A novel idea


Ah Paris in the springtime. I was there in March several years ago. It had just snowed. But it didn’t matter—because Paris! My friend Cheryl and I got to speak French, and just soak up all that delicious Frenchness. We met years previously as au pairs in southern France. That’s when I first experienced this feeling of having another version of myself. I pictured two wine bottles representing my two selves. The bottle for Canadian Colleen was full, but the bottle for French Colleen had to fill up slowly. I’ve written about this in a column. And I’m getting ever closer to completing a novel! I explore even further the notion of having different selves in other cultures and languages, and how they can open up dormant parts of you, making you feel more complete. It’s an inspirational tale of change. Stay tuned!  

Extreme altruism


Published on cbc.ca: May 21, 2018

Calvin Stein likes to help people, even if it means putting himself in danger to protect complete strangers.

His altruism kicked into high gear on on July 9, 2016, when he ran straight into the path of runaway ponies to pick up a little girl and toss her to safety, only to get trampled himself.

Stein, 53, will accept the Stanhope Gold Medal from the Royal Humane Society this week. It’s the latest honour he’s received for his actions that day, which also include the Carnegie Medal for heroism and the Governor General’s medal of bravery.

“It’s just in my nature to help people,” says Stein. “If I’d have got killed that day, at least I died trying, because there’s no way I could have stood at my trailer and watched somebody get hurt or killed, and not do nothing.”

Stein and others like him chalk up their sense of selflessness to a simple desire to help others.

But according to new research, it goes deeper than that: people who perform extreme feats of altruism often have brains that are wired differently than the average person.

Running towards stampeding horses

It was a hot, sunny July day at the Tweed agricultural fair in southern Ontario. Stein was watching the horse pull: two hefty ponies were harnessed together, ready to pull a weighted sled across a short distance.

To onlookers’ horror, the ponies broke free from their harness and bolted down the track, heading directly toward the crowd.

“I keep telling myself this isn’t going to end well,” said Stein. “I’m running as fast as I can. All I see is blonde curly hair.”

Stein rescued the girl, but the ponies slammed into him instead, hurling him into the air then dragging him along the dirt, leaving hoof prints on his back. A friend said he looked like a gymnast with his feet thrown over his head.

The girl, three-year-old Rylee Vilneff, got away with minor bumps and cuts.

Stein, however, suffered a brain injury in the collision. Almost two years later, he still has vision problems and severe headaches.He hears constant ringing in his ears. He hasn’t been able to return to work. It takes him twice as long to do farm chores. He can’t drive.

And then there are the nightmares: walking down a long hallway toward a bright light, into a room with a small, white gold-lined coffin. Blonde hair is just visible from inside it.

It’s a lot to deal with, but he’s determined. “My goal is to go back. I want to retire with dignity, and I will. I will get better, eventually, hopefully,” he said. “And if I don’t, it is what it is.”

This isn’t the first time Stein has saved a stranger’s life. Several years ago, a house across the lake from his cottage went up in flames, and he coaxed an anxious, injured senior down a pair of planks to safe ground.

Why risk your own life for a stranger?

In both incidents, why did he run toward danger when most of us would run away?

According to Stein’s friends and family, it’s just in his nature.

His wife Debbie credits his upbringing in a family with hard-working, altruistic parents and nine kids around animals and machinery who had to constantly watch out for each other.

Some people are wired for altruism

Environmental factors like Stein’s upbringing may help explain the actions of extreme altruists, but it’s not the whole story.

According to research by Abby Marsh, an associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University in Washington, parts of the brain might hold the remaining answers.

Abby Marsh (Georgetown U) 

She started by studying the brains of people on the other end of the caring continuum: psychopaths. It turns out their amygdala, which is important in recognizing other people’s fear, is under-reactive and up to 20 per cent smaller than average.

In a study conducted for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in the U.S., Marsh and her team scanned the brains of 19 altruistic kidney donors and found the opposite.

Relative to a group of 20 control subjects, the donors’ amygdala was about eight per cent larger, and more reactive to others’ fear.

