"Life is still. It is we who are racing by" Yann Martel (on his webpage What is Steven Harper reading)

Mobility issues

“Oh my Got! Sank-you! Sank-you,” the kids exclaim as I unload three used bikes that my generous family donated to my Syrian family. The bikes had flat tires from being stored for many years and needed some minor repairs. The son of a close friend, known affectionately as “bike boy,” spent a Sunday afternoon helping repair brakes, replace chains and tighten whatever needed to be tightened.

The moment the bikes were road-worthy, the kids jumped on them and began zooming around the neighbourhood like demons. They occasionally collided as one would suddenly stop unexpectedly in front of an oncoming sibling, but the happiness on their faces at having this mobility was a joy to watch.

Since that Sunday, Bike boy and I have taken the kids on an excursion down the nearby bike paths and have been trying to instil some basic road safety into their daredevil exploits. They are fearless, especially Adam and Daniel, who speed along sidewalks and streets with little heed for traffic. Finding helmets has become a priority.

Matthew is also anxious to increase his mobility. He desperately wants to get his Canadian drivers’ license and has discovered that he can take the learner’s test in Arabic. He has printed off an Arabic translation of the Drivers Handbook so he can begin studying for the written test.

He is always my side-seat driver whenever I am acting as chauffeur. Because I am unfamiliar with the north-east, I often make wrong turns, inevitably causing Matthew to shake his head. He has learned a few simple directions in English – left, right, straight, stop – and I listen to him as he navigates our way through his part of town.  When we go through school zones he reminds me to slow down. “Joan, Joan,” he admonishes as he looks over at my speedometer and indicates with hand gestures to slow down.

I laugh and acknowledge “shway-shway,” which is how the word for ‘slower’ is pronounced in Arabic. I silently grin at the concept of an Arabic-speaking Syrian giving directions to a long-time resident of Calgary.

He has yet to get his bus pass, although Syrian refugees are eligible for a 75 percent reduction the first year. He would much prefer to have his own vehicle, like my Hyundai SUV. I tell him he will need a bus to transport all of his children.

The size of his family has also been a deterrent to my taking the family on any excursions. With seven children, one who still requires a car seat, it is impossible to fit everyone into one vehicle. I “may” have squeezed six of the children into my vehicle to get them to the Saturday soccer league that has been organized for refugees. This wouldn’t meet safety regulations but sometimes necessity requires that rules be stretched a little for the greater good.  Transportation challenges also make it hard for refugees to participate in organized leagues as there is no way for parents to get their children to games in different parts of the city.

Canadians take their independence for granted. We jump into our cars to go to the theatre, get to work or participate in activities. Even without a personal vehicle, we are very comfortable navigating public transportation. This is not so easy for newcomers who don’t speak or read English and whose budget is far too limited to afford more than one or two bus passes. I wanted to take my Syrian family to the zoo, where refugees have access to a one-year membership during their first year in Canada. However, the cost for nine people to take the bus/C-train is too prohibitive.

A fellow volunteer said that when her refugee family is going somewhere, she drives the children while the parents take public transport. It is one way to get everyone to the destination with minimal cost. I also have friends and family who have volunteered to be a second driver when they are able. This requires greater planning for day-trips to such places as the mountains, Calgary events and activities, or even to some of the city’s beautiful green spaces.

The mobility issue also makes them more dependent on me. Next week, for example, there is a parent/teacher interview at the school where five of their children attend. Unfortunately it is located far in the south, nowhere near the C-train. Without me driving them, they would be unable to meet with the teachers to hear how their children are doing. It’s just another obstacle to their integration into Canada that we are working through together.


Syrian sorrows

Today I discovered that one of *Matthew’s brothers was taken by Bashar Al Assad’s troops and Matthew has no idea if he is alive or dead. He can’t ask anyone in Syria because all the lines are tapped. His brother’s wife and three children are now fleeing to Lebanon.

