31 May, 2007

Comics!

I think I've been a little too deep lately. Not to mention too pretentious, too intellectual, too...frigging...boring.

So...THE FUNNIES!

Here are some of my favourite comic clips.

WARNING: Parental guidance strongly advised. In some cases--notably #3--the guidance should be well away from the computer speaker. Not work safe, not least of all because you probably don't want your colleagues to notice you've pissed yourself.

High speed connection recommended.

1) Ron James on Tim Horton's

2) George Carlin on losing things

3) Nikki Payne

We saw this routine live a few years back. I couldn't breathe. I cried in places, I was laughing so hard. The room actually went silent a few times because nobody else could breathe, either. I must reiterate the warning above: although they've bleeped her here, Nikki's material is...dirty.

4) Bill Engvall

The more I hear, the more I like. He kept us sane on the road back from Florida.

5) Stuart MacLean needs to pee

If you've never heard of the Vinyl Cafe, more's the pity. It's a radio program, recorded live in a different Canadian town each week. It features independent music and--most entrancingly, as far as I'm concerned--each week a new story, usually concerning "Dave and Morley" and their family and friends. It's gentle humour, but often gut-bustingly funny anyway. I strongly identify with Dave, who tends towards absentmindedness and is prone to petty disasters at every turn.
MacLean has written several books of Dave and Morley stories, and I have them all. They're great in print, but MacLean's voice adds a lot.

This one's one of his rare non-Dave-and-Morley stories. Funny, though.

6) Jeremy Hotz Saw him live, too, something like, yikes, fifteen years ago now. One of the best comedians I've ever run across.

Finally...


7) The Frantics on dirty words. (Not what you think...although you'll never hear these words the same way again.)


30 May, 2007

Souled

Being a rambling dissertation on the co-existence of science and spirituality


"Within you is the whole universe. You are a microcosm of the macrocosm.”
--Rabbi Shoni Labowitz

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
--T.S. Eliot

This month's issue of Discover magazine is an absolute goldmine. If you're me, at least. Reading about the cutting edge of science--articles such as "Soul Search", "Blowing In The Wind" and "In No Time"--my mind gorged itself on new information, evaluated, and found--pleasantly--that it all reinforced what I had believed already.

If you ask a scientist what time is, or what consciousness is--or even what an atom is--and she's feeling particularly honest, she'll respond "no idea. Next question."
We fool ourselves into thinking we know how things work. The reality is we have not the slightest idea how things work.

Take time, for instance. Einstein was the first person to mess with our idea of time as a constant, inexorable process. Quantum mechanics further buggers things up--so much so that the only way science has been able to unify Einstein's theories with quantum mechanics is to discard the whole idea of time, as if it didn't exist.

To which there are a whole lot of people, following a great many spiritual and philosophical traditions, saying, "well, duh."

I've long known in my gut that there's such a thing as a soul, that all souls are one, and that time is an illusion. I can claim no scientific evidence for any of these assertions...yet. According to "Soul Search", the amount of evidence for a "soul" depends on what you'd call "evidence". [Ken intrudes: the same can be said about the existence of a god or gods, incidentally. Some people see evidence everywhere; others don't see a shred of evidence. That's not a coincidence, at least to me. In my system of belief, all souls are parts of God. If that word "God" offends your sensibilities, you're more than free to substitute "Life", or "the Universe".]

While there is no rigid scientific quantification of a soul, there is a growing body of circumstantial evidence that something exists within us besides our minds. Witness near death experiences: people categorized brain-dead and subsequently revived have reported a vast array of sensory and mental experiences, often life-changing. These go well beyond the famous "tunnel/white light" phenomena that could be explained as the effect of some final neurons firing. How is it so many people report observing their bodies from above, and being aware of events in the room--or even beyond--while they were supposedly "dead"? Why do so many people recognize their dead relatives, or experience a "life-review", a sort of visual riffling of experiential cards? Science suggests this sort of thing is clearly impossible. Yet it persists.

