28 August, 2005

As promised...

How to reform education

First of all, what I hope will be (but probably won't be) a succint statement of the problems with the educational system as it stands, teetering, today.

1) There has been a redefinition of 'education' since about 1990 that leaves little room for anything not strictly academic. I'm speaking here of music programs, visual arts programs, drama programs, even (in some schools) sports, all of which have been deemed expendable.
2) While some students, naturally, excel academically, others (also quite naturally) struggle. There is no longer any difference between the two: the struggling student advances through the system (and may graduate) every bit as easily.
3) In many respects, school fails to grab the imagination of its students. They are given no reason to learn material other than its purported intrinsic value, which is not readily apparent.
4) There is not enough value placed on the student and his/her opinions. School, in many cases, is where the teacher dictates the lesson to be learned and the conclusions to be drawn; the student sits quietly and digests it all, to be spewed back later on exams.
5) Far too high an emphasis on knowledge; very little on 'wisdom'.

There are other issues, but correcting these would probably correct those, as well.

1) "What's wrong with that? I didn't send my kid to school so she could tootle her flute or fingerpaint!"

Your child is a being with three parts: a body, a mind, and a soul (or spirit, if you like that word better). What price teaching only the mind? Surely one of the objectives of the educational system is (or should be) a well-rounded individual, wise in mind, body, and spirit?
Arts programs nourish the spirit. They develop creative thinking, encourage innermost expression, and promote self-confidence. They are also a place for the less-academically-gifted student to shine.
Speaking specifically of music programs, which I have some experience with and which always seem to be the first things on the chopping block:

An extracurricular school band--which, to be successful, requires its members to have spent some time learning their instruments in a class setting--is every bit as much a team as the school football squad. From playing together as a group, students learn essential life skills like co-operation, teamwork, fair play, and responsibility--all of which will serve them long after they've forgotten about the square of the hypotenuse. Through the language of music (or of athleticism), pupils connect with each other, join together, and overcome individuality even while expressing themselves individually. This is a powerful and positive experience.
Finally, music, art, and physical education programs may all be related to many academic fields. From analyzing trends in historical music and visual art, one may learn a great deal about a given period. Also, much great art has mathematical underpinings.
Physical education grants an understanding of the body, of its needs and requirements and how best to meet them, with, hopefully, a healthy lifespan as its end result.

2) "But if Johnny stays back a year, his self-esteem will suffer and...well, it's humiliating!"

For whom? Johnny...or his parents?

Johnny is (or should be) required to master the curriculum for each grade level before advancing. His failure to do so has (or should have) consequences, namely, that he be held back. Humiliation is a state of mind. Failure, in and of itself, is not humiliating unless Johnny chooses for it to be. And Johnny's self-esteem need not suffer one bit: in fact, success after failure is probably much more of an ego-boost than success alone.
In a truly sane educational system, it is true, there would be no grades and no grade levels. Students would progress to mastery and 'graduate' when it is achieved, be that at ten years of age or at thirty. But we are a LONG way and many paradigm shifts away from such as that. For now, grades and grade levels serve as an easy reference point for students, teachers, and parents.

3) Back in grade ten geography, we were split into teams of two or three and presented with a huge map. We were asked to devise a proposal for the laying of a power transmission line from point A at the northwest corner of the map, to point B near the southeast. A scale of costs was laid out: it would cost X dollars to build on flat ground, 2x over hilly ground, 3x through marsh, 4x underground, and so on. The map was such that there was no easy way to get from A to B. We were also given environmental impact information and instructed to bear it in mind. After spending a couple of periods forming our proposal, we then presented it and our justification for it. The students sat down and judged each proposed route, with the teacher playing devil's advocate.
What did I learn from that experience? Not much in the way of concrete fact, I'll admit. But the exercise engaged my imagination in a way that few scholastic things had or would. It was truly my first exposure to critical thinking, to juggling a myriad of factors to arrive at what you hoped was the optimum (not the correct) set.
This is the way the world works, outside of pure mathematics. There are no right or wrong answers. There is only what's beneficial and what is not--and the difference between the two may not be immediately discernable. That's an important lesson to learn.
As I recall, our proposal was not approved. It was rejected in favour of one that was slightly more expensive but which had less of an environmental downside. But we were told, afterwards, that everyone's effort had merit and that on a different day, another proposal might well have been chosen. With our ever-important self-esteem thus assuaged, we each felt proud of our work.
4) In my view, the object of education is not to blindly perpetuate the belief systems of one's elders. My opinion is that those belief systems--"survival of the fittest", "might makes right", "God is on our side", and so on--have contributed greatly to the mess our world is in today.
But that is, of course, just my opinion. What's yours? What is your child's? School doesn't even tend to touch on things like this--when the entire curriculum ought to be grounded in them. By all means, get the facts, and learn to separate fact from fiction. But go further. Use the facts to form opinions. Allow for divergent views. Present all sides of the story, not just one. Students must examine their own beliefs. They must learn to accept that others may have different beliefs, and that this does not make them "wrong".
In the grand scheme of things, who cares what the teacher thinks? What's much more important is what the students think.
5) What is wisdom? Each philosophy and spiritual tradition has formed an answer. Oddly enough, when you boil them down, many of them look pretty similar. One piece of wisdom that trancends many wildly different creeds is known as the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". This credo is almost universal: it has variants in Islam, Hinduism, Wicca, Shintoism, Native American belief, and so on and so on. Yet aside from perhaps mentioning it, our educational system doesn't explore it at all. What would be the effect on history if the Golden Rule was used at various critical points? How could one use the Golden Rule to solve some of the world's problems? What leads a person to violate such a widely held precept? Are there any exceptions to it?