But how do you get from a strong response in the brain to seeing someone else’s fear, to actually helping them? It’s not totally clear yet, but her lab has discovered, through research with rats, that it has something to do with receptors in the amygdala for a hormone called oxytocin, which is responsible for generating maternal care.

Marsh’s interest in altruism traces back to when she was 19 years old, when a man risked his life dashing across a highway to save her from a car accident.

“It gave me a new sort of passion to try to understand what had happened to me better. I became very interested in what causes people to care about other people’s welfare,” she said.

Extreme altruists not always understood

Lauren Herschel likes that there could be a physiological reason to explain why she donated a kidney when she was 35. She’s one of only around 500 living donors across Canada, and in 2011, became the first to go through the process in Calgary without knowing the kidney’s recipient.

While many people responded positively, she got some negative feedback as well.

“A common theme is people didn’t understand why I’d do something like that. You know, put myself through major surgery, give up an organ, for somebody I didn’t know,” she wrote on her blog. “I think my mom must have asked me about six times: Who are you giving it to?”

(Lauren Herschel)

Herschel has different theories about the naysayers.

“When we see somebody doing a good thing, it does make us question our own actions,” she said. “So I think in some cases, it made people feel like they weren’t doing enough.”

For Herschel’s part, she figured that if she was physically able to donate and possibly save a life in the process, why not do it? Despite some minor side effects, she would do it again if she could.

The Vilneff family (left to right): Denise, Rylee, Liam and Terry. (Colleen Ross/CBC)


For Stein, that fateful day at the Tweed fair led to a lasting relationship with the little girl he rescued.

Rylee, now five years old, squeals in delight when he pops by to visit her, and her family.

Her father Terry Vilneff explains to Rylee that he’s the one who helped them out at the fair that day.

She gets it. When asked for a word to describe him, Rylee says “Kind,” in a tiny, gentle voice.

Calvin laughs, too. “I keep telling everyone that the good lord didn’t need me and the devil didn’t want me, because he knew I’d take over when I got there.”

Listing Language



There’s a tendency some people have, that when they’re listing off a few things, their voice goes up and holds, goes up and holds, with each item. It’s rhythmic, yes, but it also sounds like the speaker is bored, like of course you know what I’m talking about here, Gawd, do I really even have to say all of this? Yawn.

I’ve been noticing it for a while, but didn’t know what it was, or how common it was, or if I was just making it up (fyi: this is exactly a list that would inspire this kind of hydro-planing). So I left it.

But in my world at CBC Radio, in cafes and on the street, it was not to be outrun. Others have noticed it too (and after it’s pointed out, you can’t not hear it). I heard such an egregious example the other day that I just couldn’t take it anymore: I had to find out something. Anything.

So I turned to Ben Yagoda, professor of English and Journalism at the University of Delaware, who knows about such things. He wondered about it some time ago, so it’s curious that practically nothing else is out there in the public sphere.

He calls it List lilt. So satisfying. Finally, a name.

Yagoda writes that it’s a vocalizing of polysyndeton, which is a technique that uses conjunctions (and, but, or) in quick succession, instead of commas. Kind of like your lions and tigers and bears (oh my!).

He has even figured out the musical intervals, ranging from a third to an octave on each item: “the magnitude of the ascent corresponds to the (implied) length of the list and also to a sort of ritualized, everybody-knows quality the speaker wants to convey,” he writes.

More recently, Rachel Steindel Burdin, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of New Hampshire, co-wrote a paper on this phenomenon with Joseph Tyler, which was presented at the Speech Prosody 2016 conference.

Rather than list lilt, they call it a rise-plateau.

They found that it signals the speaker thinks the listener already knows the items, so is therefore just reminding, and isn’t specific to just lists. It’s not to be confused with a rise, which occurs when you list off items that might be new: you need an anchor, screw, drill, screwdriver, hard hat, flak jacket. That kind of thing.

Participants in the study largely found the rise was informative (“just telling him what needs to be done”) or instructional, and that the listener did not know the items in the list (“Mark must not know what is in corn dip that Stacie makes”). The rise was described as being “helpful”, “friendly”, and “less judgmental”. 