Many religions and philosophies incorporate the idea that all souls are one. Christianity indirectly expresses this in several places, most notably Matthew 25: 35-45. Buddhism is chock-a-block with proverbs suggesting we are all one. Wicca, too. Hinduism holds that all souls are partially or fully identical with the Brahma, the supreme soul which encompasses All That Is.
These are OLD thoughts. Hinduism in particular dates back well over five thousand years, and is probably compiled from even older beliefs. It seems odd, at first blush, that so many disparate and ancient traditions should be telling us much the same thing. Especially when that thing is so contrary to what is generally held as truth today.

When I don my New Age cloak--something I don't often do in polite company--I find myself thinking that the only problem in our world is that we have forgotten we're all one, with each other and with the universe. Not that I blame anyone, exactly. The illusions we live under--that we are separate, that Time governs our existence--are terribly pervasive. How do you ignore the evidence of your eyes, whose basic function is to tell you where you end and where the world begins?

I will never forget the first lecture I attended in, of all things, literary criticism. The professor ambled into the room, turned, stared at us defiantly, and sneered. "Everything you know is wrong", he intoned.
Well, that got my attention. What ensued was a headache. The good prof started firing questions at us.
"Who was Adam's wife?"
Well, everybody knows this. "Eve", a dozen people shouted out.
"Was she his only wife?"
People were a little less certain on that, but only a little. "Yes", came the response.
"WRONG!" he shouted. "Lilith was Adam's wife. Also Cain's, and she had children by both. Don't believe me? Look it up."
At the time, Lilith Fair was popular, and that was the only connotation any of us could draw. I looked it up later that day, and couldn't believe what I found.
"When was the first computer built?"
I tackled that one, being something of a computer geek back then. "ENIAC, 1946", I called out, confidently.
"Not bad", he responded, "you're only off by a little over two thousand years."
I thought of calling him on that one, but decided there was no point. I'd just be proven wrong in front of the whole class...ugh. Later on, I looked that up, too..and just about shit myself.
The third inquiry, the one relevant to this post, came."What happens if you throw a ball against a brick wall?"
The entire class sat silent, trying to puzzle out the trap. Nobody could do it. Eventually somebody behind me muttered "it...bounces back...?"
"Well, most of the time, yes, you're right", the prof admitted. "But! If you throw the ball just right, it could go right...through...the wall! Or," he added as an afterthought, "it could get stuck halfway through."
Well now, that was patent bullshit. Several voices, mine included, were raised in protest. The prof didn't budge. "The ball and the wall are both made of atoms", he said. "What we think of as solid is in reality almost entirely empty space. If you throw that ball just so, the atoms of the ball and the wall will mesh. Oh, it's almost an infinite improbability"--I laughed here, thinking of Douglas Adams--but, at least in theory, it could happen."

If, as is now commonly known, so-called "solids" are mostly empty space...and if, as "Blowing In The Wind" asserts, you're currently inhaling part of what was, once, Caesar's (or Beethoven's, or Hitler's) last breath--not to mention submicrosopic bits of each of their bodies...notions of boundaries between the Self and the Universe tend to break down. It becomes possible to perceive the interconnectedness of all things...scientifically. Spirituality and science begin to converge. Indeed, at the quantum level they look a lot alike already.

Douglas Adams also wrote that "Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so." He was right with the first part, at least. "In No Time" (which seems to be available only in the print edition), is similar in bent to an article here. Basically, these articles argue that time is no more than a system of measurement devised by humans; that in ultimate reality we are all eternal and yet constantly changing (you can't even say 'instantaneously' since that would imply the existence of an instant). In other words, all times are one: everything that has ever happened, or will ever happen, is happening now. As preposterous as that sounds, scientists such as Stephen Hawking take it very seriously. Read the article and prepare to have your mind bent.

