31 July, 2006

Warning: this might give some people high blood pressure.

On December 8, 1941, Japan engaged in a sneak attack on a U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbour. America retaliated by warning Japanese civilians to evacuate a small area of southern Japan, before engaging in limited airstrikes. confined to that area. There were, unfortunately, some civilians killed in the airstrikes, among them women and children. America, under immense pressure from most of the rest of the world to cease hostilities, did suspend military action in the afflicted area for a little while, and its president offered profuse and heartfelt apologies. However, it insisted on continuing its efforts until Japan was neutralized.

Total bunk, right? We all know what really happened...and there weren't many in the world who opposed it at the time. Even the atomic bombs, so contentious in hindsight, were seen at the time as a means to limit casualties.

So now we have an unprovoked cross-border attack, illegal under international law, on Israel, this time. This has been followed up by over fifteen hundred rocket attacks. Most of them were relatively harmless, but the intent behind them was lethal. If Hezbollah had the technology, you can be sure the Israeli death toll would be considerably higher. If Hezbollah had the kind of tech Israel has, there wouldn't be an Israel any more. Give Hezbollah and Hamas and like organizations full credit: they don't hide their anti-Semitism behind diplomatic doublespeak, like, say, the United Nations and most of Europe do. It's right out there in the open, the defining characteristic. To be a member of Hezbollah, you have to believe in death to Israel, there's no compromise allowed.
Of course, Japan didn't hide their military assets in civilian neighbourhoods. The Japanese have too much respect for their own people to do something like that. Not so Hezbollah. It views Lebanese citizens as little more than propaganda pieces, and so it operates exclusively in civilian areas. It's a no-lose situation for them: either Israel's too chicken to come after them or a bunch of innocent people die. (Then again, most Lebanese in the south are highly sympathetic to Hezbollah, so the concept of "innocence" is a bit tainted.)

So what does Israel, beseiged on all sides since 1948, do? They drop leaflets warning civilians to evacuate. They broadcast messages into southern Lebanon saying the same. Then they engage in limited airstrikes over areas in southern Lebanon from which rockets have been seen to originate. (And if you think the number of sorties flown isn't "limited", you have little concept of the power of the Israeli air force fully unleashed.) Wherever possible, they've made every effort to pinpoint their strikes. Unfortunately--see above--Hezbollah isn't playing fair: they'll hide assets in hospitals, kindergartens, wherever they can get the most "innocent" bang for the buck. Saddam did the same. It's called "human shield", and it too is illegal under international law.

The Jew-hating world is almost completely united in calling for an immediate ceasefire, because they like it when Hezbollah lobs rockets into Israeli towns willy-nilly, but it's a war crime when Israel aims. Jews dying--who cares? Palestinians dying...that's just unconscionable!

Oh, and while I'm out here on that limb...that attack on the United Nations base? Sorry, no sympathy here. First of all, it should have been cleared. The United Nations has a policy against remaining in a war zone. It wouldn't surprise me overmuch to find out elements within the U.N. were hoping for just such an attack, for the same reason Hezbollah hopes for the deaths of innocent bystanders, the better to pin the blame on the Zionist infidel. The U.N. needs to be scrapped, and if a few of its buildings are scrapped in the process, oh, well.

My support is squarely behind the Jewish state, no matter how many children and old ladies make the front page of the Toronto Star. Israel deserves to be left alone, and if it has to fight until it is alone, so be it. Wasn't one Holocaust enough?


30 July, 2006

Approaching meltdown

This searing, oppressive heat is having serious consequences worldwide. Consequences which will only get worse as time goes on.

I've reversed my position on important issues so many times you'd think I was some kind of politician. Global warming is one such issue. At first, I simply believed everything I read in the papers--never a good idea. Then I pendulumed over to the Dark Side, with Michael Crichton. There's a certain romanticism in rowing against the world's currents: it's intoxicating to believe that you are among a Select Group of People who Know The Truth.

Yup, uh-huh, like alien abductees. They Know The Truth, too.

I still maintain that Crichton's STATE OF FEAR makes a number of excellent points (and not all of them have to do directly with global warming, either: there's an excellent passage--whence the title of the book derives--about the sworn duty of the media to keep us afraid.)

But I now believe that Crichton's book is irrelevant. I'm starting to believe that any response we make to climate change is irrelevant at this point. I think we're either rapidly approaching critical mass, the event horizon beyond which recovery is impossible. Or we may have already passed it.

I've started coupling those troubling news reports all over the world with my own experience.

For a time, I thought the reason snowbanks were so much taller when I was a kid was because I was so much smaller. But it's gradually dawning on me that there really was a lot more snow back then. It lasted longer, too. I've seen it snow on Hallowe'en or even before; I've also seen substantial snow cover on Easter Sunday. In recent years, winter has produced one or maybe two storms of note in my area. Last winter, Waterloo Region received record precipitation and record low snowfall...meaning our climate more closely resembled that of Vancouver than Southern Ontario.
Likewise, the summer climate is changing. Within my lifetime, the summer sun has become perceptibly stronger. Most notably, the average summer night-time low temperature has increased dramatically. It used to be a rule of thumb that the night-time low was around half the daytime high: a noon temperature of 30 degrees meant an early morning temperature somewhere around 15. Recently, night-time lows above 20 have become increasingly common; I've witnessed a humidex of 36 at three in the morning.

Where does it end? The short answer is, where it bloody well wants to, and there's not a damn thing we can do about it.

Please understand, this isn't fatalism, an attitude of "well, we might as well just keep on the way we've going, we're all gonna die someday anyway". Global warming isn't our only environmental problem, not by a long shot...we've also got air, land, and water pollution, soil erosion, deforestation, desertification....should I go on?
But if the climate has changed so much in so short a time, do we honestly believe we can reverse the trend? The odds are against it. We would need to regress society to a preindustrial state overnight, and my firm conviction is that a preindustrial society of seven billion people is not viable on this planet.
Moreover, there's the human element in all this: ongoing wars to gain control of those precious last drops of oil, the better to stave off disaster another few years; coming wars over fresh water; mass migrations to more northern latitudes...are we ready for all this?

Methinks not.

26 July, 2006

Okay, fine, I'll weigh in.

Why are we surprised that (some of the) evacuees from Lebanon are upset with our government? After all, the ships weren't air conditioned. Some people had to sleep on deck. The food was substandard. There were delays. It was, all in all, a horrible experience for many.

(I'm sure being bombed would have been preferable...)

Even though some of these Lebanese-"Canadian"s haven't darkened our shores for decades, they've learned well from a distance just what it means to be Canadian. In one word: entitlement.

It's all about the rights, isn't it? Apparantly somewhere in our Constitution it says the government is duty-bound to save our asses free of charge should we blunder into a war zone. Or should we decide to go live in a war zone, you know, just for the hell of it.

I'm actually happy that these evacuees are speaking up. A debate on what it means to be Canadian is long overdue in this country.

This Lebanese situation is far from the only abuse of Canadian citizenship. According to numerous sources, there is a real and growing problem with people "falling in love", wooing, and marrying Canadians for the sole purpose of getting to Canada. Once they're here, they leave their loves in the lurch--emotionally devastated and financially drained (not to mention the jilted partner's on the hook for any social assistance the cad gets).

Then there are the refugees, many from countries known to harbour terrorists, who show up at Pearson with no papers of any kind, claiming they'll be killed if they go back home. They're actually allowed to stay in Canada until their cases are heard...and that can be a long time coming. The longer they stay, the harder it is to evict them--assuming we can even find them.

Ontario was actually this close to allowing Sharia law. Had that actually happened, I would have seriously considered immigrating myself.

With all this going on, is it any wonder that so many Canadians are two-faced when it comes to immigration? In public, we claim tolerance and diversity are foundational values, but we rail against the second-generation Canadians who haven't bothered to learn English yet, the groups of immigrants who shun contact with native-born Canadians wherever possible, the dual citizens who are mightily upset at the audacity of our government not to simply teleport them out of Lebanon.

We're barking up the wrong tree, people. No sense taking all this out on the immigrants. First of all, most of them are in Canada legitimately, contributing more to the Canadian dream than many who were born and bred here. Concerning the opportunists who are out to scam us--hell, can you blame them? Our government's been playing patsy for years.