Example: Rise v. Rise-Plateau 

Not so for the rise-plateau (or list lilt). Subjects thought it sounded like the list was uncertain and not fully planned (“seems to be her brainstorming it”, “…was thinking of things to add as he listed them”), and that it conveyed the listener already knows, or should know, the listed items.

The rise-plateau had more negative meanings overall, with the speaker described as “bored”, “annoyed”, “condescending”, and “dismissive”.


Interestingly, the male speaker was rated as sounding more condescending, and less helpful, than the female speaker. The authors say it may be related to general stereotypes about male speakers (as a potential “mansplainer”) and female speakers (as being more nurturing or helpful).

You be the judge.

I find that while women don’t necessarily sound condescending, it can come across as a ‘so-over-this-but-feel-it’s-my-duty-to-share’ attitude, which can be just as bothersome.

Burdin says there isn’t anything to indicate this listing technique on the rise; they found references to rise-plateau in lists in linguistic literature from the 1970s and 80s.

But I still feel it’s on the rise. And while I appreciate that language and the way we use it is constantly developing — this is one development that I hope plateaus, soon.


Who has the upper hand?


Published: Sept. 25, 2016

It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would be well advised to remember that adage when taking the stage at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday night for the first U.S. presidential debate.

A person’s body language can have a big impact on our perception of them. So, let’s break it down.

If you’ve watched Trump for any length of time, you’ll notice he uses a lot of pointing, slicing, stabbing and other sharp motions. Turns out they affect the part of our brain that deals with emotions, known as the limbic system.

“Those read in the limbic brain as symbolic weapons, so they come across as both powerful and aggressive,” said Patti Wood, renowned body language expert and author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions Body Language and Charisma.

Trump hand in air (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Clinton, she says, could not get away with those gestures. She opens her palms and lifts her hands and her arms.

“She does more what I call up gestures that typically appear shoulder up, but at least up above the waist,” Wood said. “And those we perceive as being positive, victorious, joyful, winner status.”

Wood says women have to walk what she calls “the ‘b’ line,” referring to the slur commonly used against women.

“We can’t be too passive, and we can’t be too powerful or aggressive,” she said.

She says when Clinton has communicated more forcefully in the past, her likability factor has dropped.

Feel, show, say

Wood says candidates’ body language can also profoundly affect us when they believe what they’re saying, a concept she calls “feel, show, say.” Trump, for instance, shows that he believes what he says.

“When you believe something, you feel it in your limbic brain, you show it in your non-verbals that come from your limbic brain, and then you go over to your neo-cortex and say it,” she said.

clinton hand raised(Brian Snyder/Reuters)

“So, when you’re listening and watching someone who believes what they’re saying, there’s a synchronous, almost musical way that it’s presented to the brain that tells me: this person is telling me the truth. So, we believe it — if they believe it.”

Clinton, says Wood, stays more in her neo-cortex (the “say” part): she’s rational, brilliant and extremely prepared, but she doesn’t necessarily go to emotions.

Wood says all this body language figures into our desire to have the most powerful and charismatic leader. Charisma factors include: credibility, likability, attractiveness and power. And if someone is high in those last three factors, it overrides the brain’s ability to tell whether or not that person is credible.

Read: powerful gestures can trump implausible words.

Motivating the voter

Body language expert Mark Bowden says this U.S. presidential election is not about the swing vote. It’s about getting people to vote at all.

Turnout in the 2012 presidential election was 57.5%, down from 62.3% in 2008.

“So, the body language involved is how you get people up off the sofa. That isn’t necessarily about being liked; that’s about being motivational,” said Bowden, who is based in Toronto but coaches executives and politicians around the world.

“Donald’s idea about motivating people is that it’s all really bad, and it will get worse unless we stop Mexicans. So, he’s taking the stance of someone who will aggressively stop people from coming in.”

Politicians find the physical action that goes with the psychological metaphor, something called embodied cognition.

With Trump, that means pointing the finger, using a shoving motion as if he were pushing people away and his “you’re fired” gesture from The Apprentice reality TV series — to show he’s firing the current leaders and their way of running the country.