Spiritualists, of course, have taken the nonexistence of Time seriously for, well, a long time now. This is but one more example of the eventual convergence of science and spirituality. At some point, we're all going to look at each other and realize we've been using different languages to describe exactly the same thing.

-----------------------------------
Addendum:

I hated math in high school. Science too, to a lesser degree. In both those disciplines (see? they're called 'disciplines', no wonder I hated them!), the answer was either right or wrong, with no room for creative manipulation. Math, though--yecch! Endless, pointless quadratics, plottings on Cartesian graphs, word problems ("if train A left Pillow Station at half past bedtime, and Snoozer entered Dreamland half an hour later, how fast can you fall asleep?")
Nobody ever told me math was useful. Oh, teachers asserted it was, but gave really crappy examples. "Math will help you balance your checkbook." No, that's not math, that's arithmetic. Where after high school am I going to run into the square of the hypotenuse, hmm, Teach?
I'm only finding out now that mathematics has a purpose beyond the purely utilitarian That level of math is so far beyond me I have to take anything it says on faith. But boy! I wish somebody had told me to stick with the math that tormented me, that it could ultimately explain, well, everything. I might have gone into physics. I would just love to take all that stuff I "know" in my gut...and prove it.

27 May, 2007

Ken On Those Moving Picture Things

Can I let you in on a couple of peeves? (Sure, Ken: it is, after all, your blog.)

But first, because I suffer from literary bloat, some background.

A few weeks ago my wife's company had a big garage sale. There were probably fifteen or twenty of us set up in the company parking lot early Saturday morning. Of the lot, we had by far the least amount of stuff--just one table, whereas there were some people there who wouldn't have a house to go home to, it looked like.
Our collection included a couple of big boxes of books. It's hard for me to get rid of books, but eventually the question must be asked, am I ever going to read this again?, and answered uh, nope, so why not make room for stuff you will read?
We also had some Nintendo DS games that had failed to hold Eva's interest overmuch, a vacuum food sealer that we hadn't used in about three years, and a bunch of assorted bric-a-brac that just kind of floats into the Breadner household on the tides. It was decided that we'd drop off whatever didn't sell at Value Village.
That ended up being, for the most part, the books. Most everything else went, and even though I was the one getting rid of the damned things, I felt, perversely, insulted. Hey! I thought. I've toured all your tables, and all of you have crappy books. (I know this because in any given box of books, it's a fair bet I or Eva has read at least three.) We've got the best books! Buy our books! But no, out of all those books, I do believe The Da Vinci Code was the only one that went. Hardcover. For a buck. Geez, I thought everybody'd read that one by now.
This mass garage sale turned out to be almost as much a big swap meet, at least from our perspective. Some of our profit got invested into other people's castoffs: we got a beautiful standing picture frame, almost taller than I am, into which we will put pictures of each of our pets, with a family shot in the centre. I bet it retails for five or six times what we paid for it. Also a whole bunch of other stuff we'll actually use.
Next to us, some acquaintances of ours had one of the biggest spreads. There must have been unpwards of a hundred old cassettes, to which my eye was drawn almost in spite of itself. Sure enough, I'd owned quite a few of them at one point in my life, and oh my God, is that Tiffany?
It was. I closed my eyes for a second and a poster from my teenage bedroom sashayed into view, steaming slightly. Probably the only serious celebrity crush I ever had, back when I was too young to understand I'd never meet her and therefore any fantasy I had would be doomed before it even got off the ground. Even as a young man, I preferred my fantasies at least marginally plausible.
I mentioned to the guy manning the table that I had the hots for her, back in the day. "Ken," he said, "I still do." Thereafter it became a running joke, how badly I wanted that tape--and the hell of it was, I really didn't. I've got one operating cassette player in the house, never used, and if I really want to hear Tiffany, I can download her off Limewire. (Okay...I have.)
Down on the ground, my eye spied several boxes stuffed to overflowing with magazines...and zeroed in on a box containing at least five years worth of Entertainment Weekly. I'd had a subscription to that one for a short while, and still missed it. These issues appeared to be from 1995 to 2000 or so, and I considered the box a veritable gold mine of popular culture. Good blogging material. I'm always in search of good blogging material. Plus, I could delve into the reviews in search of new books to read. Oh what the hell, I might as well admit it: I was eager to read the reviews of things I'd read and seen, just to see if the critical response differed from mine at all. Yeah, I know how weird that sounds. That's me. I'll read reviews of books before, after, and even during the time I'm reading them.
"Five dollars the box," Perry told me, "and I'll throw in Tiffany for free."
"Keep the tape", I told him, "but I'll take the box."