Consider: merely setting foot in Canada bestows rights most of the world can only dream of...chief among them free health care. As noted above, once you've been granted Canadian citizenship--which is as simple as marrying a Canadian--you're in like Flynn: your spouse is even responsible for your welfare payments. There are no obligations: you don't need to learn English (although, should you foolishly choose to make your residence in Quebec, French will be all but forced on you). We've made it possible, even somewhat easy, to live your life ignorant of the wider world around you. (Check out Markham, Ontario or Richmond, British Columbia...if you didn't know better, you'd swear you were in China.)

Some people will undoubtedly call me a bigot for voicing this opinion. That is, of course, their prerogative. My short response is an invitation to immigrate to any other country on Earth. See how long you can get by without learning the local language, following the local customs, worshipping the local god...

A country that stands for everything, stands for nothing. Think on that.

23 July, 2006

Peevery

Little peeves that have been peeving me of late:

Can we stop referring to suicide bombers as "cowards"? It's kind of hypocritical in a society as afraid of death as ours is.
What makes groups such as Hezbollah "cowardly", by my lights, is their strategy of blending in with the civilian population of Lebanon as they wage their low-level guerrilla war against Israel. This forces Israel to target civilians, meaning regrettable, but necessary, innocent casualties.

Can the Toronto Star examine the sky in its world, just once? A few months ago, it featured an article about fostering change in Toronto. The sequel came out today: it makes for gag-inducing reading. Supposedly over four hundred readers wrote in, and all of them, to judge from today's pap, spoke eloquently of the need for "community", the need for "broad-based initiatives across all socioeconomic strata", the need for "an annual potluck dinner held in all city parks."
Yike.
Not one word about the gridlock choking the city, beyond the usual demands for a huge increase in public transit funding. Not one word about the homeless choking the downtown core, on which untold millions are spent each year with no tangible improvement in their lot. Not one word about the gun murders, up again this year, beyond the vague notion that if we could just love these criminals a little more, they'd drop their weapons and become paragons of society.

Yeah, right.

Look, I know I'm supposed to be all for public transit because it saves the environment and yadda yadda yadda. I ride the bus at least three times a week. And I hate it.
For one thing, the so-called "air" on Grand River Transit busses is anything but. They stopped making busses with windows that open years ago, and us riders are forced to breathe some ungodly synthetic air that has me on the verge of passing out if I'm on the bus more than half an hour.
For another, the seven-minute trip to work takes nearly an hour by bus, due to a lengthy layover and travel by the least direct route possible.
And for a third, at least once a week I am forced to board a bus already stuffed with people, the majority of them high school students and thus (it must be said) little better than animals, their feet firmly planted on the seat ahead of them, glaring insolently at elderly and pregnant ladies who ask them to yield, screaming their fool heads off about teenage drama, oh, the horror of it. It's but a matter of time before the knives--or the guns--make an appearance. At times like that I'd rather ride in a car that runs on coal. Or seal blubber.

I'd ride a bike, but my insistence on obeying the law by riding on the street marks me as a target to every driver that comes along. No, thanks.

As for the homeless, surely the goal should be to get these people off the street and into shelters, housing, jobs? Until very recently, Toronto's city council refused to even count the homeless and find out just how many there were, on the specious grounds that this would somehow violate their rights. Now that the count's been done, we've discovered there are far fewer homeless than we've been led to believe (although still a goodly number). Is city council happy? Hell, no! It insists we must be missing scads of homeless people. Gotta justify those millions of dollars in annual funding somehow.

And about those young thugs shooting up the city: if ever there was a quality of life issue, this is it. There's little quality in your life when you're spread-eagled and bullet-riddled on a sidewalk. I have a suggestion for all those (mostly Liberal) politicians who claim that a little more love will turn the trick. I call it "Adopt-a-Thug". (I similarly feel that those violently anti-abortionist whackos should be forced to adopt an unwanted child.) Let's put our money where our mouths yap, and see how long it is before that money's stolen, eh?

ONE case frozen peas, ah-hah-hah-hah-hah!

It's been a week.
My store has gone corporate, which is supposed to mean nothing to me now that the changeover has happened, but it sure meant something in the lead-up. Sobeys required a full inventory, and it was supervised by what seemed like battalions of Head Office personnel.
The inventory was scheduled for Friday night at 6:00. If there's a worse time to hold an inventory, I can't imagine what it might be.
Like most grocery stores, our flyers run Saturday to Friday. Whenever possible, I try to start setting up the next ad on Wednesday or Thursday to save myself a brutal Friday night. In this case, I had little choice: the ad had to be fully set up before the inventory.
The grocery store freezes while inventory is taking place. Customers can still shop the store; a reading is done before and after to determine sales. But all stocking of shelves comes to a halt: you can't run the risk of something being counted twice or not counted at all.
I had to make Friday's warehouse order as small as possible--not an easy thing to do, when it has to last through your busiest day, Saturday, and well into Sunday afternoon. The reason this order had to be so small is simple: I had no guarantees when it would arrive. Normally it comes in around one in the afternoon, but it has shown up as late as seven in the evening on occasion. My problem: depending on its arrival time, it either had to be fully worked...or remain untouched until after the inventory was completed (in other words, Saturday morning)--so that I could "count" it by referring to the invoice rather than tearing it apart piece by piece.
As it turned out, the warehouse truck pulled in at four o'clock, which gave me nowhere near enough time to work even a small order. Especially since I was so far behind...
I mentioned that the inventory team counts the shelves. They leave the walk-in cooler and freezer to us...to me.
The dairy cooler presents few challenges: I can usually count it in less than an hour, all told. The freezer is a different story.

Before I tell you why, let me tell you this: I'm pretty good at my job. Not great, but pretty good. I can usually estimate sales on ad items with reasonable accuracy. Especially when it comes to dairy products. Rarely do I get "hung" with vast quantities of sale products come the end of an ad. When I do, though, it's almost invariably a frozen item.
I'm not sure why this is. But about every third ad, I'll find myself with six or eight weeks' worth of something. And occasionally, I really overestimate demand on a product and find myself waiting impatiently for the next time it's advertised.
So my freezer can get pretty jammed.
Having known this inventory was coming, my team was able to get quite a lot to shelf. Even better, we had worked together to "mark" the inventory in there so that my "counting" consisted of writing down what had already been counted (for the most part). Yet I was still in there over two hours. The temperature in my walk-in freezer averages 0 F or -18 C; add in the two fans and it feels considerably colder (my acutely developed temperature sense would suggest a windchill factor approaching -40...which is the same on either scale.)
It's cold, in other words.
I'm not bitching--really, I'm not. Clad in only pants and a sweater, with no gloves (the better to write with), I only needed a few quick breaks. I handle cold with aplomb; it's heat I can't stand.
But the mechanics of writing in a freezer can get frustrating. Pens freeze almost instantly, of course, and I find markers difficult to write with, so I'm reduced to using pencils--the lead in which I snap effortlessly, several times an hour.
Once the cooler and freezer are counted, I have to go around my department with a pad of Post-It notes, writing the regular price of all sale items and affixing it over the sale price tags. This confuses most of our customers, but it has to be done: everything must be counted at regular retail. It gets especially aggravating for customers when I come to what are called "competitive match" items"...in my department, this means milk, butter and eggs. These are items on which we match the price of our competitors (and they match ours, too: the price of milk is the same wherever you go in this city, at least among the big chains.)
Although we sell our bagged 1% milk at $4.19, that's not the regular retail. The regular retail on four litres of 1% milk is $5.09. (And that's nowhere near our cost...we lose a lot of money on bagged milk.) But customers get very upset because they think they're going to pay $5.09 for their milk and you have to defuse dozens of them in the course of an evening. Posting signs asking customers to "disregard Post-It notes" doesn't help. This may come out wrong, but it's heartfelt and true: posting any signs, saying anything, never helps. People absolutely and steadfastly refuse to read signs. They'll notice price tags, oh, sure--an error of two cents is often treated like a Mideast flare-up--but words? Fuhgeddaboudit. And it's not as if our clientele is mostly immigrants, either: they speak English perfectly well. They just don't read it.

So it's over, now. All that's left is the aftermath. Our store number changed, so the Sobeys warehouse--who you'd think knew this was coming--suddenly has no record of our orders. You know, that kind of thing.

