Saturday, February 4

They Never Told Us These Things

Dear Kannu

Have a read of this story, fascinating pieces of history. We never think of where the origins of what we take for granted come from. We know about nuclear weapons, we know of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we know about Fat Boy, we know about the Manhattan Project, but I didn't know or even think about where the uranium came from?

I was joking with a friend of mine on a quote by Carl Sagan, an astronomer. He said, "if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe". She teases me for taking short cuts while I cook, using pre-prepared food such as cake mixes or frozen peas, and then I respond back by this quote. But there is a serious side to this, you like investments, don't you? The usual chaps will be going off and purchasing the Apple Stock, but the smart investors will be investing in the people who make the guts of the iPAD such as ARM Holdings or the firm which makes the gorilla glass. Why? because they will be more stable, they have better and distributed customers, so search out the upstream links, son, they will give you good insights.

But in your life as well, when people point to big things, do look at it, but also think back on the background. You were with us when we saw the firework display at the London Eye, think about how they put the fireworks on the eye, how did they schedule the fireworks to go off as they did? how do they control the explosions so that they come in those amazing shapes? learn to look behind the shiny thing, son, go deeper where people don't see and investigate. It will enrich your experiences.





Maisonneuve | They Never Told Us These Things

Sacks of pitchblende Concentrate awaiting shipment at Port Radium, Great Bear Lake, 1939.

Long ago, there was a famous rock called Somba Ke—“The Money Place”—on the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. Loud noises came from this place and it was bad medicine to pass near it. In the old days, a group of caribou hunters camped at Somba Ke for a night. One of them—a man named Ehtséo Ayah, known in his community as “Grandfather”—had a dream and saw many strange things: men with white faces climbing into a big hole in the ground, a great flying bird, a big stick dropped on people far away. This would happen sometime in the future, after we are all gone, the prophet said. In his vision, everyone died. Everyone burned.

Theresa Baton recounts this tale, recorded by the elder George Blondin, as we sit in her narrow, smoky trailer. There is a framed photo of Ayah on the sideboard. Baton is a strikingly beautiful woman, as slender and fit as her husband, Peter. They are two of the few Dene grandparents left alive in Déline, an indigenous community of several hundred people in the Northwest Territories. In the waning days of World War II, the people of Déline and the white miners working at nearby Port Radium ferried bags of uranium ore from the Eldorado mine—where Somba Ke once sat—across Great Bear Lake. The ninety-pound sacks were carried on men’s backs, loaded onto boats and transported about two thousand kilometres south to Alberta. The crushed ore was refined in Port Hope, Ontario. Then it was sent to the Manhattan Project in New Mexico, where it was used to develop the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Few Canadians know about their country’s role in one of history’s most destructive acts of war.

The day before I visit the Batons, their neighbour Isadore Yukon—who transported the sacks by boat—tells me his arms would get red from the ore, and he’d grow so exhausted crossing back and forth over the lake that he’d lie down on the bags to sleep. Peter and Theresa moved to Déline a long time ago, and the uranium mine closed in the early 1960s. Theresa says that when they lived at Port Radium, the women would make tents from the sacks for their families to sleep in. There has been a lot of illness since then, and many deaths from cancer. Déline has come to be called the “Village of Widows.” The town’s surviving elders say the prophet Ayah warned them. These are people who still have no word for radiation.

For decades, the Sahtúgot’ine—Bear Lake people—had only heard rumours about where the pitchblende, or uranium, gleaned from their land ended up. In the 1990s, a meeting between the Dene and Gordon Edwards, co-founder of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, confirmed the deadly tie binding Port Radium to Hiroshima. Then an extraordinary thing happened. A Dene delegation got on a plane and went to Japan to offer the hibakusha—the bomb survivors—an apology.

In 2001, I learn that much of the uranium used in developing the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was from Great Bear Lake. This information comes from a colleague, Peter van Wyck, who wants to know if I’ll accompany him on a research trip. How would I like to follow the path of uranium from the Northwest Territories to New Mexico? I’ve always been attracted to catastrophic events: the fault lines in the psyche of a culture; the secrets that fester in families, leak quietly into communities and eventually—sometimes—explode. I work in theatre, so I decide to tell the story of Great Bear Lake’s uranium by writing an opera.

A year later, I find myself in the Batons’ trailer. Dizzy from the cigarette smoke, I stand up to leave. Theresa grabs my hand and thanks me for coming. “You didn’t bring one of those tape recorders,” she says. “That’s good.” Later, one of the community workers tells me, “Lots of people come to interview the elders here. Not many come to talk.” As I bundle into my new snowsuit, Peter shakes his head and insists on lending me a pair of long beaver mitts. He says the weather is unusually cold at minus forty-eight, and that, if I pay attention, I can hear ice crack.