These are some of the fragments of information I gather from the Arabic-speaking neighbours who are helping this Syrian refugee family assimilate into Canada. As am I. I volunteered for the Community Connections program organized through Calgary Catholic Immigrant Services where Canadians are paired with refugee families to help them learn about and integrate into their new country.  For the next year, I will be the big sister, advocate, chauffeur and liaison for this family of nine. Matthew’s family speaks no English so conversations are difficult and much of the information I gather comes from friends who stop by and can translate.

A few days ago Matthew showed me pictures of his farm in Syria. The buildings are nestled into a beautiful hilltop setting and, from a distance, the surrounding landscape looks peaceful and idyllic. One of Matthew’s previous neighbours had sent the photos to show the results of a bombing and raid by Syrian forces. After an air strike on the area, the military descended and stripped the house of everything – lights, doors, windows, even electrical outlets and the doorbell.

The photos show the bones of a decimated home with bare walls, empty windows and leaves littering  abandoned hallways.  Matthew is proud to show me his farm and I can see he is angry at how Asaad’s troops seized anything of value. I think about my father who was also a farmer. He lived his entire life in a small Saskatchewan town, working the land inherited from his father. How would he have survived if he’d been forced to leave it all behind, fleeing to a country that was as alien to him as Mars? I start to cry and Matthew’s wife Nadia also wipes away tears. The children laugh at us. They are adjusting well. I ask Matthew and Nadia if they would ever return.

“No,” says Nadia “My babies,” indicating her seven children. “Canada, good. Canada home.”

Another neighbour told me that the children are still nervous about going into the basement because “that is where you go to hide from the bombs.”

Maybe someday, when there aren’t any more bombs to hide from, they will take me to visit Syria and I will be the one who is the foreigner. They can show me the beautiful country that was once their home and teach me about their culture.

Matthew nods and smiles “Okay, okay,” he says, and gives me a thumbs-up.


*Names have been changed to protect their privacy

who is Byron Sonne?

I admit it, until COMM506 I didn’t know his name. I knew a protester had been arrested but then life took over and I didn’t think about it anymore. And yet I realize that it’s something of which I should have taken notice. Living in Calgary, the protests around the G20 summit seemed very far away and not relevant to me. However, freedom and the right to a fair hearing and proper judicious procedures by the police force that is sworn to protect me are my business. I should have taken more notice. But I wonder how many Canadians, like me, flipped the channel to the next episode of CSI and never gave Byron Sonne another thought.

According to the Toront Sun, the Globe and Mail and other mainstream media, Byron Sonne is a  “geeky computer freak”, who set out to prove a point about the security at the G20 summit. These are usually the descriptors that show up fairly early in the stories about his arrest and recent acquittal and perhaps it’s enough of a deterrent that people won’t read any further, thus missing the most important points of the story.

One has to read farther down to learn about the details of his arrest including the denial of a lawyer and 11 months of confinement without a reason . The fact that he was exonerated does not diminish the emotional and financial strain the system put on his family. As the details of his incarceration were discussed, I kept thinking, “but this is Canada! Nothing like this happens in Canada. That’s the other guys, the bad guys in repressive dictatorships that do stuff like this…or the US.”

The really sad point about the news coverage of Sonne is wondering how many in Canada, other than his few staunch supporters, really took notice? He sacrificed a lot to demonstrate  to Canadians that there are serious problems with our government’s handling of security and its treatment of regular citizens. Yet I would bet that if, next Tuesday, I ask my colleagues over coffee at the staff room table what they know about Byron Sonne, they will say something about the computer geek who got arrested for protesting…or something like that.

Not that Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t make some valid points. I certainly wouldn’t underestimate the value of on-the-street activism or the courage of the individual who sits at the racist counter and dares to ask for a cup of coffee. These are the individuals who literally risk their lives to bring about social change. To assign all credit to the collaborative power of the internet is an injustice to the contributions of the activists who spend their lives committed to a cause. However,  I also don’t  think Gladwell should dismiss the valuable tool that social media has become for empowering, encouraging. and endorsing social movements.