This is the sort of educational system that would change the world in a positive and profound way. I believe it's the school of the future. And I do hope the future comes soon.

23 August, 2005

Going through the alphabet...

Assorted items are cluttering up my mental desk of late. I think it's time to purge. To wit:

CBC

My feelings about the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation are decidedly mixed. They can be summed up in four words: radio good, TV bad.
CBC Radio is great. I may take issue with their constant search for minorities to profile--it's the Toronto Star in audio form!--but the documentaries, the music, the news, the music, the variety, and, oh, yes, the music, make listening to the radio a civilizing, edifying experience. My favourite programs include Richardson's Roundup, Definitely Not The Opera, and the Vinyl Cafe. What these share (and what separates CBC from most anything else on the dial) is near-total unpredictability, something I find exhilarating.
CBC Radio is also unifying. They do a national call-in called Cross-Country Checkup. Its host, Rex Murphy, seems truly interested in what listeners have to say. (When our local talk-jock on CKGL wants your opinion, he'll give it to you). Through programs like this, I have heard Canadians from all corners of the country and all walks of life sound off on things that concern them. Through newscasts, I have learned of things that might be concerning my fellow Canadians tomorrow.
The ever-present anti-American bias sometimes pisses me off. But then, that bias usually reflects the considered opinion of a majority of Canadians (including, sometimes, myself!)

CBC television is a different kettle of fish entirely.
For one thing, nobody watches it. (My apologies to Corner Gas fans...just what do you find so funny about that show, anyway?) The only other hit CBC has on its hands is Hockey Night In Canada...something I'd just as soon watch on TSN. From there, it all goes downhill in a hurry. Even the venerable old National gets its anchor handed to it every night by CTV.
For another, CBC-Television can't seem to make up its mind: is it a public broadcaster or a private one? If the former, why all the commercials? If the latter, why the huge waste of tax dollars?
The head of CBC routinely tells us it's "not about the ratings", as most of their fomer ratings 'powerhouses' (a powerhouse in Canada means more than ten people watch the show...while they're awake) grow more and more stale. The Royal Canadian Air Farce, for example, used to be edgy and laugh-out-loud funny. For years now, it's been hit and miss, mostly miss. And given a choice between CSI: Timbuktu and Da Vinci's Inquest, sixty-three out of sixty-four Canadians will tune in Da Vinci just long enough to discover Dan Brown didn't write it.
In the ever-evolving 500-channel universe, CBC-Television is a brown dwarf. Sad to say, since the younger generation increasingly has no time for radio, CBC-Radio may just follow it into a black hole.

G.G.

Let me first say that I have never met Michaelle Jean, our newest Governor General, and therefore have no idea what sort of person she is. I have nothing against the woman personally; having an ardent Quebec separatist for a husband shouldn't really detract from whatever it is Jean brings to whatever it is Governors-General do.
Count me amongst the Canadian Republicans--those who believe it's long past time to throw off the British yoke. Does it not seem odd that our head of state lives and works an ocean away? In this increasingly multicultural country (and we've all been trained by the CBC to accept this as a Good Thing), how does it serve us to bow down, even hypothetically, to Britain?
Adrienne Clarkson showed us just what it was Governors-General are good for: flinging around prodigious amounts of tax dollars. If you're going to waste a few million dollars, why not at least throw it into the maw of the health care monster? Then at least people will believe it will accomplish something.
All that said, if we absolutely have to have a Governor General, if the country will fall apart without one, couldn't it at least be someone who is a citizen of Canada, only? It seems strange to have a dual citizen of France representing the British Crown. Vaguely treasonous.