I wave goodbye and stumble into the frigid air. As I head to my hotel, I pass the cemetery with its rows of tiny white crosses. Sitting offshore in a blanket of brilliance is Isadore Yukon’s old tugboat, the Radium Gilbert—retired sometime in the 1960s and bought by the Dene Band Council for one dollar. Her graffiti-scratched hull tilts drunkenly in the snow. When they took a Geiger counter through the boat years ago, it was her shower that had the highest levels of radioactivity.

I started going to seminars about how to survive a nuclear war when I was sixteen. It was 1971, and the peace movement—the one my generation thought would save the world—was just getting going. Helen Caldicott hadn’t yet terrified us with her documentary If You Love This Planet, but I still didn’t sleep at night. While my parents sat with their Scotches watching Ed Sullivan on our black-and-white television, I went to the field behind our house on the outskirts of Toronto to see if planes flying overhead would drop something big. I lived in perpetual anticipation of sudden explosions. I wanted to be sure that when the world blew up there would be an escape route, a door with an exit sign. One Sunday afternoon in August, I clipped an announcement from the Toronto Telegram, figured out the mysteries of the subway system and found my way to a convention hall downtown. There, I looked at exhibits about how to keep food for long periods of time, and took notes on staying warm underground during a Canadian nuclear winter.

After graduating from university, I took the train west to the coast. I had job leads in Edmonton and Vancouver, so I researched each city’s escape plan. Every municipality, now as well as then, has a strategy in the event of disaster. Edmonton felt safer because there were highways out of town. Vancouver made me nervous—all those mountains hemming you in on one side, the unforgiving ocean on the other. During a beautiful summer spent on Wreck Beach, while my new friends were falling in and out of love, I read survival manuals and discovered that the most organized city in North America was Seattle. There was a clear chain of command, one person who made the decisions and put the action plan into effect: the Fire Chief. I seriously considered moving there.

When William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in 1949, he spoke about the curse of not having a future. “There are no longer problems of the spirit,” he said. “There is only the question: when will I be blown up?” In Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, Robert Lifton and Greg Mitchell write that, since 1945, personal losses—the death of a loved one, dislocation from home—have merged with extreme threat: “Just as, after Hiroshima, every antagonism between nations takes on the potential for destroying the entire world, so does every personal trauma potentially take on that end-of-the-world association.” Every danger we experience, personal or private, puts us psychically on the edge of disaster, worrying about the next emergency: an earthquake in Japan, a friend with cancer, a depressed parent.

For North Americans, the September 11 attacks didn’t inaugurate the visceral, urgent sense of threat to “home” and “security”; they merely ripped off the protective scab that had grown over the wounds of 1945. We still live in fear—of terrorism, of radiation contamination, of the apocalypse. The twentysomething man who owns the corner store near my house says he doesn’t think about nuclear weapons. But he knows the planet will have no edible food in ten years, so he keeps tins and seed packets in the basement. That is what humans do when we’re in danger: we hide, we conceal ourselves, we seek shelter. Like Adam, we are always running for cover. God asks Adam, “Where are you?” Goethe replies, “If I knew myself, I’d run away.”

Great Bear Lake is more than thirty thousand square kilometres of inland sea, close to the upper limit of the tree line. It’s bordered on its south and west sides by black and white spruce, with a sprinkling of muskeg; on its north, the forest gives way to tundra. During the 1930s, a whole village sprung up around the site of the Eldorado mine on the lake’s eastern shore. There was a school, a store and lodging for the white miners. Once, the circus even came to town.

I stay at Grey Goose Lodge, the only hotel in Déline. A dozen rooms, a restaurant, a gift shop and a porch. It’s February. With so little daylight, time is organized differently here, and there is unrelenting activity. Large vehicles idle outside, exhaust clouding the brittle air. If you turn the motors off, they’ll freeze up and you won’t get them going again.

In my hotel room, I run a bath and sit with my feet in hot water, thinking about what I’ve learned in Déline so far. “We did not know the ore was bad,” one person said. “Non-natives didn’t know, either.” The Dene started to ask questions in the 1980s when their men began to die. The Medical Officer of Health for the Northwest Territories only began a register of diagnoses and deaths in 1989–90; the year before, it listed fourteen Dene men who worked in the mining, milling or transport of radium and uranium. All of them died from cancers associated with exposure to radioactive contaminants: lung, bone, throat.

Deborah Simmons, a staff person for the Déline Uranium Team, comes to the hotel and drops off They Never Told Us These Things, a report the Dene researched, wrote and carried to Ottawa in 1998. The 160 pages are carefully detailed and plainspoken. I read that, from the beginning of the mine’s operations, the government had kept crucial information from the Dene. In 1932, the Annual Report of the Department of Mines mandated weekly lung tests for miners, as well as monthly blood tests for lab workers—but only in Canada’s south. The 1933 report included a lengthy and detailed examination of the ore’s dangers: “when the insidious and deadly nature of radium is considered, too much care cannot be taken.” But nobody told the Dene who carried and transported it. Nor, it seems, did anyone tell the white miners who worked underground, and who also lived at Port Radium.