Obama Romney debateResearch suggests that the person who grips their opponent’s upper arm, as Barack Obama did to Mitt Romney in their Oct. 3, 2012 debate, literally gets the upper hand in the debate even before a word is spoken. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Bowden says Trump’s gestures are up in the chest area, which raises the audience’s heart rate and blood pressure, gets them revved up. He says if you’re not a Trump fan, this won’t entice you, but if you want an authoritarian leader, he’s your guy.

“Hillary Clinton’s way of motivating people is: We’re all right. America is a great, great country, and don’t let that guy (Trump) mess it all up. It won’t be great if you let that guy in. And you need to get off the sofa and vote unless you want the place messed up.”

Translated into body language: “She’s all smiles, nice and calm on the whole, but pointing aggressively when it comes to Trump. So, her aggression is towards an individual: her opponent,” said Bowden.

The upper hand in the debate

Now, let’s talk about the presidential debates. When the candidates walk on stage, watch for that opening handshake. Research shows the perceived winner of the debate can ride on who grips their opponent’s upper arm, says Patti Wood.

“Automatically, the audience goes: that’s the more powerful person. They won.”

Bowden says when he coaches politicians in debates, he makes sure they enter the stage from the left. Why? So when they shake hands with the opponent, their arm faces the audience and looks bigger. A winner.

So much of the message is determined by what we see. Remember the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon? Nixon appeared ill and sweaty after a recent hospitalization while Kennedy looked cool and confident. People who listened on the radio thought Nixon won, but the TV audience said Kennedy.

Nixon in debate against Kennedy(Associated Press)

Body language during that debate on Sept. 26, 1960, was just as important as it will be in the first presidential debate of this election cycle on Sept. 26, 2016. (And how crazy is it that they’re on the same month and day?)

Bowden coaches politicians to put their hands not too low or too high but in front of the belly: the so-called truth area, the centre or gravity. He says it shows someone who is calm and assertive, in control of their environment. He’ll expect both candidates to project this during the debate.

‘Trump has the upper hand because when he gets aggressive, it’s way more noticeable.’–  Mark Bowden, body language expert 

But he’ll also watch for Trump to become aggressive when speaking about what he sees as the invasion of America by outsiders, and for Clinton to turn aggressive when targeting Trump.

They’ll both need to motivate people enough to get them to vote.

“Trump has the upper hand because when he gets aggressive, it’s way more noticeable,” Bowden said. “We’ll watch aggression way more than we’ll watch someone being more passive.”

Wood says anger is a high motivator. “We tend to be persuaded more by anger. People who are angry will go out and vote. It pulls us to the polls.”

While this could point to a Trump victory, positivity is also a powerful motivator. Maybe the United States is finally ready for a female president.

Digesting Amharic


InjeraSwahili, which I tried to learn during my short time in Tanzania, is easy peasy compared to Amharic, the official working language of Ethiopia.

It’s kind of like chicken, rice, beans and spinach…versus multiple stews with complex ingredients that may or may not include meat depending on the fasting schedule, served atop a spongy, sour flatbread called injera that you eat by ripping off pieces, wrapping it around said stew and popping in your mouth in such a manner as to avoid licking your fingers lest you offend others who are sharing the dish. Then there’s the coffee ceremony.

For starters, Amharic has its own writing system called fidel, adapted from Ge’ez. There are 33 consonant symbols with seven variations, according to the vowel that is coupled with them. So already I can’t actually read the words. I have to listen to people and try to replicate what they’re saying, writing it down as it sounds to me because you see, there is no standard translation of Amharic symbols to the Roman characters we use in English.

This, for instance, means Colleen: Colleen-AmharicI’ve tried to memorize some of the symbols, a mass of lines and squiggles and circles that are somewhere between those Olympic sport pictograms and charm bracelets. I’ve tried equating the image – say a person taking a flying leap – to the sound  — ño (read: noooooo!). It is somewhat effective. But tedious. So I stopped.   