RRR

The fabled three Rs, only one of which begins with R, an example of irony worthy of Alanis, no?
Gerard Kennedy, our provincial education minister and an N-dipper in Grit clothing, believes that high school students have it rough. Due to a 45% increase in dropout rates that accompanied the Mike Harris-era curriculum, Kennedy wants to dumb down our high schools.
Memo to Mr. Food Bank: Ontario is still producing high school graduates who are functionally illiterate; who have no idea how to parse a sentence or even what "parse a sentence" means; who can't do simple arithmetic without the use of a machine. Robert Heinlein, in his excellent collection Expanded Universe, does a fine job of arguing that a public school graduate, ca. 1900, was better-educated than many of today's high school grads. Thanks to the insane policy that keeps students plowing through the system in spite of failing grades (the better to spare their self-esteem), it's possible to graduate high school with a grade nine or ten education, such as that may be.
The absolute last thing we need is an easier curriculum. If anything, it should be harder still. Every effort should be made to keep students ahead of the curve, of course, but it should also be recognized that some will fall behind, that some people's talents are not academic in nature.

That'll be my next blog: how to reform the educational system. Wait for it.

19 August, 2005

The Great $1.00 Sale

That should be "g-r-a-t-e", as in what our teeth do every time we hear there's one of these suckers coming.

Look, people. They're chickens. That's all they are. And just because we have whole chickens on for $1 a pound doesn't give you the right to (a) snatch them out of other customers' hands; (b) run your cart into displays or customers out of sheer frustration that they got a chicken and you didn't; (c) engage in fisticuffs to the point where the police must be summoned.

I LOATHE these sales, the ones they put on every six to eight weeks or so, the ones that have some variant of "$1.00" in their titles. (The ones that have titles!) They draw new people into our store--which you'd think would be a good thing--but these new people are usually what we call 'cherry-pickers': customers who buy nothing but flyer items and thus cost, rather than make, the store money.
Even the cherry-pickers would be tolerable if they weren't so effing RUDE.

This was billed as the sale to end all sales. In fact, we extended our hours of operation for this one: we opened at 7 a.m. last Saturday. Head office, in its infinite wisdom, put this information on the back of the flyer, where very few people would find it (not that putting it on the front page would have done much better...in this postliterate world, we get at least one person a week walking right through the sign that says EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY ALARM WILL SOUND). Nobody reads anymore. They read numbers, to be sure: I keep a pocket full of pennies to dispense to the customers who are so very quick to notice when they're being overcharged by two cents. But words? Strung together in sentences like

"WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO LIMIT PURCHASE QUANTITIES TO REASONABLE FAMILY REQUIREMENTS"

--naw. Too many syllables. Wanna look at pictures instead.

Okay, so here's one: a picture of a cart loaded down with Fruitopia chilled 1.89-litre juice cartons--at least 40 of them. Circle the cart. Now put a BIG RED LINE through it.

Look, I don't care what size "family" (store) you're buying this for. They don't MAKE refrigerators that big for domestic use, okay? I've got a fridge over there that'll hold what you think you're going to be allowed to buy. It's a walk-in. We're not that stupid here. And this is not a warehouse. Bitch all you want, it won't change anything.

I don't get people. I know, I've said this before. But really. Our frozen Fruitopia retails for 97 cents...every day. Yet people routinely go apeshit when the chilled stuff is on for $1.00. Convenience, they say, looking at me as if I'm a moron. Oh really. But you have to freeze the chilled cartons if you're going to buy them in bulk like that. How convenient is that, hmm?

Over in dry grocery, one of the specials is Scooby-Doo "cereal" for $1.00. The regular price on this "cereal" is $4.17. Now, head office didn't do us any favours here--for some reason, the damn stuff was out of stock on the second delivery of the ad, meaning we got none beyond our initial set-up until after the weekend's business was over. The chain newsletter resounded with cries of "Scooby-Doo, where are you?" Beyond the first couple of hours on Saturday, we had to constantly remind customers that if we had a choice, we'd have all the breakfast candy in the world for them to feed to their already hyperactive children. (Well, we cleaned that up a bit, but the sentiment holds.) Unfortunately for all concerned, the choice is not ours.