Cindy Kenny Gilday, a Dene activist and a major force behind the trip to Hiroshima, writes about a packed community meeting in Déline, where lawyers delivered a year’s worth of uranium-impact research from the archives in Ottawa. “‘In the mountain of papers we dug up in Ottawa this year on this issue, there is not one mention of the Dene, your people,’” the lawyers say in Gilday’s retelling. “The hall went completely silent. The elders had incredulous looks on their faces, a combination of sadness and anger.”

The DUT has spent years researching the effects of the mine on the community. In 1998, it sent a delegation to Ottawa. A year later, it agreed to a co-operative process with the federal government to research the health and environmental impacts of the mine. The result—called the Canada-Déline Uranium Table Final Report, released in 2005—made twenty-six recommendations. Some have been addressed, and cleanup work in partnership with the Dene is ongoing. But the report also concluded that there was not enough evidence to link working for Eldorado to cancers in the area. Although significant contamination was found in the lake and on the mine site, none, according to the report, would harm the fish or wildlife the people depend on.

The CDUT report has faced criticism both inside and outside Déline. Well-known environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk expressed concern that the study’s narrow framing weakened its findings. Intertek, the official fact-finder hired for the CDUT report, was not able to access key archival information. The only statistics considered relevant in the determination of cancer-related deaths were body counts. But in David Henningson’s 2006 documentary, Somba Ke: The Money Place, cancer research scientist Rosalie Bertell argues that using death records to assess the effects of uranium on a population is insufficient. “Bertell maintains that the only way to do this kind of investigation (she apparently offered this to the community) is to do blood and urine analyses,” Peter van Wyck writes in his book Highway of the Atom, “which would at least allow for correlation with exposure.”

Eldorado was reopened as a silver mine in 1963, then closed again in 1982. Today, almost ten years after my visit to Déline, Alberta Star Development Corporation has extensively staked and test-drilled the area. The company’s website describes large uranium anomalies that have never been explored, and Alberta Star is trying to determine “if there is a potential resource to support the recommencement of commercial production at the mine sites.” Alberta Star’s permit, granted with permission from the Déline Land Corporation, officially expires in 2013, but if it continues to meet regulatory requirements, its mineral claim will remain in effect indefinitely. Uranium mining doesn’t just provoke controversy—it also provides jobs.

Known for their pioneering self-governance, the Sahtúgot’ine have undertaken a series of initiatives in land stewardship, including cleanup work at the various abandoned mine sites on the lake, as recommended by the CDUT report. Still, many questions remain. They Never Told Us These Things asks how Ottawa could have knowingly let the Bear Lake people select contaminated areas for settlement during their land-claims process in the early nineties. The Sahtúgot’ine say their families have lost faith in governments and their young people see no future; they believe that their place in the world is poisoned and their children will die.

The Dene report also mentions the Japanese: “We are suffering intense guilt and grief in our community that the materials we carried to the barges and to the aircraft went to make an atomic bomb that killed many tens of thousands of human beings in Japan. Our people feel that if they had been told what they were helping to do, they would not have done it.”

Shortly before I leave Déline there is a feast. I sit beside long sheets of brown paper rolled out on the community hall floor, and eat caribou and potatoes. The meat is too gamey for me; it makes me gag and I’m ashamed. I look around at the people I have met and wonder how I’ll do justice to any of this with the opera I plan to write. (It would eventually become Shelter, composed by Juliet Palmer and produced by Tapestry New Opera in Toronto.) I have tried to get a sense of this place but have deliberately not asked questions that might stir up painful memories. After dinner, two more people invite me to visit their homes the next day—my last in Déline—and have tea. Suddenly, a week seems painfully inadequate.

Following the meal, we move to rows of chairs and have a discussion about Eldorado, and what it means to unearth this history. A woman stands up, leans for a moment on her husband’s shoulder, straightens and says, “Let’s get on. It’s about the future. Enough with the past.” Another man beside her seems angry. He gets up, speaks to the group: “If you’ve got something to say, pull it out of your pocket. Otherwise, it will rot.”

When I fly out of Déline, I have a stopover in Norman Wells, the Northwest Territories. In the town’s small museum, there’s a display of photos and artifacts from the Eldorado mine, and I find a photograph of a bottle fastened to a plywood frame. I lean over the railing to look more closely. The bottle is attached to a commemorative plaque placed outside the miners’ changing room at Port Radium. Inside the bottle is trinitite, the olive-coloured, glass-like substance made when the sand hit by the first atomic explosion melted and solidified. The trinitite traveled all the way from the New Mexico desert to the mine at Port Radium. I decide to make the same trip in reverse.

