom everyone forgets because he had to stay in orbit around the moon) is in that frame, 230,000 miles away.

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Surprisingly, the movie even includes the very real speech Richard Nixon was prepared to give in the event Neil and Buzz were left stranded on the Moon:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations.

In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

Even when they get home, the celebrated astronauts are forced into quarantine. In fact, the final shot of the movie is Neil and his wife separated by a glass window. Buzz Aldrin, who is famous for punching a Moon Conspiracy Theorist,

probably put it best with the title of his memoir:

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Overall, I really liked “First Man” for its unflinching look at the sacrifice that is required for greatness, as well as the story of “a” man, who became Humanity’s emissary to the stars.



Who needs a Thneed?

While Dr. Seuss is known as a author of children’s books, he got his start drawing some very pointed political cartoons:

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His messages can be seen in even in the stories read by today’s youth. The Butter Battle book is really about the futility of the arm races, while the Sneetches teach a lesson about racism.  The Lorax was published in 1971 and deals with environmentalism. In it, the Once-ler comes upon a pristine habitat, which he proceeds to turn into post-industrial hellscape to produce thneeds (“something that everyone needs”), much to the consternation of the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees.”

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The Once-ler learns too late the costs of his unchecked greed, using one of my favorite literary/cinematic transitions to show the passage of time at the same location.

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Just one year later, a TV adaptation came out. As in the book, the emphasis was on countering the notion that “progress is progress, and progress must grow.” The Once-ler starts his small business to provide for himself and his extended family. But after his company grows to unstainable size, he complains that curtailing industry would mean firing all his employees. I like to call this “supply-side environmentalism,” in which the evils of industrial pollution and the rapacious consumption of natural resources justified as the price of progress or sound economics are combated. Notice that consumers barely appear in the story. The narrative-arc revolves almost entirely around the Once-ler and his relationship with nature – represented by the Lorax.

In the 2012 feature film, the premise was subtly different.

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The movie opens in Thneedville, a consumer-driven metropolis filled with artificial trees. The main antagonist is Aloysius O’Hare, who “found a way to sell air.”

In Thneedville it’s a brand new dawn!
With brand new cars And houses And lawns!
Here in got-all-that-we-need-ville!
In Thneedville we manufacture our trees
Each one is made in factories
And uses 96 batteries!
In Thneedville the air’s not so clean
So we buy it fresh!
It comes out this machine!
In satisfaction’s guaranteed-ville!

In Thneedville
We don’t want to know!
Where the smog and
Trash and chemicals go

In flashback, it is revealed that is it the consumers who fell in love with thneeds:

This is “demand-side environmentalism,” which asks us to “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” and puts the pri onus on consumers, not industry.

While there is redemption for the Once-ler in all versions, Mr. O’Hare, a cartoonish villain, literally and figuratively, is ultimately overthrown by his own customers once they get wise to the fact that they could get air for free is they just planted some real trees. Here, the protagonist Ted leads the people to the realization that they should “let it grow.”

Incidentally, the tradition of inventing a new protagonist for an adaption based on the name of the author of the source material is becoming rather common:


TedTed Wiggins (Lorax 2012) / Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

Image result for elphaba Elphaba Thropp (Wicked 1995) / L. F. Baum

Walter watchWalter (The Muppets 2011) / Walt Disney

Hiding the Seams

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” -Albert Camus

Every time you sit down to read a book, watch a play, movie, or TV show, or otherwise consume a work of fiction, you have just entered into an implicit contract with the creators. It is a virtual Terms of Service ratified without even a perfunctory click. As in contract law, this meeting of the minds requires something of value from each party: You offer your willing suspension of disbelief, while the artist promises to lie to you. Or at least, to tell a non-factual story that will possibly entertain you for a while, and might even reveal a deeper truth about the human condition. We expect that if we keep our part of the bargain, and refrain from rushing onto the stage when Romeo is about to kill himself screaming “she’s still alive!,” the actors will do their best to stay in character. This is why plot holes or improbable science is so disruptive to the process, since they breaks the illusion of the story, raising the cost we pay to suppress our disbelief. However, in some special cases, a talented artist can take a weakness of the medium, and, in a kind of ninja maneuver, turn it into a strength that also subverts the audience’s expectations.

***SPOILER ALERT for Bioshock, Inception, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend***

In many video games, the player takes control of an avatar and has a great deal of freedom to dictate what happens. But video game makers have to bound this freedom if they want to tell any kind of coherent story. This is why some checkpoints or tasks must be accomplished, or else the player cannot advance. But what one of the main themes of the game is that free will is an illusion? In Bioshock, the game creators cleverly embed the message that your inability to deviate too much from your required tasks was not just a limitation of games in general, but a nefarious part of the main theme.

Andrew Ryan believes that he should be free of coercion by governments and religion because a man chooses, a slave obeys.” The irony is heightened by the fact that, in addition to Jack, almost every character is the game is, at some point, in thrall to some other entity. The little sisters are kidnapped and conditioned to collect ADAM from deceased splicers. Besides the “would you kindly” mind-control wielded by Fontaine, the splicers are also under his pheromone-induced influence. For his part, Jack himself can hypnotize a Big Daddy for protection, enrage foes to fight each other, and even hack turrets and health stations to do his bidding.



The movie Inception takes on the tropes of films, such as plot inconsistences, rules that seem to change without notice, and discontinuous jumps between scenes, and makes them part of the story. In dreams, we also experience these features. Are these just limitations of the medium, or evidence that we are watching someone dreaming?

Sitcoms require an extra dash of suspension of disbelief, since the plots are often driven by “crazy” schemes concocted by the characters. While madcap hilarity, but not serious consequences, is sure to ensue, the motivations would be pretty flimsy in real life if concocted by a actual human of sound mind.

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But what if, instead of a time-worn trope, this the insane schemes really were the product of mental illness?

In a Purloined Letter worthy reveal, the big twist was hiding in plain sight, or at least in the first word of the title of the show. In the fantastic show  Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the titular Rebecca really does suffer from mental illness, and receives a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder in the third season. It is rare for a show to attempt the difficult balancing act of being funny, while at the same time, exploring the ramification of metal illness and personal responsibility in general, and succeeds in a surprisingly sensitive and nuanced way.

Although some comedies, such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Blazing Saddles, make the audience’s suspension of disbelief a part of the finale, they don’t take advantage of it in the same way.

I’ll leave you with a Handy exam trick: “when you know the answer but not the correct derivation, derive blindly forward from the givens and backward from the answer, and join the chains once the equations start looking similar. Sometimes the graders don’t notice the seam.”