Of course, I got into the car later and found that Tiffany tape had somehow come with me.

Anyway, the Entertainment Weeklys have proven interesting. There's an article from way back in 1995 advising people on whether or not they should buy a DVD player ("if you really like movies, you probably should--they're expensive, but should drop below $300 by Christmas"). Another article a couple of years later--concerning Titanic, actually, one of my favourite movies--discussed the merits of widescreen versus pan-and-scan. At the time, I learned, very few people were buying the widescreen edition of James Cameron's masterpiece, the usual reason why being given as "I hate letterboxing!"

And thus I found out that I'm stuck in 1998. Because popular attitudes have done a 180...it's almost impossible to find a new video release in fullscreen any more, and I still loathe widescreen. Hate it with a passion.

Damn it, does everybody have huge rectangular televisions now? Everybody except me? I've got a 27" TV, and if I put in any widescreen video it turns into a 9" TV instantly. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but it really does seem like two thirds of my screen goes black. My brain knows that this approach is faithful to what is shown on movie screens, but my eyes insist there's all kinds of things happening in the yawning black portion of my screen and my mouth says that widescreen presentation should go back where it belongs...to the theatre. Thank heavens for my DVD's zoom feature. One or two clicks of that and the movie actually takes up most of my television screen.

While I'm on the topic of DVDs, let me give you yet another anecdote. Several years back, we were at the in-laws for Christmas. We'd bought my brother-in-law a DVD player, and we'd brought along Men In Black to make sure he had something to play on it.
We set everything up and inserted the disc, and my mother-in-law suddenly said "Stop the movie!"
We looked at her.
"Stop the movie, it's right in the middle of it!"
The menu had come up--pretty small print, as I recall--superimposed on a scene that was indeed from the middle of the movie. We laughed and explained that this was just the opening menu, where you could choose to play the movie or view extras."
"Extras? Who needs extras? I just want to watch the movie."
Oh, I found that hysterical then, but as the years have gone by I've found myself repeating her words several times. Just today there was a column in the Toronto Sun lamenting the ubiquitous practice of "double dipping", that is, releasing a movie on DVD as a bare-bones single disc and then, weeks or months later, following that up with a "special edition" loaded with all manner of bonus material. And I thought again, I just want to watch the movie!

As I said, Titanic is one of my favourite movies of all time. It's not the love story--I could do without that--it's the ship itself, and Cameron's very faithful recreation of it. I was just entranced the first time I saw it, and have remained so ever since.
Loving this movie as I do, I did buy, eventually, the three-disc Special Collector's Edition. I was appalled to discover that the movie was still split between two discs. I watched the deleted scenes and realized quickly they had been deleted for a reason. Ditto the alternate ending. As for commentaries--which are on practically every movie released, nowadays--how do you like it when people babble over the movie you're trying to watch?
Or consider this. Ever watched a magician perform? Sure you have, most of us have, right? Do you appreciate it when some wag sitting next to you says "he didn't really saw her in half, see, there's this trap door, you can't see it, but it's right back...there..."

SHUT UP!

Combine those things--someone babbling over the magic, simultaneously spoiling the magic--and you have the essence of a movie commentary. Amazing to think people will pay extra for something they'd be outraged at if it happened anywhere but in their own home.