At the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, there are sterling silver earrings for sale in the shapes of Little Boy and Fat Man, the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When they were first sold in the museum’s boutique, Japanese tourists complained and the earrings were removed. But when I visit in 2004 they are back, displayed on the shelf with other assorted souvenirs. I buy a pair, thinking nobody will believe me otherwise, then drive down an open highway to southern New Mexico, arriving after sunset at a cheap motel. I lie awake thinking about the next day, about putting on a miner’s cap and taking an elevator a mile underground. I think about cancer and gamma rays and wish I were writing an opera about eating and drinking across Italy.

I hit the road again as the sun comes up and suddenly, in the middle of scrub desert, there is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, advertised as “the world’s first underground repository licensed to safely and permanently dispose of transuranic radioactive waste.” This includes all kinds of things, like lab coats and instruments, that have been exposed to enough uranium to have a half-life longer than twenty years—they will be radioactive for a very long time. The WIPP is surrounded by kilometres of fence and wire. I check in at the gate, park the car and meet an engineer, a public relations guy and a young indigenous man with a briefcase and a crooked smile. They sit me down in a boardroom and give me a two-hour briefing: what to know before going down the elevator shaft.

Things don’t go wrong at the WIPP. If they do, there are controls. For example, when you get “occupational exposure,” you’ll hear one of three levels of alarms (“Bell, Yelp or Gong”), at which point you move to the colour-coded staging area. You have to be over eighteen to visit. You sink more than six hundred metres, travelling fast in a tiny elevator, passing through forty-two square kilometres of fossilized coral reef; millions of years ago, this area was covered by ocean. Each drum of waste is wrapped in layers of lead and dropped slowly into one hundred million cubic metres of salt, one of nature’s most stable compounds.

Radioactive waste comes here by truck from seven sites across the United States—a huge, choreographed dance number. To get a truck into the WIPP, you need to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops; the engineer says, “We’re held hostage by politics.” I think of the elderly World War II veterans I watched the day before, guiding bored high-school students through the Atomic Museum. They delivered a sanitized account of why the bomb was dropped, with no mention of the politics around Truman’s decision: the opening gambits of the Cold War; the pressure to show America’s new weapon to the Russians and to create a test case the government could study.

The elevator plummets through the earth. We step out into a long tunnel bustling with workers, their hard hats eager spotlights in the dull blackness. I tentatively put my hand against cold wet walls of salt, and the engineer continues his story with enthusiasm. There are three or four trucks on the road at a time, travelling with their precious cargo. Two guys are on board each truck, and they stop every 150 miles for a complete two-hour inspection. The drivers need thirty-five thousand miles of driving experience, can have no violations, are all in their forties or fifties—they know what they’re doing. There have only been two “road events,” one involving a nineteen-year-old and a six-pack of Corona. The kid’s Toyota hit the back of the truck and flipped it at some rural intersection in a not-to-be-mentioned state. Apparently there was no damage, and they tell me the beer was okay.

I also have an invitation to visit the Trinity site in the White Sands Missile Range, where the first atomic bomb was exploded on July 16, 1945. I stop for a coffee, delaying, afraid of this part of my journey. It seems crazy to have spent my youth trying to escape a nuclear blast and to now, voluntarily, drive to Ground Zero. But it also feels like something is coming full circle in my life, even if I don’t know what it is.

I head west across sixty-four kilometres of the Tularosa Basin. White Sands, located in south-central New Mexico, helps the US military with “experimentation, test, research, assessment, development and training in support of the Nation at war.” On my way to the Trinity site, I step out onto the tarmac of a tiny missile museum. Holding my hair back with both hands as the February wind slams into me, I stare at what must be thirty military rockets, tall white cones crowded onto an acre of land, a flock of odd birds stranded in this empty way station.

White Sands is an endless expanse of desert and cactus, and most of what goes on here is secret. There is a great deal of terrorism research, and somewhere out of sight is a scale model of the building targeted in the Oklahoma City bombing. I’m taken through a guarded gate and driven into the desert until we reach a small circular area surrounded by a high wire fence. I walk inside. In the centre is a three-and-a-half-metre stone monument marking the spot where the bomb exploded. Every metre or so along the fence, tied crudely to the wire, are black-and-white photographs: the blast, the farmhouse where the scientists stayed, an atomic equation. As we enter, someone tells me not to worry; one hour of radiation here is about the same as skiing on a mountain in sunlight. I look at my watch.

My father is almost ninety. His most vivid memory of the atomic bomb, he tells me, is of my mother coming into their kitchen with a magazine in her hands. “I was cooking, a pot was simmering, I was stirring. She stood in the doorway, shaking, in a yellow sundress. Life magazine photos, I think. Thin-skinned, your mother.” He smiles and reaches a bony, spotted arm to pat me on the knee. “She was missing the tough layer, the one that keeps you safe. A strong woman on the outside. Inside, fragile. Things could break.”