People don't understand this. They think that everything is always within our control, when in the real world, very little is. The retail model has shifted over the past decade or so to "just in time" inventory control. In the name of efficiency, you're supposed to order just enough stock to make it to your next delivery. Everything is built with this in mind: the backroom is just so big, the damned dairy cooler is just so SMALL! If you build in too much of a buffer, you're going to have to deal with the logistics of where to put it all--or you might not get all you ordered, on the basis that head office knows better than you what you're going to sell. If other stores increase their orders beyond what the warehouse has in stock, then the warehouse has to procure more product and find a cost-efficient way to get it to that store--something easier bitched about than done.
By and large, this system works...if everything falls together just right, and if we all know what we're doing. I pride myself on knowing what I'm doing, but I'm human and fallible and I'm really sorry we're out of Eggo waffles for $1.00. More will be in at 2:07 today--at least that's what we're told--but anything can hold that up. Weather. Traffic. Waiting for deliveries at other stores. Improper loading by unionized warehouse workers who don't care whether your product arrives in one piece or not...so it arrives all over the trailer and has to be picked up and repiled. Stuff like that.

We've been circling around the meat department here, stealing glances at the mayhem. Now we'll just wade on in, okay? Don your jock...you're gonna need it.

The chain reserved a whack of chickens for this sale several months ago. The sale was known about only at the highest levels until August 12th or so. The secrecy was so pervasive, you'd think our lead item was the final installment of Harry Potter at $1.00 a pound, but no--it was whole chickens. To better ensure the competition didn't get hold of this and pre-empt us somehow, head office did all the pre-books...and they woefully underestimated how crazy Ontarians are for their chickens.
I'll give you some stats that don't breach confidentiality: one, our store alone has sold 12% of what was budgeted for an 80-plus store chain; two, we've sold not much more than 12% of what we could have sold if we'd had an unlimited supply. To have the kind of unlimited supply we'd need, however, we would have to back a tractor-trailer loaded with chickens up to our receiving door and run it day and night to keep the chickens cold. Of course, receiving anything else (milk, bread, eggs, etc) would be out of the question for a week.
To put it another way, we sold 400 chickens in less than 20 minutes. A middle-aged cunt (sorry, ladies, "cunt" is really le mot juste in this case) grabbed a bag of chicken from an elderly lady's hands--right out of her hands!--whereupon the elderly lady turned and spat "I hope you choke on it!" A deadly serious game of bumper carts ensued whenever a load of chickens arrived. Seriously, your jaws just drop watching this. And the store across town had to call the police when an all-out brawl broke out in their meat department. Over chickens. You're not sure whether you should laugh or cry. Or scream.
Or maybe just sigh in relief as Friday passes and the ad is over. Now we've got...oh-oh, Pizza Premiers at $2.97.

Here we go again.

17 August, 2005

On guns

Those who know me know how strongly I feel about guns. If there were a National Stifle The Rifle Agency, I'd be its Charlton Heston. I've been forced to re-examine those beliefs in the bloody wake of all the gun homicides in Toronto this year.
Nearly every weekend the gunfire erupts, sometimes only injuring people, but often--31 times this year often--killing them. One death gets a mention in the papers; 31 seems to have had some actual effect on Toronto politicians and police officers.
The chief, Bill Blair, has taken steps: formerly deskbound senior officers will now be out walking a beat. Not sure what exactly that will accomplish: in the gang-banger mentality, they're just (pardon the crudity) more pigs to the slaughter...not to mention that five or ten years driving a desk can't be good for one's street sense.
Blair's 'community policing' initiatives involve such things as police-teenager basketball games in what used to be called 'slums' and 'ghettos' but are now referred to as 'disadvantaged areas'. These are supposed to convince the yowwens that the police are their friends before the gangbangers can lure them in with the MTV lifestyle (live hard, die harder). My sense is the gangstas have a real edge here: they've got popular culture to back them up. The entertainment industry seems to have made a concerted effort over the past twenty years or so to convince people that murder is cool. I can't figure out why, but, what the hell, it's worked.
Perhaps the community policing approach is effective. It certainly seems Canadian, doesn't it?
Inclusive, tolerant, urban peacekeeping. There's no hard data, though. There can't be. How are you supposed to track all the people that might have murdered others, but didn't? The might-haves just don't show up in the records.
I'll tell you what approach does work: 'broken-window' policing. Before 9/11, Rudolph Giuliani was most known for his direction in this area. The basic premise is: if you arrest people for petty offenses (pissing in the street, breaking windows, and so on), you won't see as many bigger offenses (drug dealing, murder). The crackdown on the little stuff has reduced New York City's crime rate dramatically, to the point where I'd feel safer in Times Square on a Friday night than I would at Yonge and Dundas. And I never thought I'd say that.
One problem, though, and it's a doozie. As long as we have appointed, rather than elected, judges in this country, no amount of policing will accomplish a damned thing. I can't prove this, but I strongly believe prospective judges are partially lobotomized. How else to explain the insane sentence fragments? Jared shoots Raul in the head. Raul dies. Because Jared comes from a 'disadvantaged area', he gets a year in jail followed by two years of probation. If Jared also killed Rafar, by all means, slap an extra six months on his term. That'll learn him!
What kind of world are we living in, people? Let's take back our courts! Let's take back our streets!
The politicians have some ideas to that end. Mayor Miller believes that we need to lock up everybody's gun in some central repository, as if criminals had a hard time getting guns in their hands as it is now.
The gun control freak in me loves the idea. Yep: lock 'em all up. Better yet, destroy 'em. Once that's done, you'll stop hearing those news reports about all the break-ins. You know, the ones where people break into homes at random until they find guns, which they then use to go on a shooting ramp...
What was that? You haven't heard any stories like that?
Well, that's because there haven't been any, but let's not let Mayor Miller in on that, okay? The sky is so nice and pink in his world.
Shhh...the guns plaguing Toronto streets are almost all unregistered and most of them have never been in law-abiding hands. Miller's right on one thing, though: many of them come from the States. Several years ago, I read that the going rate was one pound of marijuana for one sub-machine gun.
We have to make a real dent in this river of lead before the violence can abate. I'm not sure how, exactly, to do this. But I would suggest that Ottawa divert a large part of its anti-terrorism budget (or better yet, increase it) to fight this...well, terrorism. Does it really matter if the terrorists use bullets instead of bombs?