Unless you're my friend Jen--who's in Film Studies and whose dream will someday land her somewhere far away from here, making movies--do you really need to dig down into the blood and guts of a movie, throttling it to release its secrets? I think not.

The only extra I ever watch is the blooper reel, which can be pretty funny. But even then, I'm grousing to myself. Because it often seems like actors screw up intentionally. Seven or eight takes to say a simple sentence and I'd be out finding myself another actor.

And that's all I've got today. Snark!

25 May, 2007

Depressing?

My friend Jen made a fair comment on my last jeremiad, saying it was the most depressing post she has ever read. She then added something that got me to thinking..."and you said Pan's Labyrinth was dispiriting!"
Yeah, I did.
Fantasy is something I generally avoid in my reading and viewing. Call it a fault of mine, a defect of imagination, but I prefer my characters human and my settings at least halfway plausible. My chosen form of escapist literature is either historical or speculative fiction: what might have been, what could be. There are exceptions: the world of Harry Potter is clearly impossible. But J. K. Rowling is so adept at world-building that you come to believe, over the course of just one novel, that Hogwarts just might exist, if only you knew where to look.
Likewise Guy Gavriel Kay sets most of his fiction in a world ever so slightly removed from our own, and incorporates his supernatural elements seamlessly. But you take something like Lord of the Rings. I've tried three times to get through that--mostly, I'll admit, because it's on The List of Books Which You're Supposed To Have Read--and I can't do it. Part of it is Tolkien's dense, well-nigh-inpenetrable thicket of words, but a greater part is that I have a hell of a time relating to just about everything. Even the humans in that tome don't seem very human to me.
I rented Pan's Labyrinth after reading what seemed like an endless parade of glowing reviews. Rarely have so many critics led me so far astray.
Yes, the acting is great, all around, and the story engaging enough to make the viewer forget he's reading the movie. (It's in Spanish with English subtitles.) I knew going in that the movie was, by and large, a fantasy.
I didn't count on the gratuitous violence. There's a scene very early in that more than sufficiently establishes the sadistic nature of the male lead--it made me wince, but it was effective as hell. Then people start getting shot in the head, and before long I feel like I might have been shot in the head myself. Do they have to show everything?
I really didn't count on the ending rivalling the novel version of Pet Sematary for sheer bleakness. Eva reminded me that fairy tales used to be much darker than they are now. I can handle endings that aren't the happiest, but I'd naively assumed a fantastical film wouldn't pull that rug out from under me so brutally. I know better now.

It's strange, you know. I can handle depression and brutality in the flow of daily events...probably because I expect it. I can likewise handle gore and grimness in historical or speculative fiction, the former because I know the world was once a much harsher place, the latter because I truly feel it will be again. But set something in another world--offer me a total escape hatch--and I think it ought to be a happy escape.

I'm odd, I guess.

24 May, 2007

One Song Glory

Anyone out there ever seen Rent, either the stage musical or the movie adapted from it?
Rent is a modern recasting of La Vie Boheme, concerning a down-and-out group of New Yorkers, living and loving and dying on the dirty streets of Avenue A. It's inspiring and dispiriting in equal measure: an occasionally light and frothy tragedy packed with life lessons.
One of its characters, an AIDS-afflicted former rock star named Roger, is obsessed over the course of the play with writing one final tune encapsulating his short, bittersweet life. He laments, in part

One song (glory)
One song before I go (glory)
One song to leave behind
Find one song, one last refrain (glory)
From the pretty boy front man, who wasted opportunity
One song--he had the world at his feet

The lyrics to that particular tune came to mind today, unbidden, as I considered the state of the world...and shuddered.