In a world where our lives are so wired into the net, from paying our bills to getting our paycheque, connecting with family, shopping and getting our news, I think he fails to comprehend the degree of dependence, and therefore vulnerability that can be exploited. Take the power wielded by Anonymous, the foul-mouthed cyber geniuses who can take down an online security firm and ruin a CEO’s career in less than an hour.

Imagine Gladwell vs Anonymous….tiny, crazy-haired guy meets Guy Fawkes masked avengers. I wonder if he would be so quick to disregard the collective power of the net if Anonymous submitted his name as one of their targets?










Wikileaks did not happen in the coffee shop, nor  is it possible for such a leak to have had the same global impact in 1957. Wikileaks was the catalyst but it was the feet on the street that toppled governments. Together the two are an unbeatable combination.

The Hackers’ Code

Throughout our COMM 506 class, hackers and their role in the creation, re-creation and freedom of the internet, have been referenced. They are the unknown advocates for freedom on the net and supporters for transparency of information. They are often maligned in public media, partially due to the subversive element who create worms and viruses that disrupt our daily lives. But even these acts of “internet terrorism” (as they are sometimes described) may have their origins in the same ethics and advocacy that motivates activists in other realms, like Anonymous.

One envisions these individuals sequestered in dark basements, hunched over computer screens, the blue light from the screen illuminating faces that are pale from lack of sunlight, as they tap out code like 21st century telegraph operators, sending their Magna carta to the world. And then you actually learn about someone, like Byron Sonne or Julian Assange and realize they don’t fit some stereotypical hacker ‘norm’.

Byron was a happily married man with a myriad of interests, one of which happened to be testing the G20 Summit security measures. Assange, on the other hand, is a restless, globe-wandering crusader for freedom of and access to information. Two men who have never met (I assume) and yet follow similar paths in their challenge against authority and government censorship. What influences in their lives have coalesced to generate this rejection of rules and conformity? In the nature/nurture context there is nothing in their upbringings to demonstrate a link between their childhoods and their activism. One led a gypsy-like lifestyle while the other came from a typical middle income Canadian  family. If I were to guess, the only similarity is a profound curiosity about almost everything and their need to share what they learn with the rest of the world.

In 1984 Steven Levy wrote the book Hackers – Heroes of the Computer Revolution, where he defined six tenets that articulate the creed (belief system) that typifies a Hacker and the fundamental philosophy that motivates their activities.

The web blog where I found Levy’s principles, also referenced PHRACK, the official newsletter for hackers (ironically this link is blocked by the U of A filter system) and expands on the premises that motivate Hackers:

1] First, hackers reject the notion that “businesses” are the only groups entitled to access and use of modern technology.

[2] Second, hacking is a major weapon in the fight against encroaching computer technology.

[3] Finally, the high cost of equipment is beyond the means of most hackers, which results in the perception that hacking and phreaking are the only recourse to spreading computer literacy to the masses.

I think an additional point could be added – obsession with puzzles. Why puzzles? Technology is the ultimate puzzle – breaking codes apart and fitting the pieces together in a new way – and it takes a certain level of obsession to translate endless lines of code into some new technological form.

The cost of technology is no longer relevant but I wonder how much of this is due to the work of these “Guy Fawkes” who have spent hours mesmerized by the blinking blue light, breaking and rebuilding the web puzzle. How much of the freedom we take for granted in our web activities is because these silent champions have kept the channels open through their unending challenge against the authorities (both government and corporate) who seek to control and consumerize it?

For the complete blog – click here

Kadushin talks about the value of social capital and social connections, using Putnum’s words to explain that “social capital calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations.” (Kadushin, p. 177). Last Friday’s presentation demonstrated one example using the close connections of the characters in the Big Bang Theory. I realized that I had another example.

Paved roads didn't arrive until after I graduatedThe community where I grew up represented the kind of dense social network that Putnam idealizes and suggests has been lost. There were no paved roads in my hometown, no fences between the yards, no traffic lights. I couldn’t tell you the name of the street that I grew up on because there were no street signs.