14 August, 2005

Where were you when the lights went out?

I remember where I was.
I had just left work. A good thing for me, too: whenever the power goes out in a grocery store for more than a minute, everyone on hand scurries into action. The tills have just enough backup power to process whatever customer is in line: after that, we shut down, and everyone on hand scurries for huge sheets of plastic wrap to insulate the bunkers, the frozen deck, the dairy wall, the deli wall, and the produce wet cases. It's a lot of work, and I had unwittingly missed it by a matter of minutes.
I'd missed my bus, too, it turned out. No problem: I had to pick up some ears of corn, among other things, from Zehrs down the road on my way home. Groceries in hand, I was to take a cab home from there.
If decent ears of corn were to be had in my own store, I would have been in line at the express till when the dark hit. But our warehouse had (and has) an awful habit of sending us swill to sell, and our corn at that time was markedly substandard. So: Zehrs.
As I approached the plaza, I noted with a mixture of chagrin and great glee that their power was out: a crowd of had-been and would-be customers was milling around the entrance doors, which were propped open. The chagrin was obvious: I now had little choice but to go home emptyhanded, since I didn't have enough cab fare for a detour or a stopover. The glee--well, less than two weeks prior, Glenridge Plaza had lost power for the better part of a day because somebody had dug where they shouldn't have. That had been a Saturday, the busiest grocery shopping day of the week, and we had reaped a good deal of Zehrs Glenridge's business. Now it appeared to have happened again. Ha.
Undeterred, I made for the direct phone in the lobby. It took something like fourteen rings for Waterloo Taxi to pick up. Having worked at 7-Eleven in Waterloo and called them on numerous occasions, this didn't strike me as at all unusual. But what the dispatcher had to say when she finally came on the line certainly did.
"I'd like to send a cab out for you, sir, but I can't...our radio systems work on electricity and our power's out."
Hmm. Waterloo Taxi's call centre was downtown, several klicks from here. Well--with no groceries to lug, Plan B as in "bus" was still feasible.
The bus, by my sense of time, was several minutes late...and packed. I picked up snatches of conversation right and left.
"...mom says her power's out in Cambridge, too..."
"Ellie? Hon? I'm on my way home but this damn bus is running late..."
"blackout..."
At every stop, people and rumours crowded on, until the air was thick with the overlaid reeks of summertime armpit and rampant speculation. Somebody had called their dad in Detroit: his power was out. Somebody else said her cousin in New York was in the dark too. It took less then four stops before the word "terrorists" had been uttered. In the wake of 9/11, anything bad was obviously the work of terrorists, right?
I have to admit to a sense of trepidation at the thought that al-Qaeda had somehow masterminded this. It was a brilliant opening salvo: deprive people of the one thing they can't survive without, then...
What?
What next?
It took me almost two hours to make the half-hour trip home...I could have made it faster on foot, but I'd already walked a fair piece and it was, as usual, hotter than the hinges of hell outside. I couldn't give up my seat, even if the guy next to me smelled like candied skunk and every word out of every mouth was unnerving me further.
After greeting Eva and explaining my tardiness and lack of groceries, I made a mad dash for our car out in the parking lot...more specifically, for the radio in it. As always when confronted with the unknown, I turned to 680 News in Toronto. Within ten minutes, I was up to speed. No terrorist attack, thank God. No idea when the power would come on again, either.

