Friday 12 June 2015

SMARTS Update: Boundary Crossing and the Wisdom of Solomon

In any human society, boundaries matter more than just about anything else, even the truth. This applies no matter who you are, or what you do. 


Here is a proof. This terrific little underwater video of an octopus was all over the web this week. The tiny octopus hauls around a split coconut shell, then climbs into it, using it as a house, for protection.  Tool use by an octopus! you will declare  as the footage rolls. But in the copy underneath, a scientist declares that this should not be called tool use at all. Why not?

"We have to draw the line somewhere," he says.

Why? Because line drawing  is what we do. Yet the octopus is in fact using a tool. If you want to know more about the remarkable intelligence of these invertebrates, visit the smart octopus website (  There you will see a short essay on the findings of some terrific specialists, among them Jennifer Mather, a professor of psychology at the University of Lethbridge whose work is  featured in SMARTS.  Not only do octopuses use tools, they can always find their way home through what appears to us to be featureless space. They remember their path though they change locations frequently to avoid predators. They also remember people who are nice to them, and people who mess with them. The real question about the octopus is not whether or not they use tools, but how they teach themselves survival skills so quickly. They live alone from the time they hatch and must make their way in a dangerous world, where every smart bony fish considers them to be supper, without any parents to show the way. They learn incredibly fast yet they have no teachers. How does that work?

The scientists among us used to insist that we are the only creatures on this planet smart enough to make and use tools. When some (Jane  Goodall) observed that chimpanzees do this too, they were forced to redraw the boundary line dividing intelligent humans from mindless animals. They put chimpanzees inside the smart circle with us.  Over the last half century, they have had to redraw that boundary over and over again. Now the smart circle includes orangutans, dolphins, microbial cells, slime molds, pretty much everything alive. Soon it will also include all kinds of smart machines, because if machines can learn and adapt like intelligent living things, why not? Yet with all this change, one thing has not: in a world in which everything depends on everything else, humans continue to draw boundaries. We divide so as to conquer.

As my new book SMARTS: the Boundary-Busting story of Intelligence makes clear, we, like other primates, are obsessed with territories, hierarchies, celebrity, and the use of power. We use a big chunk of our intelligence to become winners in the power game or to get very close to winners. Winners are the only ones among us who are allowed to overstep boundaries. Everybody wants to be a winner’s friend and cross that boundary too-- that is, until the winner is exposed as a cheater. Our desire to snuggle-up-to-power can be seen in everything we do, but especially in fields where access to power makes all the difference, disciplines like politics, science, and journalism. This week, television journalist Evan Solomon of the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) learned what happens when you think you have sufficient power to ignore the boundaries, but forget about the exposure problem.

Solomon began his journalism career right after university with magazines, first a literary one, then another he founded called Shift. It was supposed to be about the products of the onrushing digital age, yet it was a paper magazine only, best known for terrific design by the amazing Carmen Dunjko (who also art-directed SMARTS). Eventually Shift went to magazine Valhalla while Solomon moved on to the CBC. There he climbed the ladder ending up as the host of CBC radio's long time Saturday morning political show, The House, and Power & Politics, a daily CBC Newsworld public affairs offering.  Unlike CBC radio's As It Happens, or TheCurrent, or Canada's major newspapers, neither show has trouble getting members of the notoriously controlled Harper cabinet to appear. Both shows are about snuggling up to power. They permit Canadian office-holders to put their policies before the public without having to endure tough probing. It’s journalism that is just one step beyond reprinting the press release. Once, Solomon actually interviewed the Prime Minister's press secretary in place of the Prime Minister.

Most journalists know that we should place impermeable barriers between our personal business, our friendships, and our work, or face losing the trust of the audience.  In other words, journalism demands that we put our primate desires on the shelf. That’s why journalists tend to be friends with other journalists—there are fewer boundary issues to contend with. Or at least that’s the way things tend to be now.  Previous generations of Ottawa journalists were often very good friends with the powerful people they covered, going with them on canoeing trips, fishing trips, drinking together and then covering up for the winners in print or on camera with phrases like…“ The Minister appeared to be tired and emotional....”  (Code for my friend, the Minister, was drunk as a skunk.)

In the US, many journalists are behind-the-scenes friends with the powerful people they cover. That has been true for several generations. Ladybird Johnson invited one young journalist and his family to the ranch to swim, and that family-to-family relationship continued long after Johnson became the President and the journalist became a famous TV face: it was useful for both.  Great journalists such as Ben Bradlee covered up what they knew of Jack Kennedy’s outrageous and dangerous sexual behavior.  In Britain, many journalists are friendly to power to the point of obsequiousness. For decades in Brazil, the whole purpose of journalism was turned upside down by one of its main practitioners, the founder of the largest newspaper conglomerate in the country. That man climbed from nowhere to a position of great wealth and power by digging out scandals that should have made his front pages. Instead, he offered to keep the news out of his papers in return for a fat fee. Most people paid up. The same man became a major donor of great paintings that he bought through agents (from Nazis?) in Europe right after World War II . His collection now ennobles the walls of the Sao Paulo Museum of Art.

Solomon’s behavior is a mere foible when compared to that standard.

According to Kevin Donovan , investigative reporter for the Toronto Star, in 2013 Solomon set up a contractual relationship with an avid art collector who wanted to get rid of some of his pieces but apparently did not want to use the usual methods-- such as selling them to dealers or at public auction. (The Star has apparently not pursued why that might have been the case, but it definitely should.) Solomon's role was to use his position to set up meetings between the collector and the powerful, such as Jim Balsillie, the co-founder of RIM (now Blackberry) and Solomon’s friend Mark Carney, formerly the  Governor of the Bank of Canada, now Governor of the Bank of England, who might like to buy. The art collector was looking to unload pieces ranging from a Doig (worth millions ) to a Dorland (worth much less) to ceremonial masks (which, if genuine, are spiritual objects that are priceless and should be returned immediately to the Native American tribes they were taken from). For every sale, Solomon was to get a 10% commission. He did not reveal to Balsillie that he was being paid for making an introduction to his partner. The secret commission business is known as shilling. Sales were made to Balsillie and Carney. 

In February, the two partners fell out over a sale that in Solomon's view should have netted him more than $1 million while his partner was only willing to pay $200,000 as a finder's fee. They lawyered up.They settled the dispute. The terms are confidential.

About a month ago, the Toronto Star got wind of these dealings, and somehow got access to a draft contract and emails between the partners. Kevin Donovan would not say who his source, or sources, were but from the story he wrote it can be concluded that they were very close to the deal. When he confronted Solomon, he was met with denials. The CBC at first declared everything was in order because Solomon had informed the CBC about his art business in April, 2015. The CBC had said it was fine as long as it didn't cross the line into his work. But the emails made clear that this business certainly did cross that line—his position as an on camera/ on air journalist seemed to be the raison d'etre for the business relationship. When Donovon pressed harder with CBC officials, the result was a public firing just before the story went to press.

How could a smart journalist get himself into a fix like this? Surely he knew that he shouldn't be in a business that hinged on his access to powerful persons he had interviewed or tried to interview? Why didn't he become concerned when Global's news anchor was ejected from his job after the Star revealed that he had set up a PR business and had interviewed his own clients on his show? Wasn't he rattled by the fuss made when it was revealed that the CBC`s senior business correspondent, Amanda Lang, was in a personal relationship with a banker whose employer she covered and who had paid her to speak?  And when he threatened to sue, didn't Solomon realize that a lawsuit could leave a paper trail for all to see?

Apparently none of the above troubled him. He was a winner: boundaries didn’t matter.

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