ARRRRRRRRRRGHHHHHHHHH!!!

There. I feel better.



19 July, 2006

Down at the Heels

I am the sort of person who is forever injuring himself in (thankfully) petty ways: a nick here, a cut there, a bruise under there...so when I first noticed the pain in my heel six years ago, I paid it little mind.
True, it was my honeymoon. But I didn't think the ball and chain dragging off my ankle would hurt like that so soon. No, I figured I'd just sprained it or something and I'd be all right in a week.
No such luck.
The pain was an off and on sort of thing, but each time it came back, it grew. After two years of trying to deny it really hurt and then wish it away, I finally decided it was worth burdening Canada's overburdened health care system with.
Plantar fasciitis. In both heels.

Little wonder, really. If you look at the contributing factors to this ailment, you paint a very lifelike portrait of Ken Breadner:


  • Overweight, check. I used to be drastically underweight, but the "freshman 20" in my case was closer to a "freshman hundred"...and I've never managed to get it off.
  • A job that requires a lot of walking or standing on hard surfaces...does concrete count? For eight to ten hours a day?
  • Tight calf muscles that limit how far the ankles can stretch. I'm tight freakin' everywhere. I have no flexibility in anything and "stretch" is a very strong curse word in my world..
  • High arches. Yeah, baby, yeah. My arches are so high I caused eyes to widen and jaws to drop at the othopaedist's office that first time.
  • Improper walking technique. Yup, I'll admit it: I never learned to walk properly. If you look at an old pair of my shoes, you very quickly notice that the inside edges of tread are worn away, while the outsides look like new. Apparently this is impossible to correct at this late date.

So they did three things. They sent me for physio, which I blew off almost immediately because they told me to "stretch" and I responded in kind, telling them to "go fuck themselves". They prescribed a night splint, which is a rigid hard plastic bootlike thing that holds my foot perpendicular to my leg while I sleep. And they fitted me with orthotics.

The night brace took some getting used to. I initially found it very hard to sleep with it weighing my left leg down. Eventually, though, it got to a point where I couldn't sleep without it.

The orthotics worked miracles--as well they should for $450.00. Just one day in these things and the pain in my heels was all but gone.

That was three years ago.

Lately the heel pain has been recurring, and ramping up rapidly. I figured my orthotics were due for replacement, and booked an appointment to find out.

As it turns out, they're in pretty good shape...they just need some refurbishment. That cut the cost about 80%, always a good thing. I was astounded, as I am notoriously hard on anything foot-related--my work shoes--$160.00 Rockports--usually last me nine months or so.

The bad news is that due to some pretty basic laws of physics, if they're busy rebuiding my orthotics, I can't have them. And because they have to wait for a full moon, then bury them at a crossroads and wait for four hundred people to walk over them--or something--I'm without my orthotics for a whole week! Stretching stretch stretchy stretch fuck!

I happened to mention that wearing my Birkenstock sandals felt a whole lot more comfortable than wearing my orthotic-equipped Rockports, lately, only to watch the othopedist's eyes light up like a pinball machine. I was given to understand that my Birks are comfortable for me the same way eating, say, a steady diet of nothing but cheesecake would be "comfortable." Birks, she alleged, were absolutely the worst things I could be putting on my feet.

"So why do they feel so good, then?', I inquired, a little miffed. Birkenstocks are not cheap, and I resented being told I'd thrown a good deal of money away.

"They're molded, for one thing," she said. "But the biggest reason they feel good is because there's no pressure on your swollen heels. HOWEVER," she went on, "the heel to ball ratio on Birks is 1:1. In other words, they're flat. That puts all kinds of pressure in all kinds of places you really don't want pressure. So while they might feel good while they're on, you'll pay a high price once you take them off. It's no coincidence the heel pain came back when you started wearing those things."

She recommended Mephistos, and showed me hers. Sure enough, the heel is higher than the front of the foot. Sure enough, the goddamn things cost half again as much as Birks. Guess I'm going without sandals for the foreseeable future.

She okayed my Rockports, but noted there were more durable shoes out there, and named two brands (Redwing and Prospector) I'd never heard of. While they are more expensive (surprise, surprise!), supposedly they'd last me at least twice as long. Fair enough.

Meanwhile, my heel hurts like a sonovabitch.

Waaaaahhhh.

16 July, 2006

I take a quick break...

...to write out some fiction and the world geopolitical situation goes to shit.
Our civilization can be said to have begun in the Middle East. That may be the case, but it seems we had to spread out of the powderkeg before we could begin to evolve.
There is likewise a view that war is the wellspring of all technological advance. It is true that long periods of peace tend to stagnate a society, and many technological marvels first had military applications. However, peace is a the first requisite for social and spiritual advancement. The first step towards the solution of any problem is the decision not to kill each other over it.
Sadly, this is a step that has yet to be taken in and around the Levant.
The political situation is complex, with many players and even more layers (which is this writer's shorthand for "I'm tired, and really don't feel like wading through scads of contradictory information just to write a blog entry".)
It is fashionable in Canada these days to side with the Palestinians against what is termed "Israeli aggression". This is also the general United Nations stance: its first knee-jerk reaction to any ratcheting up of Mideast tension is to blame Israel.
I'd like to take a moment to ask those of you who take this view: what is Israel supposed to do? It is surrounded by enemies who have publically declared their intentions to wipe it off the face of the earth. Every concession the state of Israel makes is met with further attack: it is clear that nothing Israel says or does will appease the jackals on its borders. You can argue all you want that Israelis displaced the Palestinians when their state was arbitrarily created in 1948, and you would have a point. Over here in North America, we have people breaking the law over treaties issued in 1748, so I guess it's too much to ask for people to live in the present and face reality...
The permanent solution to the Middle East conflagration involves the creation of a Palestinian state. No problem, say the Palestinians: we'll just take Israel, and kill all the Jews in it.
Russia, among other countries, has stated that Israel is going overboard in its reaction to the kidnapping of two of its soldiers. It certainly appears that way on the surface. If this had been the only aggression against Israel in the last fifty years, I'd side with Russia. But it hasn't been. Products of viciously anti-Semitic education aspire to kill themselves, so long as they can take some Jews with them. Israel's gotten pretty good at catching suicide bombers this past quarter-century: they're up to one in three. Prick a person--or a nation--with a needle long enough and you'll see the snap.
Here's a stat which humanizes Israelis, at least for me: they are among the world leaders per capita in cellphone use. This is undoubtedly because after every fresh attack, it is a compulsion to call everyone you know to make sure they're still among the living. Imagine life like that.
What next? It's not beyond the realm of possibility that "Operation Summer Rain" could escalate into a third world war. While I doubt this will happen, I can't discount it. Blood feuds often take on a life of their own, and God knows there are enough people in the region who hold exuberant parties whenever news of Jewish casualty hits the airwaves. It was the assassination of some noble nobody that precipitated World War One. A lucky Hezbollah strike could have similar far-reaching consequences.
One thing I'd count on is oil prices going through the roof. I've been wrong on this before--for three years I've predicted gasoline will hit $1.50/litre in Canada, and aside from a few Katrina-gougers, we haven't seen it yet--but surely it's coming. If tensions continue to rise and we get a few hurricanes in the mix (and lo and behold, the ocean is a mighty warm place again this year), watch out. I'll never understand the economics of this...we have enough oil in Canada to do us for centuries yet. But I suspect we'll all have to deal with pump shock on a massive scale, and soon. Meanwhile, a few prayers directed to whatever Higher Power you believe in--YHWH, Jesus the Christ, Allah, the overriding sense of humans everywhere to do what's right when the fan meets the shit--whatever you call that Higher Power, a few prayers to it probably wouldn't hurt at this point.


Market Share, Part V

The predictable problem was that he liked Gerry Knowles.
They'd met the next day, when Billy was formally introduced to the General Systems marketing team, and had hit it off immediately. Billy was invited to Gerry's house in the suburbs, where the family had treated him like visiting royalty.
Billy knew that this was exactly the route he was supposed to take: win Gerry's trust, then betray him and murder him. Or have him murdered, more like--while Billy had always lived with the maxim "Business is War" close to heart, he'd never imagined being summarily dispatched to the front lines of that war.
Now that he was here, regarding the "enemy" up close, he couldn't say he liked it much.