There’s also the challenge of making the glottalized or explosive version of some of the consonants. That means they’re pronounced with a sudden release of air. Amharic has explosives for the p, t and k sounds. We have them in English too – for sounds like p and t – made with air produced by the lungs. However, in Amharic, the k sound is made in the back of the throat. You can see your Adam’s apple bobbing when you do it correctly (as displayed by our teacher, Milky, below). Sort of feels like you’re gasping for air. 


One of my favourite explosive sounds is the word for cold: kaz-kaza. It somehow sounds colder than our cold. Another is beka, which means enough! And teff which is said more like t’eff. Damn, it’s satisfying to nail that sound. Disappointing when one does not.

Now when it comes to people’s names, well. They’re almost paralyzingly complicated to remember; I often have to ask 3, 4, 5 times for people to repeat their name. And again the next time I see them. Names I’ve never heard before: Kahssaye, Tesfaye, Firehiwot, Amogne, Zeritu. I only seem to retain the name when I ask what it means: compensation, hope, fruit for life, wise man, seed (also: big expectations set by parents).

The thing to do when you’re learning a language you have no hope of mastering in a short time is to memorize some key words and expressions that make people smile. Words like aHEEya for donkey and WOOsha for dog. Heck they make me smile. And when the coffee is dark brown and tastes good, a zinger like: Ya doro eyne yamasalla bunna – it looks like a chicken’s eye. Because really who doesn’t appreciate the colour of a chicken’s eye?  Coffee

There are also the words I have to say almost every day on my commute across Addis Ababa: waraj alleh – there is a stop! It’s said WUH-raj AHHHL-uh, not simply ALLUH, which is such a foreigner pronunciation. The other day it was deathly quiet on the minibus and I was sitting at the back, and you have to yell this out, otherwise the bus keeps hauling along. So I had to screw up my courage and holler: waraj alleh! And the man next to me smiled and congratulated me on my fine pronunciation. My chest puffed with pride.

It’s like when you finally learn how to rip off just enough injera to wrap the stew without touching your fingers to your mouth, using only your right hand, staying within your section, and dabbling in this stew and that stew so you get the perfect blend of spices.

Ishi. It’s all good.

Say it in Swahili


In Tanzania, greetings are important. If you’re seeing someone for the first time, you don’t just jump straight to “How much is that?” or “Could I have a Fanta (before I perish)?” or “Where in God’s name is that little photocopy shop that everybody says is on this street corner?” No, no.

You must engage in a ritual. How are you this afternoon? Good. Nzuri. How are you? Good, thank you so much. Assante sana. Thank YOU very much. Peace to you. Salama. And peace to you too. Salama. Peace, peace. Thank you so much. Assante sana. Alrighty then.

I quickly realized I needed to memorize a few key phrases in Kiswahili to show Tanzanians I care enough to learn their official language, of which they’re exceedingly proud. Any attempt to speak it is rewarded with high-voltage smiles and peels of laughter.

IMG_0012‘Kiswahili’ comes from the Arabic word for boundaries or coast, and with the prefix “ki”, it means coastal language. It’s a mixture of words from Arabic and East African Bantu but also contains Persian, English, Portuguese, German and French words, absorbed through contact over five hundred years.

Learning Kiswahili is advantageous as I’m living in western Tanzania on Lake Tanganyika, reporting on a maternal and child health program for Cuso/VSO, working with local
health authorities and mingling with local residents, travelling via bajaj and shopping in the market.

But as much as I strive, I keep messing up those key phrases; the words are non-sensical because they don’t resemble other languages I’ve learned (French, German, Spanish). Whenever possible, I try to equate Kiswahili words to English: for instance Sielewi (I don’t understand) sounds kind of like “seeaylaywee or see ya later” which is what I feel like doing when we reach a linguistic impasse. But my little memory triggers don’t always work. Where I was once a sponge for languages, I seem to have become more of a brick, or at least a very soggy sponge.