August 6, 1945 was a Monday. The Enola Gay left Tinian Island’s North Field at 2:45 am. There were little explosions along the runway from the flashes of photographers, who were alerted that something big was breaking. Special Bombing Mission Number 13 took off without a hitch, with Little Boy in its bomb bay. The target was the T-shaped Aoio Bridge, in the centre of Hiroshima.

The Enola Gay dropped its bundle at 8:15 am. At 2:58 pm, the plane landed back on Tinian. The pilot was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross, while the other members of his crew received Air Medals. On August 9, 1945, the Enola Gay flew reconnaissance to Kokura as a support plane for Special Bombing Mission Number 16, which dropped Fat Man on the city of Nagasaki.

Physicist John Manley suggested the blast of the Trinity atomic bomb—the first ever—looked like a black rose, its petals unfurling as it grew skyward. In October of 1945, a crowd gathered in the Los Angeles Coliseum to witness a recreation of the bombing of Japan. A mushroom cloud burst from the field to the enraptured cheers of the crowd.

Many of the atomic-bomb scientists were deeply conflicted about their discovery. After a party celebrating the first test, J. Robert Oppenheimer saw a colleague throwing up and thought, “It’s started.” Three months later, the “father of the bomb” retired as director of Los Alamos, and each worker was given a silver pin stamped with a large “A” and a small “bomb.” “I never saw a man in such an extremely nervous state as Oppenheimer,” US Vice-President Henry Wallace wrote in his diary. “The guilt consciousness of the atomic bomb scientists is one of the most astounding things I have ever seen.”

Fifty-three years after Fat Man and Little Boy, the delegation of Sahtúgot’ine travelled from Déline to Japan, to apologize to atomic bomb survivors and their relatives. The filmmaker Peter Blow was with them, shooting his documentary Village of Widows. When I watch the film for the first time in my living room in Toronto, it is an old Dene man’s testimony about the ore that stops me. “I thought it was gold,” he says. “I thought they made rings, or something, in the south.”

On my last night in Déline, I go ice fishing. A man named Gordon Taniton, his round face framing a flashing smile, has been teasing me that I don’t have “northern patience.” He picks me up from the steps of the small community centre. I climb onto his red snowmobile and we follow the shoreline of Great Bear, past tiny houses puffing smoke as the sun bleeds fire along an indigo horizon. We lurch onto the lake and head full steam toward a small white canvas tent about a kilometre out. As we pull up, Gordon switches off the engine and the silence roars back like a giant wave hitting an empty beach.

He takes me inside and proudly shows me a battered couch, an acrylic rose rug and an airtight stove. He loads it up with wood, tosses in a match and points at a dark circle cut out of the floor. “The fish down there aren’t just food. They give us Sahtú people our freedom. Maybe one will find you.” He hands me a cold black rod. “Don’t let the fire go out—you’ll freeze! Sit yourself on that couch, prop your feet to hold you steady and drop your line down. Then wait.”

I listen as the snowmobile disappears into the night. After a half-hour or so, my northern patience wears out and I pull out my copy of They Never Told Us These Things. The bundle of papers falls open to a photocopied page I hadn’t noticed before.

It’s a map, drawn in pencil, of the mine on Great Bear Lake. The names of its authors are written in the upper right-hand corner: Huey Ferdinand, Irene Betsidea, Mary Kodakin, Paul Baton. Along the top, a jagged line indicates a row of cliffs, the pencil tracing how the land curves into inlets. There are small squares indicating locations of interest: the tugboat that carried the ore, places contaminated by oil, a winter airstrip, a tennis court (beside chemical bags), houses for miners (beside sewage dumped in the water), a bank, store, skating rink, school. In a small circle is written, “deep pond on top of hill.” Outside the circle: “child drowns, pond drained.”

The map—situated as it is inside a report sent to Ottawa, a book on a shelf, an archive—shows what French theorist Pierre Nora calls “les lieux de mémoire.” These are sites where an intersection of history, memory and engagement “blocks the work of forgetting” and “carries a will to remember”; they are transitive moments in the culture of a living people.

Running diagonally across the map are two long, narrow strips, with a row of tiny arrows inside each. These are the underground tunnels that lead from the mine, more than 240 metres below the surface, to “way far” under the lake. Water has continuously penetrated the three-metre-wide tunnels. The Dene are concerned that, decades after the mine was abandoned, water that has absorbed radioactive minerals has filled the tunnels and is now seeping back into the lake.

Great Bear is a beautiful spot to sit and fish. I think of the 740,000 tons of radioactive tailings left in the lake beneath me. Thorium-230, a hazardous nuclide found in uranium tailings, has a half-life of about eighty thousand years.