Gerry's kids had gone off to bed and his wife had followed soon after, pleading exhaustion. Billy and Gerry sat on the verandah, which was surrounded by VR screens. Gerry had programmed a view of a mountain lake at sunset. Cool breezes puffed out and ruffled Billy's hair.
"It's beautiful", said Billy.
Gerry looked at him. "I'd trade it all for even a tiny scrap of yard. I had one, growing up. These days you'd need an RR of 13 or more."
A warning light winked deep in Billy's consciousness. Was that a slight emphasis on 13? Did he pluck that number out of midair...or out of, say, a Mercanix job posting?
"Yards are overrated, I think. There's nothing you can do in a yard you can't do cleaner in a home gym--and you never have to weed or mow the gym."
"Fair enough," said Billy, "but I like feeling grass underfoot. Call me old-fashioned--"
"--you're an antique!"--
"but for all our technowizardry, we're arguably losing more than we're gaining. Take propspheres. I was told to create one six months ago...'purely a defensive measure, you understand, Gerry'...and it's almost ready. I can't help but think that turning it on would be a mistake."
"If it's a mistake, than Mercanix made it first," said Billy. "Your boss was right--'purely a defensive measure'."
"Two wrongs don't make a right," said Billy implacably. "I understand this is just the evolution of marketing, but it feels like coercion from where I sit. Bad enough Mercanix thinks it has to force people to like its products. Worse if we take that route."
There was a silence. Billy made a decision.
"What would you say if I told you I was--"
"--from Mercanix, assigned to kill me?" finished Gerry.
For maybe the first time in his like, Billy Madison found himself speechless. His jaw gaped.
"Uh..."
Gerry laughed. "Yeah, funny, isn't it? I read that job posting last week. It wasn't hard to figure we should keep an eye on the person they hired."
Billy was still floundering. "G.S. has somebody at Mercanix? How do they get around the propsphere?"
"No, we don't have a mole, if that's what you're asking," said Billy. "That job posting was public. Anybody with an RR over ten has their names, positions and salaries listed...remember the Sunshine Laws?"
"Okay," said Billy, "but that name would be Billy Madison, not--"
"William Martin? Geez, couldn't you come up with a better alias than that? First off, we did a search online for Billy Madison and captured all sorts of pictures of you. That was within probably ten minutes of your being hired. I went to Sheila the other day and told her to be extra-careful with new hires. Specifically to watch out for someone matching your picture. I even mentioned the initials B. or W. M...people's aliases almost always match their initials."
Billy hated the feeling of being ten steps behind. "So why was I taken on, then? Sheila could just as easily have told me nothing was available."
"Simple," said Gerry. "Mercanix is right about one thing: our mindreading technology is about three generations ahead of theirs. When you walked through Sheila's office door, you were passing through a G.S. Mentalyzer, the most advanced mental scanner in the world. It detected your motive easily...but it also detected you had serious doubts about it. It's a good thing this office is out of reach of Mercanix' propsphere, or those doubts would have been significantly harder to uncover. It would have gone badly for you."
"You mean the machine would have killed me?" Billy asked.
"No! Oh, I'm sure Mercanix would do it that way. For them, mindreading is only a means to the end of mindwriting. And mindwriting would be a great thing--a boon to humanity--if it was used to, say, pour all the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the ages into a person. Our society being what it is, though, mindwriting is currently being used to force people to think favourably towards certain products.
"Anyway, General Systems doesn't believe in that sort of thing. We think people should be free to make up their own minds, that products should speak for themselves. Most of all, that people should not be punished for their thoughts. So no, our machine wouldn't have killed you. It would have--it did--relay its findings to several people, including Sheila and myself. What to do with you was left up to us."
"Well, thank you," said Billy. "So I guess you're safe. Problem is, I'm not. If I don't go in to Gatlin's office with your head on a platter, I'm dead anyway."
Gerry smiled. "I've given that some thought," he said. "Here's what you're going to do..."

--------------------

Billy felt his thoughts turning inexorably towards Mercanix as he approached the head office early the next morning. The propsphere worked its subtle magic. Billy felt triumphant: he was a warrior in the pay of Mercanix, Incorporated, and dakn it all, he was going to...fix...EVERYTHING!
The elevator whisked him to the 92nd storey and he disembarked, clutching his briefcase tightly. He padded down the hallway, ignoring all the artwork, and barged through into the anteroom of J. Paul Gatlin. Without a glance at the sex kitten behind the desk, he stormed into the inner office/cottage, fixing a fierce grin on his face.
Gatlin was dictating something. He stopped, rose, and then smiled. "Mission accomplished?"
"In a manner of speaking, sir," said Billy.
"What does that mean? Do you or do you not have the head of Gerry Knowles in that briefcase of yours?"
"No, sir. He got away." Gatlin glowered. "But I do have something even better."
The president of Mercanix darkened as he drew in breath to launch into one of his legendary tirades. Before he could get going, Billy unzipped his case and drew out its contents with a flourish.
"...the fuck is that?" said Gatlin.
"This, sir, is the General Systems propsphere."
"Bullshit! There's no way they've managed to make one that small!"
"Yes, they have, and this is it." Billy fondled the device, which looked like the bell of a trumpet. "It's pretty powerful, too. They call it Morale."
Gatlin eyed the G.S. propsphere warily. "Prove it."
Billy's fingers touched the switch. "Are you sure, sir? If I turn that on in here--"
"PROVE IT!!! roared Gatlin.
Billy flicked the switch.
An invisible beam of energy shot towards the president of Mercanix. He stiffened, then rattled in his chair as if fixed there by a bolt of lightning. Everyone in the building was suddenly suffused with the superiority of General Systems. People who had been with Mercanix for less than a year felt the mother of all migraines. The brains of people more thoroughly indoctrinated simply winked out.
Gatlin continued to writhe at his desk. One of his hands fell on the switch of his Projector, which was aimed directly at Billy and the G.S. propsphere.
The air crackled as two energy fields collided. Billy dropped and rolled, and kept rolling out the door. As soon as he was clear of Gatlin's office, he was up and sprinting for the stairs.
Behind him, the fields continued to blossom and grow.
There came a colossal explosion. The ninety-second floor of Mercanix headquarters ceased to exist.

-----------

Billy, bedraggled and bleeding, stumbled down the last of one hundred and eighty four flights of stairs. His legs felt like guitar strings tuned three octaves past their normal pitch. But he was alive.
Gerry Knowles hugged him. "Well done, Billy!"
"Thanks," he panted. "I just want to go home and sleep for about a million years."
All around them, throngs of people looked as though they were waking from a dream. They were disoriented, tripping over each other, seeing the world with new eyes. The Mercanix propsphere had been destroyed.
"That was a pretty damn powerful propsphere," said Billy.
"Yup," Gerry smiled. "Hopefully the world will never see another one. You know," he added, "I spent fifteen hours tweaking that thing up for maximum power. The standard model was meant just to make you feel happy. It wasn't even programmed to make you think of General Systems. I had to add that in. I wanted Gatlin to know what killed him. By the way, Billy, they've voted to increase your RR to 15. The highest rating."
Around them, fire engines wailed and brayed. Billy and Gerry faded into the background where they belonged.

THE END

13 July, 2006

Market Share, Part IV

Billy found himself back on the street without a clear idea how he'd gotten there. Ever the hard-headed realist, he was unaccustomed to the feeling that he was living a dream-turned-nightmare.
On the one hand, he really ought to get to work--even he, a civilian until twenty minutes ago, had heard rumours that General Systems was close to matching Mercanix's propsphere, perhaps even surpassing it. On the other, he really needed a chance to decompress...not to mention a chance to figure out just how the hell he was going to get himself out of this. Preferably alive.
He made his way home by hovercab--what the hell, he could afford it, now--and spent most of his evening staring blankly at his media center. Deep in the sweatshops, his mental minions were formulating a plan.
Billy harboured no illusions. He was sure all his communications were being monitored, and it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that Gatlin's mercanix had installed a mini-propsphere somewhere nearby, just to keep him honest. He deliberately thought in vague, non-threatening terms, and every so often he forced himself to repeat "Mercanix makes me Feel Whole", like a mantra.
Around midnight, he fell into a shallow sleep, populated by capering Gatlin-demons. In one dream he found himself tied up, looking into the eye of a giant Projector. A wave of pain shot out of its bore and Billy screamed himself awake. Both his legs had cramped up simultaneously and he thrashed and convulsed until he had freed himself of his covers. Massaging furiously, he hobbled out of bed and got dressed. His ticker said it was 4:27.
Might as well get started.