However, once one thoroughly applies onself (ahem) to learning Kiswahili grammar and gets oneself a kind teacher named Elizabeth, it is pretty straight forward. You don’t have to conjugate verbs, and you always use the same word to connote tense. Na is present, li is past and ta is future. To say “I am coming”, you take the pronoun I (Ni), add the word for present tense na, then the infinitive (kuja), so it’s: Ninakuja. One word, domino style. To say “I came”, just change the tense: Nilikuja. Easy peasy.

One of the things I really like is how some Kiswahili words end with an “i” sound, like hoteli, polisi, wiki, hospitali. Tanzanians are friendly people and this just makes them sound even friendlier, upbeat. Sure I’ll go talk to the polisi. And because there is only one word for like and love (penda), after the greetings are exchanged, a young man will occasionally tack on an “I love you!” which, you know, is nice.

The next frontier is time. It means not only being quick with the numbers, but also grasping their special clock. Indeed, there is such a thing as Swahili time. The clock goes from 6 am (sunrise) to 6 pm (sunset). So our 7 am is their 1:00, 8 am is 2:00, noon is 6:00. So um, yeah.

To avoid confusion with the other clock, you say morning or afternoon or evening. Still, one time I was told our team was departing at 10 pm, which struck me as awfully late especially with the state of the roads and the rains. It turned out to be 4 pm. So I really would have missed the caravan that time.

It’s been a good ride so far and I’m going to keep catching those bajaji and chatting up my neighbours so I can get even a little beyond the greetings – before the trip is over.

Social media: Are we as informed as we think we are?


A conversation group in a Toronto restaurant pursues connections that are threatened by social media.

Many of us — at least our parents — used to fraternize with the folks living beside them, exposing themselves to a diversity of opinion. But today more of us live in silos built by the electronic devices that were designed to bring us together.

As Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker points out in The Village Effect, the rate of Americans living alone is rising: whereas one per cent of them lived ​solo​ in 1920, more than 10 per cent did in 2010.​ ​​​Canada’s 2012 census shows a similar trend​: more than 27 ​per cent of homes ​had one occupant ​versus​ 13 per cent in 1971.

But, in the upstairs of a Toronto restaurant, a few dozen strangers mingle and drink, laughing and leaning into conversations. They’re talking about everything from terrorism and education to robotics and marriage.

The room practically vibrates with their energy.

Heather Tay, one of the participants, says simply repeating the opinions of others without first giving them some serious thought is something that technology and design consultant wants to avoid.

“Most conversations are recycled,” says the 45-year-old. “I’ve always been interested in good conversations. I remember when I was young, for phone calls, I scripted out what I had to say because I always wanted to have something interesting to talk about.”

Tay has seen how her opinion can affect others. Because she’s a black woman, she says she’s used to being a minority.

She says in a conversation around the Charlie Hebdo attack, someone questioned why Catholics can be made fun of, but not Muslims. Tay said that it’s easy to make fun of the majority, but when you’re making fun of the minority, there are different implications. That elicited an “Oh, I never thought about that.”

Sebastien Rahman,  36, a real estate agent, likes to broach testy topics like terrorism, religion, and even personal fears, like his math phobia.

“I like that we can talk about something a little uncomfortable,” he says. “It’s a real conversation.”

But Rahman says it’s not always fulfilling. “Some opinions sound really informed, but some not so much — you can tell when someone only listens to the news.”

Tay’s and Rahman’s group is organized by The Powerful Group, the brainchild of author and motivational entrepreneur Stuart Knight. He started it in October last year, frustrated by what he sees as a lack of informed opinions.

Stuart Knight

Stuart Knight, head of The Powerful Group (Stuart Knight Productions)

“People go through a week and they don’t think,” he says. “We’re living in this bubble where we aren’t challenged.”

Knight sees this alienation as a business opportunity. The 250 Toronto members of the group pay an annual membership fee of $200.

He says many of us go to the same job, frequent the same stores and circulate among the same people, tethered to the internet and social media.

“More than ever, technology has given us the opportunity to share our opinions, but they’re not necessarily well-informed,” says Knight.

So, for instance, a prominent reporter tweets about NBC’s Brian Williams and you retweet, agreeing the news anchor just has a faulty memory. That tweet could then influence many of your followers. But do you really know the whole story, and how much have you really thought about the opinion you’re sharing?