What is the half-life of memory?

Thursday, February 2

The scope-severity paradox

Dear Son

Here is something that you will find interesting. What this experiment shows is that people dont really take large numbers on board. In other words, a large number, more than 30 or even more, just becomes a statistic in people's minds. Stalin said something very interesting, A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic. There is also an old old joke, the subject keeps on changing:

The President and his Vice President are sitting in a bar.
A guy walks in, sees them and asks the barman, "Isn't that the President and the Vice President sitting over there?"
The bartender says, "Yep, that's them."
So the guy walks over and says, "Wow, this is a real honour! What are you guys doing in here?"
Bush says, "We're planning World War Three."
And the guy says, "Really? What's going to happen?"
Bush says, "Well, we're going to kill 140 million guys and one blonde with big hair."
The guy exclaimed, "A blonde with big hair? Why would you kill a blonde with big hair?"
The President turns to the VP and says, "See, I told you no one would care about 140 million guys".

People are very nervous about large numbers, so you have to recognise this factor and use it to your advantage. For example, you are going to do Maths and Further Mathematics in your A levels. Have you noticed the reactions of people when you say that? They are impressed, they go, wow. Why? because these people cannot comprehend somebody actually understanding large numbers. If you want to become a banker or a diplomat or whatever, use this to your advantage, be very comfortable with large numbers and realise how people react negatively to this.

A related item to this is to always talk in terms of bullet points, if somebody asks you to explain something to them, say ONE and then one factor, say  TWO and then the next factor, dont just run along and mix them all. If you bullet them, and then tick them off using your fingers, you come across as a person with an impregnable explanation. Also, people cannot keep more than 3-4 separate items in their head, so always push more than 3-4 factors.

Its very interesting reading anyway, Son.

The scope-severity paradox

The scope-severity paradox
Anikó Sebestény
Sunday, 30 October 2011
Blog, Anikó’s blog

Do criminals deserve a less severe punishment if they harmed more people ?

Most people would almost certainly answer “no”. Of course: punishment should be sensitive to the severity of the crime. That’s what we usually think.

Yet in a compelling paper published in Social Psychological and Personality Science in August 2010, Loran F. Nordgren and Mary-Hunter Morris McDonnell found that increasing the number of people victimized by a crime actually decreases the perceived severity of that crime and leads people to recommend less punishment.

The scope-severity paradox presented in the article is indeed astonishing. The paper is also exemplary in how beautifully it combines lab experiments and analysis of real-world data.

The authors conducted experiments to test the effect. 60 participants were asked about the severity of a crime. A financial advisor has betrayed his clients, how severe is his crime, how many years of jail should he get? The astonishing (and robust) result is that the crime is seen as significantly less serious when there are 30 victims rather than 3. When asked about how participants imagine one of the victims, participants gave an average of 3 traits less in the case of 30 victims than in the case of 3 victims, showing that their representation is much more vivid in the case of less victims. According to the authors, this difference in the vividness of how the victim is represented accounts for the paradox.

The authors then turned to archival data to demonstrate that the scope-severity paradox is a robust, real-world effect. They collected archival data of actual jury verdicts concerning 136 cases of poisoning in the U.S. spanning over a 10-year period from 2000 to 2009. They found that juries required defendants to pay higher punitive damages when their negligent behavior harmed fewer people.

The authors then returned to the lab and tried to find a way to reduce the effect. It appears that by making victims more individually identifiable, the effect is reduced. Having identifiable victims makes people not give less punishment to the criminals harming more people. And yet, they still don’t give more punishment to the criminals harming more people: they just give the same punishment, regardless of the number of victims.

I suggest that there may be a strong connection with Susan Carey’s work on learning mathematics: there is a bootstrapping process going on when children learn to deal with 3, then with 4, then with 5. It may well be that the bootstrapping process is never entirely complete, and we don’t have, even as adults, a very clear concept of 30, or at least it is far less clear than our concept of 3. Imagining 100 tables appears much more difficult to me than imagining 5. Imagining 100 real people probably goes beyond my cognitive capacities.

Can this effect at least partially explain why the world, or at least the media pay so much more attention to single criminals than to institutions who fraud and harm hundreds or thousands of people?

Wednesday, February 1

Are you a morning or evening person?

So what are you?

While I was growing up, my Ma used to din the old adage, early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise. Consequently, I ended up late to bed, early to rise, unhealthy, poor and idiotic. The other comment which I kept on hearing was, “the early bird catches the worm”, when I inquired about the poor worm who really didn't benefit from waking up early, I got a clout around my head about being too smart. The fact that presumably the parental units wanted me to be smart was left unquestioned. Anyway, onwards and upwards.

But I have met so many people who are the either / or kinds of people. And as time goes on, i see more and more evening people than morning people. In other words, they are more comfortable in the evening and can keep on going for a long period of time, but speak to them in the morning and they will bite your head off or chew your ankles to bits. I am sure you have seen those.