"Okay, this is how I'm going to play it," said Billy to Gatlin, three hours later. He'd made his way back to Mercanix headquarters by six, spent half an hour customizing his office and a further fifteen minutes luxuriating in it, and buzzed Gatlin as soon as MercNet let him know the president had arrived. Gatlin had hurried down three floors to Billy's abode, prompting more than a few raised eyebrows amongst his coterie of hangers-on, Billy was sure. Now here he was, looking expectant.
"I need a team of rewriters. My Net presence needs to be eradicated, every last trace of it. I need a false history to be implanted. It's got to be fast and it's got to be perfect. I need to be made so attractive to G.S. that they'll hire me on the spot."
Gatlin looked incredulous. "What, we're not paying you enough? What are you planning?"
"I can't really say," said Billy. "I've just had one pretty sleepless night to work this out. But getting on staff is probably the only way I can get in to General Systems at all. And I can't use a fake Mercanix history--they'd be rightly suspicious of any "disgruntled employee" flimflammery. So it's got to be some other company. Ramp up my qualifications, make me irresistible."
Gatlin nodded. "We can do that. It can be ready by the end of the day."
"Good," said Billy. "Incidentally," he continued, "have you thought about smuggling a Mercanix propsphere in to G.S. space? That'd win you the war without a shot being fired."
The president sighed. "Yes, we've been over that scenario many times. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with it. For one thing, our 'sphere uses an immense amount of power. It's huge. There's just no viable way to get it from here to there. For another, there's always the chance G.S. could overpower us and steal our technology. And even if we succeeded, we'd only turn their head office. Their subsidiaries--and there are many--would immediately split off and regroup."
"Okay," said Billy. "Set me up."

Billy had his Mercanix ware removed and a full set of General Systems mods installed. The tech who completed this operation scowled at him. "Well, this is a first," she said.
Billy nodded. "All for a good cause."
The tech regarded him with ill-concealed distaste. "This is crapware," she intoned with finality. "And they actually demanded I put a neut in, as well!"
"A newt?" said Billy with some alarm.
"Yeah, it neutralizes the pain you should be feeling from having this G.S. shit in your body."
Thank God for small mercies, Billy thought. Check that--thank Mercanix. They're thinking of me.
"Thank you," he said.
"Don't mention it."

-----------------------------------

Sheila Stratton, the head of Human Resources at General Systems, looked impressed. "William Martin", she said, "your record speaks for itself. And it says I should hire you. But I need to ask, what brings you here?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Well, you've got ten years put in at Causland's, I see. Great store. I shop there myself. The marketing campaigns you've run are phenomenal. 'Causland's Costs Less'," she quoted. "Was that oinking piggy bank really your idea?"
"Well, not entirely," said Billy. He'd been warned to avoid lying as much as possible, on the theory that a lie might be detected and ruin his plans before he could set them in motion. "Any good marketing campaign is teamwork."
Sheila beamed at him. "Well put. But why would you leave such a lucrative position to come here? I'm sure you must know we're only offering an RR of 8 to start. What were you making before, if I may ask?"
Would 13+ throw you? "Actually, not as much as you'd think. My last position paid 6. I'm looking for new horizons, new challenges." And boy, have I found them.
"That's criminal!" said Sheila. "I'd like to give you a little signing bonus, but I'll have to run that by the big boys. We've had to shuffle a few folks around, but once I briefed them on your qualifications, everybody told me I'd be nuts to let you go. Congratulations. You're our new Director of Marketing."
Is this where she tells me my first project is to go and kill J. Paul Gatlin? thought Billy.
"Thank you, ma'am. If I may ask, what have you got on the go right now in terms of marketing?"
Sheila stood and paced. "You've arrived none too soon," she mused. "In three weeks, Gerry Knowles will unveil our new Morale system. Its purpose is to counteract Mercanix' proprietary sphere. You'll be working in conjunction with Gerry and his team to fine-tune the first beams. He'll bring you up to date. Can you start tomorrow? We'll pay all reparations to Causland's, of course."
Shit, thought Billy. And what'll Causland's say when they get all this money in return for the spiriting away of their entirely fictitious V.P.: Marketing, William Martin?
"No reparations necessary", said Billy smoothly. "I'm actually on a two month sabbatical right now. My replacement...well, she's more than capable."
"Hmm," said Sheila, smiling. "Maybe we should hire her too, then. Welcome to General Systems, Mr. Martin."
"Thank you, ma'am. It's a privilege," said Billy.

11 July, 2006

Market Share, Part III

Billy stared at Gatlin for what seemed like an eternity, unable to process what he'd just heard. He wants me to...to...
This is a joke, right?
"Oh, it's no joke, I assure you, Mr. Madison", said Gatlin. The president of Mercanix smirked at him. "Did you honestly think a simple deskbound job paid 13+? Now that would be a joke."
Billy stood up quickly and turned towards the door. With his back to Gatlin, he said "I'm not qualified for this, and I have serious moral qualms about accepting this position. In offering it to me, you have broken at least two laws that I know of, and"--Christ, it was a long walk to the door!--"I'm an honest man. Thank you..."
He was interrupted by slow, sardonic applause.
Against his better judgement, he turned around.
"Oh, very good, Billy, very well done," enthused Gatlin. "But I think you'll find that you have, shall we say, an aptitude for this sort of work. While you may not be qualified in terms of prior experience, our scanners suggest you have just the temperament and attitude we're looking for.
Billy stared at Gatlin. Did this asshole actually tell me I'm a born killer?
"See, that's part of what I mean," said Gatlin. "Most people are intimidated by me. Just walking into this office has caused more than one person to lose control of his bowels. Yet you strolled through those doors without a care in the world. An impressive performance."
"I was acting, you asshole!" blurted Billy, without thinking. Instantly his entire body was wracked with spasms of pain and he collapsed, writhing, to the floor. The pain intensified until Billy thought he'd cheerfully die...and then was gone as suddenly as it had appeared. Billy was weeping. He couldn't help it.
"Now, now, Mr. Madison," said Gatlin as if to a three-year-old, "that won't do. Thinking I'm an asshole is one thing. Saying it out loud, however, is unacceptable. "
Gatlin stood and rumbled his way around the desk. Billy watched him approach for a moment and then curled into a fetal position, whimpering. Gatlin smiled down at him, reached out his hand, and tapped him gently on the shoulder. Billy recoiled, and Gatlin said "There, there, now. I'm sure you've learned a valuable lesson just then. Let me help you up."
"I'm fine", said Billy, not entirely sure he was telling the truth. He gingerly made his way to his feet.
"Do I have a choice, sir?" he asked.
Gatlin laughed. "Oh, there's always a choice, Mr. Madison," he intoned. "In fact, you have many choices. You could take the job and get your hands dirty. You could take the job and direct a team of mercenaries--we call them "mercanix", of course--and stay clean. Or you could--just for the sake of argument--not take the job, and, well, then you'd die. Do you want to die, Mr. Madison?"
This last was spoken in the same tone Gatlin would have used to offer him coffee. Somehow it frightened Billy even more. He decided to try one more tack.
"May I ask why I was chosen for this...honour?"
"You may," said the president, "and I may tell you. We've had our eyes on you for years, Mr. Madison. Your record at SellThru was exemplary. You've got a streak of loyalty in you a mile wide--a rare trait these days. Your intelligence tests highly on every scale we've got. You've shown a marked tendency to bend rules whenever possible. In short," Gatlin concluded, "you're perfect."
Billy sat down. "Supposing I took this job and did...what you're asking me to do. Suppose the police caught me. Then what?"
"Oh, Mr. Madison!" said Gatlin, chuckling heartily. "If the police caught you, you wouldn't be a very competent Director, now, would you?"
Billy was thinking fast. "These mercen--'mercanix'. If they did the job under my nominal direction, where would my accountabilities lie?"
Gatlin smilled. "A good question. I'm afraid that for obvious reasons I can't give you access to my Projector, the machine responsible for your regrettable...incident...a few minutes ago. However, there's nobody and nothing to say you can't intimate you have access to the Projector. Our employees here are generally very well trained. They're not told who has the power to elicit pain and who does not. After awhile, they tend to treat everyone with kid gloves...especially if you project an aura of self-confidence. Which you've already shown you can do."
Billy had never felt less self-confident in his life.
"Any further questions?"
"One", said Billy. "What is the, uh, deadline for this project?"
Gatlin looked at him. "I thought I had made that clear, Mr. Madison. General Systems is very close to developing a propsphere of their own. This can not be allowed to happen. You may, if you wish, start tomorrow--but if I hear on this evening's newscast that G.S. has a propsphere ready to go, it'll be on your head."
Not fair! whined Billy's mind. Not fucking fair!"
Gatlin's next words reminded Billy of his mother...and chilled him to his core.
"Life's not fair, Mr. Madison."

