Why travel?

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“The reason to travel: there are inner transitions we can’t properly cement without a change of locations.”
– Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

The most intriguing part about traveling is how it changes your idea about that place. Before you go somewhere, you have in your mind’s eye an image, a visual impression, however vague or jumbled, of what it will be like. It’s usually a visual impression by default since we live in a very image-dominant culture.

But once you actually go to that place, all of these preconceived ideas are erased. Thereafter, you can never quite remember what you used to think of it. No matter how hard you try, your actual experience will forever tint the preconceived ideas you had before you went. Your impression will have been “upgraded” not only with the actual sights of the place, but also the smells, noises, and general feeling you had while there. You can never again gain access to that naive pre-visit impression.

In a few hours I’ll be flying to India. I’m told that as soon as I arrive late at night the next day, I’ll be assaulted by noises, chaos, sights and smells (mostly the smells) of a sort that you’ve never before experienced until you’ve actually been there to experience it. Culture shock will most likely set in even before I reach the ‘hotel’ in Old Delhi where I’ll stay for two nights before venturing further into northern India and Nepal. (The quality of this particular two-star hotel? Let me put it this way: I read the Trip Advisor reviews and wish I hadn’t.) It’s been reported how air quality in New Delhi has been particularly horrendous lately. Even still, I didn’t expect for the weather forecast to be “Smoke”. (Is that even a proper meteorological term?) 
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Plato for Plumbers

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[Note: This essay appeared in Issue #13 of New Philosopher magazine and was chosen as the winner of New Philosopher Writers’ Award XI ‘technology’.]

“To be an engineer and nothing but an engineer means to be potentially everything and actually nothing.”

José Ortega y Gasset, History as a System (1934)

It’s a truism to remark how much our world is becoming increasingly technological, exponentially complex. The pace of change is evident in our everyday experience. From the grand feats of transcontinental flight to the mundane tasks of flushing the toilet to the seemingly miraculous joy of accessing the world’s knowledge through the smartphone in your pocket, we are at once passive and active participants in a landscape that has become progressively mechanised, digitised, and automated.

Behind the scenes, this technical infrastructure is being planned, designed, constructed, and maintained largely by one type of person: the engineer. Whether we realise it or not, it is the humble engineer who now forms the clay which moulds not only our external environment, but also our mind’s interior realm. As we enter the geological era known as the Anthropocene, the engineer has also become, perhaps unwittingly, an ecological force on a planetary scale.

There’s just one problem: at almost no point in their education, training, or practice are engineers given the proper intellectual tools with which to reflect, in any meaningful way, on themselves, each other, or their world-transforming enterprise. Engineers, and the general public, rarely stop to ask: “Should we do this, simply because we can? Is this actually good for the betterment of humanity or for the planet?” Continue reading

Reeling After the Orlando Massacre

Once again the United States needs to have a serious discussion about gun law reform. But in addition, there needs to be honest talk about the consequences of specific intolerant beliefs.

For example, the Charleston church shooting a year ago was fueled by an individual’s racist beliefs, so it was entirely appropriate for the national conversation to focus on the behavioral consequences of systemic and entrenched racism.

Similarly, after the countless Islamist terrorist attacks around the world — from Paris to Brussels to San Bernardino to Orlando, not to mention the daily atrocities in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere — it’s entirely appropriate to have a conversation about the behavioral consequences of specific religious beliefs.

Intolerant and illiberal doctrines related to martyrdom, blasphemy, honor and apostasy reliably lead to oppression and violence against women, homosexuals, freethinkers, liberals and even other Muslims.

An honest and mature public conversation about the consequences of specific beliefs, religious or otherwise, is not “Islamophobic,” nor is it bigotry against individuals as people. It is intellectual honesty. And, at this point, it’s also essential for the maintenance of civil society.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Not all old buildings are ugly or new ones, beautiful

I enjoyed reading Edward Keenan’s column, “In praise of Toronto’s ugly old buildings”. However, the author seems to conflate “old” with “ugly” and “new” with “good.” These words are not synonymous. There are numerous examples of new buildings that are ugly, lifeless and dehumanizing. Similarly, there are many old buildings that most people would recognize as being interesting and beautiful and that give their neighbourhood — and our city — its character.

Urban aesthetics influence us in more important ways than many people realize. As Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” This is why I don’t think that ugly buildings should be praised. Rather, we should praise buildings that are beautiful and human-scale — regardless of whether they are new or old.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in the Toronto Star.

An Eco-moo-dernist Manifesto: Technology, meat, and the future of food

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Humans are naturally novelty-seeking animals. Whether it be music, art, fashion, even human relationships, most people, most of the time, are rarely satisfied with the status quo. We want new, and we want it often. The mantra of “new is better” is assumed to be a foregone conclusion and often passes unchallenged.

This is particularly true for technology. Many of us become reflexively obsessed with any and all new technologies and new ways of doing things, regardless of the utility or actual benefit they provide. The latest iPhone can be revealed to the world with giddy enthusiasm, and not 24 hours later people become dissatisfied, asking, “When can I get one that’s even better?” It’s a constant grasping for more, an anticipation of what’s next, a hope for something more fulfilling. It’s a symptom of all human minds Continue reading

Humanizing the built environment

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There’s an interesting article by Chris Holbrook in The New York Times which explores the reasons why airports are “built for everyone — the city, the airlines, the retailers — except for the very people who use them the most: the passengers?” Even the shiny, new airports designed by high-profile starchitects – “the cathedrals of the 21st century” as Holbrook puts it – suffer from poor sensory experience, from ambient noise to glare to uncomfortable furniture.  Continue reading

Nature is Enough

The Chirp Heard Across the Universe” (editorial, Feb. 16), about the recent discovery of the gravitational waves that were predicted by Einstein a century ago, asks, “Does science, or knowledge, really need a justification?”

The answer, of course, is no. But in a culture that has become saturated with the idea that only commercial value matters, we’ve become afraid of expressing an impulse as natural and basic as this.

Much like literature, music, philosophy and art, enjoyment of the natural sciences — and of nature itself — has intrinsic value. No further justification is required. Curiosity, wonder and beauty are enough.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.