The rest of that evening passed in a sweltering misery. No way to cook; no Web to surf; no synthesizer to play...not even any light to read by, after a time. Most unpleasantly, no fans. The one thing we had in abundance was sweat. I entertained thoughts of frying up a few eggs on my wife's back. The hard realities come back when the lights go out: we were hooked right through the bag to our electricity habit, just like everyone else. True, Eva could survive indefinitely without power--Eva can survive just about anything short of a direct hit with an H-bomb. Her breadth and depth of knowledge about anything survival-oriented is legendary. But much of the enjoyment would leach out of life right quick if this went on.

Unbeknownst to us, there were places not all that far away that had power. Much of the Niagara region was only out for two hours; Listowel, half an hour northwest of us, got their power back at 9 p.m. Our lights came on at 4:00, waking us out of a thin sleep populated by sweaty demons.

Work the next day was not fun. $35,000 worth of product was tossed. Thanks to well-insulated fridges and freezers, we were lucky that's all we lost. It wasn't covered by insurance, of course. After nearly a year, it was decided that since the blackout was caused outside Ontario, they didn't have to pay up. Big shock there.

We've since come whiskers away from another blackout on more than one occasion. It will happen again: what with our aging transmission grid and our ever-increasing energy gluttony, it has to. Within the next year, we plan on picking up that solar-rechargeable generator Canadian Tire sells. It's the kind of thing that might sit for two or three years, unused and almost forgotten, and then become suddenly indispensable.


13 August, 2005

We do not inherit the Earth from our parents: we borrow it from our children.
--Saint Exupery

Nukes.
They scare me.
Well, they scare anyone sensible...or at least they should.
The skyrocketing price of oil has not affected us overmuch as of yet. Our Toyota Echo, at today's prices, costs less than $35.00 to fill from fumes. I saw this coming, you see.
Oh, but it will affect us. It will affect us all. If I'm right, you're going to see grocery prices next year that will turn your hair white. Because nearly everything is shipped by truck...and trucks use gas.
Why is oil going up so fast?
Oh, a whole variety of reasons--it seems they can manufacture reasons to line their pockets faster than they can manufacture oil itself. But this time, at least one of the excuses is a full-fledged reason...and a frightening one.
Iran has decided to restart their nuclear program. If anyone objects too loudly to that fait accompli, well, they'll just shut off their oil.

Our oil addiction: it scares me. Almost as much as nukes do. Combine the two in any way and you have a recipe for a nightmare.

Now, I'd love to call Iran's bluff: advise them to cease and desist, and warn them of the following consequences if they don't: they would receive forty-eight hours notice to evacuate their nuclear facilities and surrender any fissionable material, after which point a bomb would be dropped.
Unfortunately, we're still in the oil hammerlock and we need every spare drop the world, including Iran, can supply. In fact, we may need more than that: we may have reached what's called Hubbert's Peak.
Dr. M. King Hubbert (1903-1989) predicted, along about 1956, that American oil production would peak in the early 1970s. People laughed at him until his prediction came true.
He also predicted that world oil production would peak in 1995. He was off by at least a decade, due to technological advances that allowed extraction of oil it had once been impossible to see, let alone reach. Barring a deus clambering out of some unforeseen machina, though, Hubbert's Peak is surely drawing very near. And once we reach it, all bets--except that of rapid and explosive world change--are off.
I'd like to think--and I'm nearly cynical enough to believe--that the oil companies have our salvation buried in some vault someplace and are simply milking every last penny they can out of 'black gold'. I would not-so-respectfully suggest that if there's a cat in the bag, now would be about the time to let it out. It will take time to perfect whatever's going to replace oil.
In the meantime, George W. Bush has said that 'nothing is off the table' as far as dealing with Iran's intransigence. Please, God, let this be resolved peacefully and quickly, because if, heaven forbid, America attempts to engage Iran while still embroiled in Iraq, it will very quickly find itself fighting a Hydra. If they thought terrorists rallied to Iraq, they ain't seen nothin' yet.

In the 1950s, it was widely believed that World War III, involving at the very least a limited nuclear exchange, was five or at most ten years off. It was a given: people developed a fatalistic attitude about it. The 1960s brought an evolution in mass culture which people look back on now with amusement...but which probably played a large part in postponing Armageddon.
Mission accomplished, we grooved through the '70s and indulged ourselves in the '80s. The '90s saw a return to nihilism, most notably expressed through popular music. We've now come full circle.
The younger generation courts death in a myriad of ways with full foreknowledge and a wink in its eye. The nuclear boogeyman has shambled back into his closet, occasionally pushing the door open a crack but mostly staying hidden. He's been replaced by a whole slew of boogeymen, most of them products of our own ruinous behaviour.