______________________________________________________

Just two more parts to go, I promise, then the Breadbin will return to its regularly scheduled programming.

09 July, 2006

Market Share, part II

Billy accessed his ticker during the one minute ride to the 92nd floor. He looked down and to the left, squinched his eyes shut, and thought "JOB POSTING". The text that played back read

DIRECTOR OF MARKETING (CONTRACT DIVISION) MERCANIX, INCORPORATED

Are you a proven marketing executive looking to take that Next Step Forward and Feel Whole?
Mercanix has an opportunity tailor made just for you! We require a solid results-oriented penetration expert to manage and implement contracts from inception through completion and follow-through.

Candidates must be in excellent mental and physical condition, able to withstand the rigors of a demanding and stressful position.
We offer the best benefits in the business, including RR 13+

We are always looking to increase our already impressive market share. Can you help us? Apply MERCANIX DIRECTPOS 34591.

Pretty vague, he thought. Within the propsphere, the letters in MERCANIX seemed to glow with a gentle, welcoming light. But what really had Billy aglow was the RR 13+. That remuneration rating translated to practically unlimited wealth. Enough so that he could buy pretty much anything he wanted, then turn around and do it again next week. And every week thereafter, if he chose.
His current RR, working for that rinky-dinky marketing outfit SellThru, was 6. That was okay to live on--Billy wasn't starving, not by any means. He'd started at a 1.5 RR eight years back...entry level wages, just half a level above the minimum paid to all citizens, working or not. He'd busted tail for that company, jumped to a 4 within a year, then saw his salary and buying power stagnate. It was definitely time to move on.
13+. That was--Billy calculated, using the archaic currency his Grandma had told him existed when she was a girl--about three and a half million dollars a week. Or more. Wouldn't Grandma just shit if she could see me now? Talk about reaching for the brass ring.
For a minute his face clouded over with self-doubt. Can I do this? he thought. Am I worth 13+?
His dad appeared in his mind's eye, saying "Of course you can, Billy, never fear. You can do anything. And you're worth...wait a second, did you say 13+? Cripes, that's a lot of dough. Yep," the voice concluded, grudgingly, it seemed to Billy, "you're worth it. Never let anyone think otherwise, anyways."

The elevator doors opened onto a paradise. Billy stepped out and immediately thought he might drown in the carpet. He turned left and followed the hallway about a hundred metres, trying not to gawk. The walls appeared to be sculpted out of solid gold. Every five meters a hidden spotlight illuminated a painting on the wall. Matisse. Renoir. Jesus, was that a Rembrandt?

He turned right and entered suite 9201.

The view from here had knocked lesser men over. The office--if you could call something the size of a small factory an office--had windows wall to wall and floor to ceiling on three sides. The 92nd story of the Mercanix building was above cloud level. Also above pretty much everything else in the city. You could see forever.
Controlling his face, Billy strode up to the receptionist as if he belonged here.
"Hello," he said, "I'm Billy Madison. I have an interview slated for...right now."
"Hello, Billy," she purred. My God, he thought, never mind the paintings and this view, Mercanix is so rolling in it they can afford human receptionists? Let alone sex kittens like this?
"You can...come right in."
Billy mentally poured ice water down his pants and sauntered into the office of J. Paul Gatlin, President of Mercanix.
He blinked.
The place was done up like an old hunting lodge, circa 1900. Post and beam construction. Gorgeous lake view out the west wall. The sunset told Billy this was a VR screen--that and the fact he was 92 storeys in the air. But the illusion was perfect. You could even hear waves.
A fire crackled in the fireplace set into the north wall. There were animal heads mounted everywhere. Billy suspected most of them were extinct, at least on this continent. Certainly he couldn't identify any of them.
Billy took all this in over about three seconds, then focused on the desk in the center of the room and the man rising to greet him.
The desk appeared to have been carved out of a giant redwood tree. It was easily thirty feet long.The man looked like he had made the desk himself. Six foot eight and broad as a barrel, J. Paul Gatlin had one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. It was smiling now, that face, and Billy thought he'd do well to keep it that way. This man's temper was the stuff of legend.

They shook hands. You learned a lot about a man's sense of self-esteem from his handshake. Too weak, and the guy was a pushover; too strong, and he was trying to compensate for something. Gatlin's handshake was strong without being macho, and Billy instinctively weakened his grip just a titch. The idea wasn't to get into a pissing contest with the likes of J. Paul Gatlin. He could outpiss you without unzipping.

"Billy Madison", the voice boomed. "Good to see you."
"It's an honor, sir," Billy replied.
"Yes, it is, isn't it? Sit down, please. We have much to discuss."
Billy pulled a chair out and lowered himself into it. The trick now was to let Gatlin guide the interview. The trick was to say everything he wanted to hear without being too kiss-assy about it. In other words, the trick was to act as if the job was already his.
"You've got the job, by the way," Gatlin said.
"Thank you, sir," said Billy without batting an eye. Inside, he was thinking what the hell?
"But I'm afraid I'm not really certain what the job entails."
Tell me," said Gatlin, "what do you know about Mercanix, Incorporated?"
Now Billy was back on familiar ground. For a moment he gathered himself, thinking I'm being interviewed for a job he says is mine already?
Billy spoke in rapid point form, summarizing everything he'd been able to access online before coming down here. "Founded 2009, by your grandfather. He liked the word Mercanix, with its connotation of things being fixed. Over seventy companies have been gathered into the Mercanix fold, making everything from music software to envirocars. Very well, too. Your market share's at 48% and growing, helped along by that amazing proprietary sphere you've developed. Your marketing's second to none. General Systems"--Billy felt a faint pang just saying the name--"is your only real competitor, everybody else is just small fry. I just bought MusicMuse this morning, and so far I really like it."
"Bullshit", said Gatlin. "You think General Systems has a 'functionally superior' product, and you only bought MusicMuse to flatter our scanners. But," he continued, "I would have done the same thing in your place, and besides, you're right. G.S. has better mindsearch capability...right now. Their Harmony can play a selected song before you're even aware you want to hear it. If they ever stumble across our propsphere blueprints, we're doomed."
Gatlin stood up suddenly, his face blank, like a cliff. "That's where you come in, Billy. Your title is Director of Marketing, Contracts Division. I'm issuing your first contract right now. It's for the head of G.S.'s Propsphere Development Team. The head of the head, if you catch my meaning."

To be continued...