There are a lot of people out there in the world pushing doom and gloom of late. Doom and gloom has become a multibillion dollar industry, operating on many fronts. Right now climate change is merely the most visible front for that industry, a warm front, as it were. But there are many other problems facing the human race behind the scenes, both natural and man-made (well, since we're part of Nature, perhaps it's fair to say they're naturally man-made). I've discussed s few of these issues before and don't really want to get into them again here and now.
No, what I find more interesting than constant warnings of imminent collapse is the unrelenting optimism pervading the world lately in the very face of it all.
I've taken to calling the stock market Pamplona. Today notwithstanding, it's deep into the kind of prolonged running of the bulls not seen since, well, 1929. For those of you not up on your history, in October 1929 the stock market came back to earth with a horrific thud that reverberated for decades. Indeed, the market never made it back to pre-Black Thursday levels until 1954!
Now they say hindsight's always 20/20 (depending on whose hind you've sighted)...but in order to reap the benefit of hindsight you have to be willing to look behind you. Our society doesn't often do that. For that matter, it doesn't look ahead much, either. No, most of the time we're too busy looking around at the glorious present. Stuck with our heads up our assets, in other words.
It all brings summer 1929 to mind rather forcibly. Then as now, people were in hoc up to their eyeballs, swimming in a sea of speculation. In 1929, bankers cheerfully lent people up to two thirds the value of the stock they were so eager to acquire. Nowadays, similar tactics are in play when it comes to home mortgages. There are millions of people in the United States holding what are strangely called "sub-prime mortgages" (the rates are well above the prime lending rate), and many of them have faced or are facing foreclosure on their homes as they are unable to meet the terms of their loans--which were freely distributed like so much confetti, often without the most basic due diligence.
Why would a lending institution take such risks? Two reasons I see. One, because if they didn't, somebody else would. There's money galore in this kind of predatory practice, at least in the short term (borrowers often find themselves unable to even touch the principal, forking out payments covering nothing but interest). God forbid some other bank should be reaping all that short-term profit.
And reason two is simple: the housing market's been on a tear for so long that somehow we've convinced ourselves that it'll just keep inflating indefintely. Irving Fisher, arguably the world's first celebrity economist, stated a few days before the crash of '29, "Stock prices have reached what appears to be a permanently high plateau".

An aside: in the wake of that famously disastrous prediction, Fisher suffered from a virulent cancer of the credibility. Ever-observant hindsight suggests his prescription to cure the Great Depression could well have worked--except that it was greeted with howls of derisive laughter. Lesson: one screwup does not a screwup make.

A minority of attentive shareholders saw Black Thursday coming and got the hell out in time. A few fortunes were made in the middle of so many being destroyed. (Believe me, they were careful in subsequent years not to appear too rich.)
It's hard to abandon a bull market, it really is. But history suggests that this one's unsustainable. If you're heavily invested, you might consider how much money is enough.

But a stock market crash is small potatoes to what else might be in store. A thank you to Jim Kunstler for driving a few points home.

I've been paying close attention to the oil industry lately. They're awash in glorious profits, of course--they've got the world at their feet--and it seems like they can pull excuses out of their asses for the ever-increasing price of gasoline. Here's the thing, though: at least a few of their excuses hold, uh, oil.
Refineries have been running at 90 percent capacity or above for months on end, just to meet demand--which is still growing. The huge demand for their product limits the oil companies' ability to slow or shut their plants down for required maintenance...all but ensuring glitches and foulups. The only answer would be to build more refineries--which Big Oil's loath to do, as it costs money better suited to the wallets of stakeholders and oh, yeah, nobody really wants an oil refinery in their backyard anyway.
So demand's going up and price is going up and not to put too fine a point on it, but supply is not going up. Oh, there's lots of oil left, but it's increasingly difficult and expensive to get to--not to mention recovery operations wreak utter hell on the surrounding environment.

Look around you. I defy you to find something, anything, that did not involve oil in its manufacture or subsequent transport to you. Once the supply of oil really begins to get pinched, I suggest most of us lack the imagination to adequately predict the flow of events.

It'll make 1929 look like a minor and temporary correction.