My social network included my twin sister, the five or six classmates that comprised my entire grade and a few others two years either side of me. Approximately a dozen youth encompassed my social network from the time I was five until the first of us earned a drivers licence.  There were no secrets and no way to keep secrets in my little town; everyone knew the intimate details of their neighbours’ lives. If a car drove down the street, curtains in every home would flicker with movement as people checked to see who it was. It was a closed social network, where few people arrived or ever left. We knew that old man Langerman’s house was a disgusting mess, where Grampa Weckman used to park when he was having an affair with Maudie Hansen; we suspected that it was Mr Therens who probably poisoned our friend’s dog and caused a huge scandal throughout town. (I wonder now what amount of social capital he lost from these suspicions.)

As children, we roamed the streets and nearby fields freely, our limits set only by the sound of a whistle. Yes, a whistle. My parents started the tradition when they purchased the first whistle to call us home for supper. If we were too far away to hear the whistle, and subsequently didn’t come home in time, we were in trouble. Otherwise our parents had little idea where we might be located. Soon, most parents had followed their example and each of us could detect the unique characteristics of our family’s whistle.

Bridging ties meant bridge club, where mom’s social group would gather for cards and gossip while sipping rye and ginger, and eating crustless sandwiches; before Facebook made such gatherings unnecessary. In the winter, bonspiels and cabarets were social highlights where women from the entire community cooked the meat and potatoes, contributed pies, jellied salads, deviled eggs and homemade buns. Here is Kadushin’s social structure at work – where it would have been social suicide for someone to decline to contribute something from her kitchen. Once when I was young, the power went out in the dead of winter, cutting off the furnace, and necessary heat. Within an hour we were ensconced in front of Maudie Hansen’s wood stove (the same notorious Maudie Hansen) eating bacon and eggs while we waited for the power to return.

Social capital in such small communities is more than Kadushin’s “social asset” (p. 175). It was a shared sense of responsibility and dependence that was necessary for the community to thrive. Some of the anonymity of this  tiny town was lost when a small Canadian comedy series that was filmed in town became popular. Corner Gas earned Rouleau it’s 15 minutes of fame,  but I’m sure that if I went back today, many of the social networks that supported my growing years would still be present. Oh and they finally built a bowling alley (after I had graduated).

Yin/Yang of raw data

Tim Berners-Lee is an evangelist for the step towards Web 3.0 – the Semantic Web, where he says it is no longer about putting in a search term and getting a list of documents and web links that might have the answer, it will be about getting your question answered. He has discussed the positive benefits of this new web where access to Raw data (his term) provides opportunities to recombine and use it in positive ways. His examples, provided during a Ted Talks, include setting up safer bicycle routes, demonstrating racism in access to water in an American suburb and mapping refugee camps in Haiti. It’s about taking one set of data and mashing it with other data to create new information.

However, with everything that is good, there is also a dark side. This was illustrated in a COMM 506 class where the example was of an IPhone App that used the same process to create something that has a much more disturbing result. The Girls Around Me app was designed to help guys meet attractive women (and apparently avoid ugly ones). The developers took data from Facebook and mashed it with data from FourSquare to create an app that not only lets men (or maybe gay women) find out what clubs women have checked into, but also see what they look like and learn a little something about who they are, their interests etc. This provides great “data” for conversation openers and social capital builders should these men/gay women/dangerous stalkers want to make a connection.

As someone mentioned in our class, the data itself is neither good nor bad, and the mash-up itself breaks no laws; it is how the data could be used that is the problem. Is this the same argument that gun lobbyists make? It’s not guns that kill people…

It’s the proverbial yin/yang situation, where what is good in one instance is completely the opposite in another or as a proverb illustrates…

Hold fast to the words of your ancestors.
Wise men make proverbs and fools repeat them.

During my 501 class this morning, we were studying various forms of unstructured research – the ambiguous kind that is hard to replicate or verify – and ethnographic research came up for discussion. This research method strives to capture the “native point of view.” It was very popular during the Victorian days when England was a major colonial power and it was a way, as one classmate said, “of finding out about their property.” Margaret Mead and  Gregory Bateson are two famous ethnographic researchers of the time.