So it was interesting when I read this paper. I quote the abstract:

Individual differences in morningness–eveningness are related to differences in personality. In this study of 1344 German adolescents, we used the Composite Scale of Morningness and the Portrait Values Questionnaire to assess the association between chronotype and personality values, controlling for age, puberty status, gender, problem perception in two dimensions (parents and self), and religious affiliation. Morningness orientation was correlated with higher acceptance of social values (conservation and self-transcendence) while eveningness orientation was correlated with higher preference for individual values (openness to change and self-enhancement). Girls were higher in self-transcendence while boys were higher in self-enhancement. Individuals with higher pubertal development preferred self-enhancement. Adolescents reporting problems with their parents preferred individual values while adolescents reporting problems with the self preferred conservation values. Religious affiliation also correlated positively with conservation. We interpreted the negative attitude of evening types towards social values as result of a cost-benefit consideration regarding early social schedules.

Fascinating, eh? There is definite and scientific basis behind whether or not you are a morning or evening person. If you are a morning person, then you are more traditional and can overlook your own individual needs while if you are an evening person, you are more liberal, open to change and more individualistic. More interestingly, girls are more societally oriented while boys are little shits – only interested in themselves. The authors say that the reason evening people are more individual is because of their sleep patterns as society expects early birds, so this “social jetlag” due to their evening circadian rhythms forces them to be more individual rather than social.


Tuesday, January 31

Everybody is a salesman, some are good some so-so

Dear Son

As you know, my current job is to improve the sales organisation of a particular business within the bank and two years into the project, we have done very well, already nearly doubled what we had originally promised 1 year early and are on track to nearly triple our promised benefits by end of the year. But that's not what I want to talk about.

I want to talk about sales and sales people. Everybody has to sell, you have to sell your skills to your teachers, you will have to sell your interest, grades, cv to the Oxford or Cambridge interviewer, Mamma has to sell her books, Diya has to sell the idea of enjoyment so that she can watch the 23490234th re-run of her tv programmes. When you grow up, you will keep on selling, whatever job you do. If you become a diplomat, you will sell the idea, products and services of the United Kingdom, if you are a banker, you will sell the products, or what have you. I sell my photographs, I sell my change abilities, I sell the charities and get equipment and money for the charities, I sell knowledge and education to my students. So see? everybody has to sell all the time.

So what are the personality traits of the top sales people? Here is a survey which talks about what are the main bits. I will add two more elements to this list having spent quite a lot of time selling and being with sales men. (1) attention to detail is one and (2) passion is second.

Have a think about how your personality aligns with this list and you can work on how to improve and enhance your selling skills. You already have a great personality, this will help you fine tune it, son.


Seven Personality Traits of Top Salespeople

If you ask an extremely successful salesperson, "What makes you different from the average sales rep?" you will most likely get a less-than-accurate answer, if any answer at all. Frankly, the person may not even know the real answer because most successful salespeople are simply doing what comes naturally.

Over the past decade, I have had the privilege of interviewing thousands of top business-to-business salespeople who sell for some of the world's leading companies. I've also administered personality tests to 1,000 of them. My goal was to measure their five main personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and negative emotionality) to better understand the characteristics that separate them their peers.

The personality tests were given to high technology and business services salespeople as part of sales strategy workshops I was conducting. In addition, tests were administered at Presidents Club meetings (the incentive trip that top salespeople are awarded by their company for their outstanding performance). The responses were then categorized by percentage of annual quota attainment and classified into top performers, average performers, and below average performers categories.

The test results from top performers were then compared against average and below average performers. The findings indicate that key personality traits directly influence top performers' selling style and ultimately their success. Below, you will find the main key personality attributes of top salespeople and the impact of the trait on their selling style.

1. Modesty. Contrary to conventional stereotypes that successful salespeople are pushy and egotistical, 91 percent of top salespeople had medium to high scores of modesty and humility. Furthermore, the results suggest that ostentatious salespeople who are full of bravado alienate far more customers than they win over.

Selling Style Impact: Team Orientation. As opposed to establishing themselves as the focal point of the purchase decision, top salespeople position the team (presales technical engineers, consulting, and management) that will help them win the account as the centerpiece.

2. Conscientiousness. Eighty-five percent of top salespeople had high levels of conscientiousness, whereby they could be described as having a strong sense of duty and being responsible and reliable. These salespeople take their jobs very seriously and feel deeply responsible for the results.

Selling Style Impact: Account Control. The worst position for salespeople to be in is to have relinquished account control and to be operating at the direction of the customer, or worse yet, a competitor. Conversely, top salespeople take command of the sales cycle process in order to control their own destiny.