It would benefit us all to recognize these boogeymen, and take responsibility for them.

If we continue along this path we are making for ourselves, we shall soon find its end...and I don't think we'll like the view from the top of that particular cliff.

10 August, 2005

Is it really only Wednesday?!

Stop the world, I wanna get off!

Last Friday--only six days ago!--we got the call. Our air conditioner was FINALLY in.

Yes, I know, not all that long ago I wrote that the mere act of using an air conditioner smacked of selfishness. And it does. However, this summer has smacked us in the face...forty-seven times now. That's the number of nights the outside temperature has failed to drop below 20 degrees. And we've had about enough.
We have been waiting six weeks for this portable air conditioner. The demand is so high that they had to make more of them. In fact, we've visited Wal-Mart and Canadian Tire and even stooped so low as to go into a Zellers. No air conditioners. No fans, either, in two of those places.
The Brick had what looked like a good one online, so we went in to buy it. As the signature hit the sales receipt, we were informed of the (ahem) four week wait.

Nice.

Four weeks passed, wiltfully. With two days to go and us sweating out the minutes, the call came: they weren't ready...it'd be another two weeks.

Nicer.

That brought us to last Friday. And on Saturday, we went to pick it up.

It's a behemoth...the warehouse workers are quite certain it won't fit into our Echo. Harold, not for the first time, proves them wrong...although it *is* a very tight fit.

So we get it home and put it in our library Once it's in place, setting it up is actually much easier than setting up a window one. You still need an intake and exhaust vented to the outside. These are big monster hoses along the lines of a dryer hose. They connect to a vertical slat that rests in your window, with the exhaust hose venting to the top (so the heat rises away from the intake.)
It's very powerful, and has dehumidifier and fan settings.

It also leaks.

Yes, I know, all air conditioners leak, especially if you set them too high and they freeze up. But this one is leaking from someplace it shouldn't: the back right corner, at a join.
I first noticed something wrong about two hours after we turned it on. I went up to check and see how cool it was. It was blessedly cool...a far cry from the 29 degrees that the display was reading. (When I'd first turned it on, the room temperature was 23, and it felt decidedly cooler than that.) So I looked at the thing a little more closely and noticed a big wet spot underneath it.


Oh, joy.

There are two tanks, an internal water tank that functions to keep the coils cool and the external tank at the back that you pull out and empty. Both tanks were bone dry--which I figure may explain the "thermomistat" malfunction. But I have no idea why it's leaking, except Murphy's Law and the knowledge that everything you buy involving water in any way at all leaks. (I've yet to hear about anyone installing a dishwasher without creating at least one lake in their kitchen in the process.)

I was actually surprised they didn't make me bring the damn thing back. They're delivering a replacement this Friday.

I would have told you all this Monday night, dear blog, but my computer died.
It's all of four months old: the last thing I expected it to do was freeze solid...and upon a hard reboot, inform me my hard drive was missing. But it did just that, and with a smirk on its face, too. Tech support told me my hard drive was defective (d'ya think?) and I should bring it back for a replacement.
So off to MDG it went. Of course, after a day's testing, they called me to let me know that nothing was wrong. Everything checked out fine. They had no problem booting it up. I explained to them--again--what had happened to me...we hemmed and hawed, and they allowed as how a connection might have been dodgy.

Fixed now.

We hope.

In between all that, a very successful yard sale (which in itself entailed a lot of work). Eva got a fairly large dragon tattoo on her right shoulder: a grey dragon with blue eyes, gaurding a clutch of four eggs. One egg contains a lightning bolt, to symbolize me (my love of weather); the second contains a paw print, which denotes Eva's love of animals; the third has a drop of water because Eva would live in the water if she could. The fourth egg is empty, symbolizing the child we almost had.
She had it done at Tora Tattoo (www.toratattoo.com) --and they did a magnificent job.

That's just our week. Several friends of ours have had weeks much, much worse.

And I have to work this Saturday because we're running the biggest ad in the history of the chain. Details on that later--they won't be pretty.

03 August, 2005

It's do or diet...