As the discussion flowed along I couldn’t help but think of the plethora of reality shows which document the lives of  different “cultural groups” within western society. For example, there’s Little People Big World that follows the lives of individuals who have dwarfism, the Duggers with their 20 children (at last count); celebrity families like the Family Jewels, or the tatooed world of Kat Von D or 7-up which follows several boarding school students at seven year intervals. Then there’s the disturbing documentaries that follow the lives of drug addicts in downtown Vancouver or prostitutes in Vietnam where viewers become voyeurs into a dark culture far removed from their manicured lawns and matching deck furniture.

It’s not research in the regular sense, where an academic paper will be produced with literature reviews and recommendations; but is it not a form of ethnographic study that makes all viewers an observer of these cultures? In class today, our classmate mentioned missionaries in the early 19th century who would visit the wild men in the new world and then return home to “civilized” society, where they would make a comfortable living travelling to speaking engagements about their experiences. It seems to me that this fascination with studying natives from different “cultures” has simply moved into a new medium where we can become ethnographic observers with the click of a remote.

The article The Hive Mind is an interesting exploration of why insects (are they insects?) such as ants, bees and wasps display such incredibly altruistic tendencies; taking care of someone else’s babies until their own reproductive organs shrivel up, foraging for food for thousands of individuals, cleaning all your neighbours (Yuck – who would want that job? ). The authors present the  theories of respected scientists (some of them Pulitzer Prize winners) on the biological evolution that resulted in this sophisticated social structure: superorganisimic societies where thousands of individuals perform functions as a single organism.

These scientists have spent years peering into the lives of  ant colonies and bee hives to explain how duties, such as cleanliness, foraging and parental care are passed, genetically, to workers from the queen, although she does not exhibit these traits herself. The most well-known and widely accepted theory is one of group level selection where the Darwinian process of natural selection happens at the group level, rather than within an individual. However, E.O. Wilson (a big wig in the study of ants), who once supported this theory, recently adopted a different stance, one where selection (evolution) occurs on many levels including the gene, individual, group and even the entire ecosystem.

According to the author, this is a hotly contested topic but it’s hard to imagine that respected researchers are “at each throats” over the inner workings of an ant colony. The scientists focus their hypothesises on biological causes for this specialization of labour and search for the hidden genetic distribution that leads to the altruistic traits in Hymenoptera such as ants, wasps and bees. Why do they care for the young of the queen instead of procreating? And why are there generations of ants who perform the same specialized functions even though they are sterile? Kinship selection, nutrition available to the young, and good and bad parenting (who knew there were bad termite parents) are offered as  explanations for the passage of traits and characteristics from one generation to the next. I found it fascinating to think that altruism is somehow a genetic manifestation.

It is also possible, I think, to overlay the theories of social networks on an ant colony, for example, to explain some of these phenomenon. I shudder to think how horrified these purely scientific-based researchers would be at my audacity. However, forging forward I think we can see two elements of social networks at play in the colonies/hives  – homophily where individuals with similar characteristics are more likely to group together and by being in the group will develop similar characteristics; and propinquity, where individuals join groups that are geographically close to them. Caregiver ants raise the young who are then absorbed into the social organism. If these young ones are introduced into the caste of worker ants, then is it really beyond the bounds of reason to assume that they would be more prone to develop characteristics of that group? The article didn’t elaborate about how these castes are differentiated in a colony but it might also be reasonable to assume that worker ants are geographically linked inside the nest, just as caregivers would be in the “nursery” area, reinforcing the type of activity expected of the individual. It is common knowledge that when women live together, their monthly cycles will eventually synchronize. Why not the patterns of these insects? I’m not a bug biologist but I wonder if these scientists have ever thought to apply social science to their biology? Human social structures might not be that far removed from the ant hill …or versa vice…except that the ants are nicer people.