After joining The Powerful Group,  you’re emailed a list of questions the day before the meeting. Then, at the gathering, you discuss your answers with random people, moving along to someone new every 15 minutes.

Questions include: Are we winning the war on terror? How would discovering life on other planets affect the way humans see themselves? Which subject would you make mandatory for students? How has your ego got in the way of your ultimate happiness?

The group that began with 50 people now has 250 members, relocating to a more central venue, meeting a few times a month. It’s culturally diverse, there are men and women, and they range in age from 30 to  60.

A sad commentary

It is perhaps a sad commentary on urban society that such a group exists. There are no doubt many people with wide and varied social networks, but a whole lot of us feel disconnected from our neighbours.

Bombarded with information from multiple sources on multiple devices, can we be forgiven for having soundbite-sized opinions?

“A lot of it comes down to the fact that thinking deeply about a subject, particularly at the conceptual level, means stepping back from the flow of information that comes to us,” says Nicholas Carr, author of the new book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us and the Pulitzer finalist The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Carr says information comes into the brain through a narrow aperture called working memory, which can fit only two to four pieces of new information at a time.

“One of the keys to thinking deeply is moving from working memory to long-term memory,” he says. “It’s that process – consolidation of memory – when associations happen. It’s the connections that really matter when it comes to formulating your own understanding.”

The problem is that we’re so busy gathering information from different media and stuffing it into our working memory, we’re short-circuiting that process.

Another problem is that learning is kind of addictive: research shows that seeking out and finding new information releases dopamine, which encourages you to repeat the activity.

Carr says that we’re giving precedence to the gathering over the processing of information: “I fear that as a society we’re saying that’s not important anymore.”

Stuart Knight says that thinking about bigger questions and sharing opinions is important.

He dreams of expanding The Powerful Group to other cities so that people will ultimately be able to join these conversations from any major urban centre.

“If 1,000 people met once a month and had six conversations – that’s 6,000 conversations. What would that do for a city?”

The Power of PANKS


Professional aunts, no kids (PANKs) have economic power. They’re the millions of women who are close with kids of relatives or friends, but are childless themselves. PANKs are reported to spend as much as $9 billion per year on the kids in the United States and Canada, paying for everything from clothing to education and trips. But some of them say they aren’t always appreciated for their worth.

Have a listen:


Sojourning in Style

I recently went to New York to look into the Airbnb situation. Thousands of people use the website to rent out apartments or houses for short stays, and it’s especially popular in New York. But there’s a bit of a battle going on there pitting renters against tenants and landlords…and I waded into it. I started out in trendy Williamsburg (pictured here). Have a listen to the radio story I did for CBC Radio’s The World This Weekend:

As you say it


Sometimes I watch TV programs in a language I don’t understand, just to hear the sound of it. Could be about a story about pandas, a political debate, a ballroom dancing contest. It’s weird, I know. But there’s something about the undulating sh-jo of Chinese, the staccato of Italian, the briskness of Hindi and the lyricism of those Spanish soap operas.

Music notes

It struck me again the other night when I was at a concert featuring baritone Luca Pisaroni. He was singing in Italian. I couldn’t understand a single word, but it didn’t bother me. It was operatic and isn’t it normal to not understand? It sounded splendid. Then intermission came and my friend and I realized the lyrics were in the booklet that had been foisted into our hands which we’d promptly shoved under our seats until intermission when we felt we should actually learn something about the show we were attending. So eyes scrunched up in the very dim light, I skimmed the lyrics in English to get the gist, then tried to follow in Italian. Lines like this:

Her troubles I fear
More than my own troubles
Because I live more in her
Than I live in myself

Lovely stuff. But it was exhausting to follow every word – and to what end? When it came down to it, I didn’t need to know the subject; you could tell what he was singing about by his smile or his furrow, his gestures. Natch. He is Italian, after all.

Music is language. And language is music. So maybe the next time you feel like listening to something fiery, forget iTunes and tune into an Italian talk show.