It has begun.
For several years now, we've gradually 'healthied' up our diet. In my case, when Eva met me, it couldn't have been much worse. We took things slowly, figuring that a shock treatment would be actively unpleasant. First we eliminated white bread. After about a week, I no longer missed it; after a month I found myself preferring whole wheat (and try telling that to me as a kid!) Now, I find white bread pasty and tasteless.
We've veered back and forth on margarine and butter, following conflicting advice. Yes, butter is fattier, but at least there are only two ingredients in it (one if it's unsalted) and both of them are simple monosyllables that don't require a degree in chemistry to decipher.
I joined the crowd in stepping down from 2% to 1% milk. Ten years ago, 2% outsold 1% by more than two to one; now, they're nearly equal sellers. Then I took it one step further and tried skim. Well, one has to draw the line somewhere, and I draw mine at milkwater. Luckily, there's Natrel filtered milk: the skim tastes just like 1%.
We added vegetables. Now, don't get me wrong: a produce manager I am not. If someone lined up ten vegetables at random out of a good-sized produce department, I'd be lucky to correctly identify half of them. But simple salads became a regular part of our suppers. Granted, head lettuce is pretty much empty calories...but not many of them!
All of this combined healthy eating, coupled with the moderate amount of exercise I get--mostly, admittedly, at work--did its job. I stopped gaining weight.
But didn't lose any.
Nope, excepting the daily vagaries of--how does one phrase this in a genteel fashion?--the bowels, I've maintained the same damn weight for going on five years. And that weight, sad to say, isn't exactly healthy.
"Hey! I'm in shape! Round is a shape!"
Except I'm not in shape, and haven't been for about fifteen years now. I've never had flexibility and likely never will, but even so, I don't recall tying my shoelaces to be such a...gasp...gasp...chore when I was in my early teens. You know it's time to do something when you're out of breath from hardly moving.
"I've got the body of a god...too bad it's the Buddha."
It came time to re-examine our eating habits. What we realized was that we were eating portions far too large for our routine...particularly of carbohydrates. Mmmmm, carbs. Potatoes and pasta and rice and bread and--is there anything out there carby I don't like?
Eva has been advised by our doctor that for a woman of her size and metabolic rate (that being: "very large" and "in reverse") , a low-carb diet is the way to go. She's toyed with it before, but never really dedicated herself to it for any serious length of time. After awhile, you starting dreaming of spaghetti and waking up on a vast and scrumptious pillow of mashed potatoes. Eventually, you give in to temptation and poof! there goes your diet.
Now, we're trying again, on a modified Atkins plan, and we're adhering strictly to it for two weeks. (Well, Eva's thinking beyond that--like forever--but I'll forego my french fries two weeks at a time, thank you...) I figure if we notice results in that time--and the opinion of medical science is that we certainly will--then we'll be motivated to stay the course and skip the courses.
Eva announced her intentions at her work, and added that I would be joining her on this diet. From what she said, I've become something of a wonder around her office. I can't think why.
She reports the general consensus to be 'if I went on a diet, I'd be lucky if my husband didn't specifically demand I cook him all the foods I'm not supposed to eat, and then smack his lips over them. Join me?! Never!'
Yup...sounds like some people have shitty husbands.
Okay, first of all, it's not like I'm one of those people who goes to gyms. (Those people, in case you didn't know, are defined as "people who do not need to go to gyms.") Seriously. You ever seen anybody truly fat at Expressfit? They kick you off the weights, and never mind that you used to be a bodybuilder and you can still bench-press two of the human twigs they use for instructors.
So--hey, I've got weight to lose. A good fifty pounds of it. There's a good reason to join my wife right there.
And even if I was whipsaw-thin and had a 12-pack of abs, am I so callous and cruel as to (a) eat all the stuff my wife can't; (b) in front of her; and (c) force her to cook it for me? No, sir, no, ma'am, I am not.
Not to mention...I'm lazy. I don't want to cook all my own food. Hobson's choice: I go on this diet and reap the benefits.
One final note. There must have been ten people at my work who gleefully announced that Atkins has gone bankrupt...due to the fact the low-carb fad has passed. I'm supposed to derive from this that low-carb diets don't work and that I'm doomed before I start.
It's true that the Atkins company has declared bankruptcy, but it does not follow that the diet itself is somehow bankrupt. Fact is, there remain many low-carb diets out there: the G.I. index, the Zone, South Beach, SugarBusters, Protein Power...all of them variations on a theme by Atkins.
I'll tell you what's really happened: a whole host of companies jumped on the low-carb bandwagon, came out with a whole host of low-carb products...all of them cheaper than Atkins. (Which isn't to say "cheap".) Atkins couldn't compete.
And while it is true that fewer people are on a low-carb diet now than were a year ago...to me, that merely points out that people love their carbohydrates. Nobody ever said this would be easy. But the doctor says it will be worthwhile.
That's good enough for me.