08 July, 2006

Market Share, Part I

The street teemed. Shit, thought Billy. You have to suck in your gut to turn around. He had a job interview at 2:30, six blocks from here. Billy blinked twice and accessed the ticker running across the top of his NonUV. An ad for Negrad suncreens played across the ticker, and he blinked in annoyance. Do they really think I'm interested in Negrads?, he wondered. That's like seeing an ad for Pepsi on a Coke can.
1:52. No, 1:53. No way in hell would he make it, not through this crowd. They actually seemed to be pressing him back a step for every two steps he took.
A little frantic, Billy looked left, then right. No chink in the wall of humanity surrounding him. Damn it all, he thought. I should have done this over the Net, like everyone else. Still could, I suppose...there's an alcove over there that might serve. But if I teleview, I probably won't get the job.
Billy Madison was one of those rare curmudgeonly types who still believed in face-to-face contact...especially with people who had the power to jump his remuneration rating up seven or eight levels overnight. He had an old-time thing people once called "charisma", but it only worked in Slo. His many online avatars said all the right things, but they lacked a certain...persuasiveness. So he'd taken an envirocab down to the Nexus, the closest term to the Mercanix building, figuring he'd walk the rest of the way. He could use the exercise.
I could use a little more time, he thought.
He blinked twice. 1:59.
"NEED MORE TIME?" came a voice in his right ear. It was accompanied by the image of clock hands whirring around and around. They morphed into a pill, and the word PEECE appeared above it. "TRY A LITTLE PEECE. CALM THOSE THOUGHTS! MELLOW OUT!"
Billy rubbed his eyes. Damned if he'd ever get used to this neuromarketing.
There was one thing guaranteed to chill him out, and it wasn't a pot pill. He touched his left ear and imagined the lake where his grandpa's place used to be. A bell chimed softly and his Mercanix MusicMuse activated. Secret Garden, he thought.
A song called Serenade To Spring began, and Billy felt better almost instantly. So it was--he blinked twice--2:07. So what? Three blocks to go. He'd make it.
It was a great idea to get this MusicMuse, he thought. The scanner would check out his wares and note a Mercanix product. Prudent. You couldn't expect to be hired to market Mercanix ware if you were adorned with General Systems ware yourself. Of course, he thought, G.S. was functionally superior, but all the same--
A bolt of pain shot through his head. It felt for all the world like he'd been clubbed. He staggered and put a hand to the back of his neck.
Sorry, he thought. Rogue neuron firing there...what was I thinking? Only Mercanix made you feel whole. That was the slogan, after all. Mercanix: Feel Whole.
The pain abated.
Billy had forgotten about the propshere, which went live three weeks ago. Within five square blocks of Mercanix, neuroreceivers analyzed incredibly subtle fluctuations in the energy matrix, in effect reading the mind of every passerby. Negative thoughts activated a neurotransmitter that in turn activated pain receptors deep in your brain. If you imagined something like bombing the Mercanix building, the news said, you'd feel as if you were being ripped apart. Imagining Mercanix products, how useful they were and how they made you "Feel Whole", would generate a sense of well-being that would wash over you like a tide. They had set the positive reinforcement too high on their first trial and the president of Mercanix, J. Paul Gatlin, had ejaculated in his pants on live Netfeed.
General Systems was said to be frantically trying to develop a propsphere of their own. Billy had a mental picture of competing propspheres forcing people's thoughts to turn first one way, than another. What the hell do they need me for, he thought. Their marketing is perfect.

Mercanix headquarters towered over him. His ticker said 2:28. Okay, he thought. 92nd floor. Let's do this thing.


To be continued...

07 July, 2006

Preview of Coming Attraction

Still more than three months to go, and the anticipation's already racheting up.
But I'm weird that way. I mean, I'm scouting replacements for Harold, our Toyota Echo...by the time it comes time to replace Harold, half the models I'm looking at now won't frigging exist. I'm already plotting out retirement plans (move somewhere cheap and on water--either out east or somewhere way the hell north and gone in Ontario). Retirement's thirty years away, by the way.
I used to be obsessed with the past. Now it seems I spend a good chunk of time in the future. It's not borne of some mad rush to escape my present, believe me: I love my life, its boring stretches included. But thinking about future escapades lends a little frisson to even the most dreary of days.
Eva and I are of like mind this way, as we are in so many other ways. She's the planner: I shit you not, I've seen her make a list of the lists she needs to make. We'll talk over the plans, but both of us know that's largely a formality: I have a devil-may-care attitude towards most of what life throws at me. I'd be perfectly content--have been perfectly content--sitting in a hotel reading a book, so long as she's with me.
Our October sixth anniversary trip has undergone a number of transformations since we started planning it at the beginning of this year. First it was Costa Rica. One of Eva's colleagues went and made the mistake of showing her pictures of monkeys. Monkeys visible from the hotel window. I'm not sure there's something that would act on me the way that did on her: maybe the prospect of a day riding roller-coasters comes close.
Unfortunately, Eva is becoming increasingly sun-sensitive. She can burn to the point of blistering in minutes, while people around her don't even tan. And Costa Rica is, to put it mildly, kind of sunny.
So we scuttled those plans and considered Manitoulin Island. This is the world's largest freshwater island, it's not too far away by car and ferry, and it satisfies our urge--it's a very strong urge--to lock ourselves away from the world.
We found several nice places to potentially stay, but none of them had everything we were looking for. We wanted a nice cabin/chalet-type-thing with fireplace, jacuzzi...and a kitchen, or at least a kitchenette.
I know what you're thinking. Who goes on vacation to cook all their own meals?
That would be us. Not all our own meals, but quite a few of them. It saves money, for one thing, and it's the perfect answer to those evenings when you get a serious jones on for Kraft Dinner or Hamburger Helper. Last I looked, resort restaurants don't cater to that sort of whim. Hey, I'll eat gourmet food and like it, but I'm pretty simple to please.
Nothing like that on Manitoulin. Besides, our trip got delayed a week because of constraints imposed on me at work, and we'd been counting on the last ferry run of the season.
Widening our search, we found the Blue Spruce Resort near Huntsville. I've searched exhaustively, and this is almost certainly the only resort in Ontario whose owners think like us. Jacuzzi, fireplace, lake view...and kitchen. Perfect. So we called.
Pefectly booked. Six months ahead of time, this was.
Shit.
That left Ottawa, which has beckoned us before. For one reason or another, we'd never made it. Eva's never been there, and I was there in Grade 8 (a blog entry in itself, let me tell you) and always wanted to go back. We went so far as to book a room at the Doral Inn...and then we read some so-so and no-no reviews, realized the place was a three-storey walk-up, and wondered if we couldn't do better. I suggested we try the Quebec side of the river. Lo and behold, the Ramada Plaza Manoir du Casino fairly leaped off the screen at me. For just a bit more money than the Doral, we'd get a jet tub, electric fireplace, free grand breakfast buffet, and the rather exotic (to us, at least) feeling of being in a whole different province. We're still convenient to all the places we want to visit: the Parliament Buildings, the Museum of Civization, Byward Market, the National Gallery, and the Casino du Lac Leamy.
So that's booked.
And I can't wait.
Just a little more than three months to go...

05 July, 2006

It's summertime, and the Leafin's not so easy.

I know, it's summer, and hockey is the last thing on most people's minds. God knows, the Stanley Cup playoffs go on and on, longer than Celine Dion's heart. In my world, the NHL playoffs would end the night before baseball season got underway and would start the night after the final game of the World Series. But then again, my world isn't ruled by the almighty dollar sign.
And just because the playoffs are over doesn't mean I can sweep hockey out of my head. On the contrary, what with this frenzied free-agent madness, hockey's top of mind every day right now.

I have to admit in analyzing the lockout and its fallout, I was dead wrong in almost every particular. I thought the game would take years to recover, and that at least three U.S. teams would fold. Although the television ratings in the States are nothing short of abysmal, and hockey still ranks below, say, team tetherball in American consciousness, the gate for most teams is up, in some cases dramatically.
I thought the crackdown on obstruction would last until sometime in mid-November, but they were still calling five-on-threes in the Cup finals. As a result, the game sped up considerably and became fun to watch again.
I thought hell had frozen over when Trevor Linden led his players into the jaws of a salary cap everybody had sworn up and down they'd never accept. Turns out the cap hasn't hurt. In fact, money's getting thrown around same as it ever was. What this cap has done is levelled the playing field so that more teams can afford, say, a Chris Pronger. Let the bidding wars commence.
My beloved Leafs backed themselves into a corner last year by overpaying for a bunch of mediocre or worse free agents, by opting to keep Ed Belfour, by inept coaching. Even so, they went on a hell of a tear at the end of the year and almost snuck into the playoffs. As eighth-seeded Edmonton showed this year by coming to within a whisker's distance of the Cup, anything would have been possible.
But the playoffs were missed, and MLSEL thus missed out on a bunch of revenue they've learned to count on. Clearly, something had to be done.
Something was. First, Quinn was fired and Paul Maurice was brought in to replace him. Then Domi and Belfour were let go, and we brought in Andrew Raycroft, Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill.

Hmm.

When you're a Leaf fan, every move your team makes is either brilliant or terrible. There's no middle ground. Here, accordingly, is a schizophrenic assessment of our progress so far this off-season.