3. Achievement Orientation. Eighty-four percent of the top performers tested scored very high in achievement orientation. They are fixated on achieving goals and continuously measure their performance in comparison to their goals.

Selling Style Impact: Political Orientation. During sales cycles, top sales, performers seek to understand the politics of customer decision-making. Their goal orientation instinctively drives them to meet with key decision-makers. Therefore, they strategize about the people they are selling to and how the products they're selling fit into the organization instead of focusing on the functionality of the products themselves.

4. Curiosity. Curiosity can be described as a person's hunger for knowledge and information. Eighty-two percent of top salespeople scored extremely high curiosity levels. Top salespeople are naturally more curious than their lesser performing counterparts.

Selling Style Impact: Inquisitiveness. A high level of inquisitiveness correlates to an active presence during sales calls. An active presence drives the salesperson to ask customers difficult and uncomfortable questions in order to close gaps in information. Top salespeople want to know if they can win the business, and they want to know the truth as soon as possible.

5. Lack of Gregariousness. One of the most surprising differences between top salespeople and those ranking in the bottom one-third of performance is their level of gregariousness (preference for being with people and friendliness). Overall, top performers averaged 30 percent lower gregariousness than below average performers.

Selling Style Impact: Dominance. Dominance is the ability to gain the willing obedience of customers such that the salesperson's recommendations and advice are followed. The results indicate that overly friendly salespeople are too close to their customers and have difficulty establishing dominance.

6. Lack of Discouragement. Less than 10 percent of top salespeople were classified as having high levels of discouragement and being frequently overwhelmed with sadness. Conversely, 90 percent were categorized as experiencing infrequent or only occasional sadness.

Selling Style Impact: Competitiveness. In casual surveys I have conducted throughout the years, I have found that a very high percentage of top performers played organized sports in high school. There seems to be a correlation between sports and sales success as top performers are able to handle emotional disappointments, bounce back from losses, and mentally prepare themselves for the next opportunity to compete.

7. Lack of Self-Consciousness. Self-consciousness is the measurement of how easily someone is embarrassed. The byproduct of a high level of self-consciousness is bashfulness and inhibition. Less than five percent of top performers had high levels of self-consciousness.

Selling Style Impact: Aggressiveness. Top salespeople are comfortable fighting for their cause and are not afraid of rankling customers in the process. They are action-oriented and unafraid to call high in their accounts or courageously cold call new prospects.

Not all salespeople are successful. Given the same sales tools, level of education, and propensity to work, why do some salespeople succeed where others fail? Is one better suited to sell the product because of his or her background? Is one more charming or just luckier? The evidence suggests that the personalities of these truly great salespeople play a critical role in determining their success.

Monday, January 30

Gossiping does reflect on you

Abstract from here.

Spontaneous trait transference occurs when communicators are perceived as possessing the very traits they describe in others. Study 1 confirmed that communicators become associated with the trait implications of their descriptions of others and that such associations persist over time. Study 2 demonstrated that these associations influence specific trait impressions of communicators. Study 3 suggested that spontaneous trait transference reflects simple associative processes that occur even when there are no logical bases for making inferences. Finally, Study 4 used more naturalistic stimuli and provided additional evidence that the phenomenon reflects mindless associations rather than logical attributions. Together these studies demonstrate that spontaneous trait transference is a reliable phenomenon that plays a previously unrecognized role in social perception and interaction.

Source: "Spontaneous trait transference: communicators taken on the qualities they describe in others." from J Pers Soc Psychol. 1998 Apr;74(4):837-48.

I think this is pure karma. As you sow, so you reap, if you gossip about somebody, then the listener associates those bad things that you are gossiping on you.

Ergo, do not gossip. But its strange, I was speaking with somebody and she said that one of her colleagues and friends is a huge gossiper. Despite her being a good person, she is forever associated with gossiping and that’s not in a good way at all. Sad, no? what a sad state of affairs.

I personally find that gossipers are seriously insecure, they find some kind of closure in gossiping about others, tearing down others seems to improve their own standing. But here’s the tragic stupidity, they think it helps, but it actually impacts on them negatively, and with the very people she is gossiping about. Sad.

Sunday, January 29

Professors with Tattoos have higher approval rates

The abstract:

128 undergraduates' perceptions of tattoos on a model described as a college instructor were assessed. They viewed one of four photographs of a tattooed or nontattooed female model. Students rated her on nine teaching-related characteristics. Analyses indicated that the presence of tattoos was associated with some positive changes in ratings: students' motivation, being imaginative about assignments, and how likely students were to recommend her as an instructor.

Source: "Perceptions of a tattooed college instructor." from Psychol Rep. 2010 Jun;106(3):845-50.

Hmm, i find this interesting, is this because the professor ties in with the student’s own rebellious phase? plus imagination? plus the sexy factor? Interesting, but I don't think there will be a rash of professors making a beeline for the tattoo parlour, do you?