So. Paul Maurice. He coached so many of our yowwens so well over the past season: every callup looked comfortable and confident. He'll whip this team into shape. Reached for comment, Rod Brind'amour guaranteed the Leafs would make the playoffs in 2006-2007.
Funny, isn't it, how Maurice left the 'Canes and then they won a Cup? I wonder, if a Leaf playoff spot hinges on a game between us and Carolina, will Brind'amour order his team to tank?
Andrew Raycroft. He won a Calder Trophy two years ago with fantastic play. He's just the goalie we need until Tuukka Rask is ready to take over.
...Except we traded Rask for Raycroft. And hey, did you notice Raycroft was one of the few goaltenders in the League last year whose stats were worse than Eddie Belfour's? Nice upgrade there, eh?
Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill. Big, bruising defensemen, one with offensive upside, one with a nice defensive game. They'll take pressure off Kaberle and McCabe. The blueline looks set.
Really? Kubina's a career -98. Gill is slower than constipated mole-asses. Kaberle remains our only solid all-around defenseman.
Up front, we've done...nothing. As of this writing, there's still no winger in the organization fit to skate on the same ice as Mats Sundin. It looks like we're going to re-sign Lindros, who spent most of last year injured, and Allison, who spent most of last year handing out pucks to the opposition. But as JFJ said, the problem last year wasn't scoring goals, it was letting too many in. Hence Raycroft, Kubina and Gill.

Just once I would like to see Leafs management do something bold, something that the nattering nabob of negativity in me won't seize on. I know hockey's a crapshoot, but it's long past time we shot the crap out of our team.

There's always next year....

Uncle Ted

Imagine this: it's 7:30 in the morning, New Year's Eve. Your husband is heading out the door, on his way to save the world. He's a cop: that's what they do, every day, in small ways...and occasionally in larger ways as well.
You've learned to live with that small, niggling voice that resides deep inside the spouses of all police officers. It still speaks to you, every now and again, after all these years; it's cursed with a vivid imagination, and mostly what it imagines is all manner of horror befalling your husband. A routine traffic stop that suddenly goes bad. An accident on the water. A domestic dispute wherein the guy decides to give the cop a little of what his wife's been getting. Such is the lot of the partners of cops.
Odds are that voice is pretty quiet, today. It's New Year's Eve, after all. You've got plans for tonight, once your husband's off shift.
He turns to you now, gives you a peck--amazing, how good that still feels after so many years of marriage. He says "I love you." Then he says "I don't feel so good."
Then he drops dead of a massive heart attack.

My Uncle Ted was an amazing man. If he wasn't smiling, a smile was always near to hand, and when fun was to be had, it was also to be shared. Of course, some of the fun was at my expense. For instance, every Christmas, he'd tell me Santa had a nice pink dress all picked out for me. The more I protested that I did not want a pink dress, the more he'd say that's what I really wanted. One year, he announced Santa was not getting me a pink dress.
"He's not?"
"No."
"Good. Because I don't want a pink dress."
"He's decided to get you a yellow dress instead."

If I did something to impress him, he'd say "not bad, for a little girl." And I learned young what "pull my finger" meant. In his case it meant run. Fast.

But it was the game we played all through my childhood--in fact all through my teens, too--that really epitomized Uncle Ted for me. The object of the game was simple: when going to his house, I had to sneak up on him and say "Hi, George!" before he could do the same to me. It was his house...he usually saw me coming. But not always. I think I managed to "George" him twice.

Ted Jackson lived in Parry Sound, which was paradise for me growing up. Going "up north" always meant fun in abundance. Ted, my aunt Dawna, and my cousins Terri and Todd were a big part of that fun. I remember games of road hockey played with Terri and her friends, scads of dinky cars I got to play with from Todd's collection, the piano in the basement I always made a beeline for, and once, unforgettably, sitting in the Jacksons' living room, reading a book called The Mystery of the Green Ghost that scared the almighty crap out of my eight-year-old self.
I remember wondering how somebody who lived in Parry Sound, Ontario, could ever get to be such a devout Chicago Blackhawks fan, and why anybody would ever want to be a Chicago Blackhawks fan.
But mostly what comes to mind when thinking about those childhood visits to Uncle Ted and his family is how welcome I always felt when I was there.

Ted spent much of his working life out on the Georgian Bay, patrolling around the 30,000 islands with the O.P.P's Marine unit. It's only fitting, then, that they named a marine rescue boat after him. The T.K. Jackson makes its rounds still. I'd like to think the spirit of my uncle Ted rides the waves with her.

Ted Jackson died in 1992. I never got the chance to say goodbye. I have been terribly remiss in not writing about him before now. That doesn't mean I haven't thought of him. I think of him often. I know it's years late, but the game we played demanded patience. And so...


Bye, George.

I miss you.



01 July, 2006

Dominion Day greetings

Happy Canada Day, one and all.
What a great country we live in.
Our government is respected by those few people outside the country that notice (or care) we exist. We're a democracy; we generally tend not to throw people in jail without a good reason. (Hell, we don't like to throw people in jail no matter what the reason.) We don't go barging into other countries to make war, even if some people think that's what Afghanistan's about; instead, we invite the whole world here and give them all free rein to bring their wars with them.

We believe in one health care system accessible to all...which is a good thing, since it keeps eating up more and more of our money: sooner or later we'll have no choice but to go and live in hospitals.

We're a tolerant nation. So long as you're not the American government, a born-again Christian, or a Canadian celebrity, we'll tolerate you just fine. We go out of our way not to offend groups whose members have explicitly threatened us and our way of life. The concept of "treason" is unknown in Canada. Indeed, this is perhaps the only country on the planet in which excessive nationalism is itself considered vaguely treasonous.

Check this out. This is the original version of O Canada. You hear a little snippet of it at hockey games in Toronto, but you'd have to attend a Habs home game to get the whole thing:

O Canada! Land of our forefathers
Thy brow is wreathed with a glorious garland of flowers.
As in thy arm ready to wield the sword,
So also is it ready to carry the cross.
Thy history is an epic of the most brilliant exploits.
Thy valour steeped in faith
Will protect our homes and our rights
Will protect our homes and our rights.

Yike. It doesn't rhyme and the scansion sucks, but let's ignore that for a minute. Far worse horrors lurk within.
Line 1: where are the foremothers, eh? Granted, the version we all know prominently features "in all thy sons command" (which I have heard more than once changed to 'in all of us command', but they haven't made this change official yet.) Remember, this was written in 1906, before we allowed women to vote. Has our government apologized for this yet? After all, it often seems like we've apologized for everything else. As long as the offence happened years ago, we're all ready with the apologies. If it's happening now, buster, you're on your own.
Line 3: an arm? ready to wield a sword? How grotesque is that? We are a nation of peacekeepers. Everyone knows this: it's why we rank behind such luminaries as Namibia in terms of peacekeepers per capita. It's also why we have been tacitly encouraged to forget such things as Vimy Ridge and D-Day.
Besides, once you mention swords, it's a short hop to "bombs bursting in air", which is simply unacceptable.
Line 4: a cross? Jesus Christ, that's worse than a sword!
Line 5: Hey, everybody! Did you know Canada has a history? It's not like they bother to teach much of it in school.
Line 6: A double whammy here. Valour? We had it once, but we've gone soft. Faith? That's an f-word. You can't say that in public.
Lines 7 and 8: The Constitution we live under has no mention of our homes, or indeed of any property rights at all. No protection there. And given that somebody can break into your house at breakfast, waggle his butt through court at lunch, and be free to do it again after dinner, I wouldn't say there's much protection there, either. Where's that damn valour and faith when you need it?


This is a nation of contradictions. We say we want a vibrant Canadian culture, immerse ourselves in Hollywood culture every chance we get, and define ourselves chiefly as "not American". We fancy ourselves great stewards of the environment, but our record on greenhouse gas emissions is worse than that of the United States and we waste energy at a profligate pace. According to a recent poll, 47% of us are bothered by "lack of time", but 70% of us watch at least an hour of television each and every day. This country is massive...its size defeats most imaginations...but it's not big enough to house Toronto's garbage.

But most of all, this is a country of bitchers and moaners and assorted bellyachers. It rivals hockey as the national pastime. We all think we're so hard done by, but hey! we're allowed to express that sentiment without getting dead.

Canada: a great country. Try it on for size.