23 May, 2007

A Whole Bunch of Totally Unrelated Stuff

I don't think I have too much to write on any one given topic today. But the topics are building up. So: compendium post.

First of all, I'd like to tell Jen she was right and I was wrong. iTunes is freakin' awesome.

I've been getting my music mostly by means of Limewire for the past year or so. I have found an awful lot of stuff residing out there on other people's hard drives. Alas, my musical tastes are eclectic enough that I haven't found everything I'm looking for...not even close. My friend Jason tipped me off to SHAREZ, which has entire albums, not just single songs. Downside: the selection, while voluminous, is heavily slanted towards world music. Nothing wrong with that...just not what I'm looking for.

Enter iTunes. So far, there's all of one group (The Proclaimers) that's woefully underrepresented at the iTunes store. Other than that, though, it's just as Jen said: you can spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars if you're not careful...especially since everything is so CHEAP! Each song is 99 cents, and an album, regardless of length, is $9.99. Try getting the London West End 2006 production of Evita for $9.99 anywhere else.
I've found euphonium compilations, many of them. For those of you who have no idea what a euphonium is, it's a sort of tenor tuba...I used to play it in high school band, and I was heavily into brass band culture then, the sort of thing that generally only exists in Britain.
I've found obscure albums by groups like Moxy Fruvous. I've found albums by (undeservedly) obscure groups like The Paperboys. And this morning I found the coup de grace: an album by Matthew Osborne.
Matt Osborne (1973-2004) was a crackerjack musician from here in Waterloo and something of a friend of mine. He was probably the most talented guitarist I've ever run across in my life, a tireless champion of new and emerging artists, and an all-around nice guy. We lost touch when I left Laurier, and I was shocked and greatly saddened when I read of his passing. I really wish I had set my fear aside and let him guide me into the music scene, as he was forever trying to do.
Now, according to the site, all four of Matt's albums have been reissued. That wasn't the case as little as six months ago--hell, I don't believe that website existed six months ago--and so I was pleasantly stunned to find Matt's last release in the iTunes store.

If anyone ever asks me what gift would make my heart sing, I always answer a Chapters gift card does the trick every time. Now I can add that an iTunes card does the same thing.

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

I'm going to take a serious look at the Green Party whenever the next federal election rolls around. I don't support all their initiatives--I tend to agree with Stephen Harper, for instance, when he calls Kyoto a 'socialist scheme' to redistribute wealth on a global scale. But I do like that the Greens tend to think outside the box in a way that the mainline parties just don't.
Take, for instance, their stance on gas prices. Last I heard, they want them increased...doubled, I think. Now before you howl in outrage, note that they would cut income taxes proportionally so that the whole thing would be revenue-neutral.
I like that thinking. Reward people for being environmentally responsible.
I think you're going to see the Greens get stronger and stronger over the next several electoral terms, and I predict they'll form a government within 25 years.

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I am so heartily sick of the Conrad Black trial. I'd like to avoid it but it's taken over Macleans magazine like a fungus. Know what would be nice? A website/TV channel/podcast/whatever devoted entirely to celebrity trials. The various means of access would be widely published in the mainstream media, but that's it, at least until a verdict is rendered. Those of us who have the slightest interest in this sort of thing could then go wallow in it. The site could have full video, a full transcript, an analysis of every syllable uttered, an exhaustive description of what the accused is wearing, everything. The rest of us could then be left in peace.
Come to think of it, this idea could be expanded. I've long lamented that so-called "reality" television isn't shunted off to its own network. Every single day, my local paper chooses to put what I feel is questionable content on its front page. Yesterday, it was a picture of a two-year-old sitting on a statue. Above the fold. They didn't even publish the day before (holiday: world stops) or the day before that (Sunday: world stops) meaning there was...supposedly...three whole days of news backed up since their last edition.
Today, there's an article titled "Lifting weights can reverse ravages of time". Are either of these things news? The second, perhaps. Do they belong on the front page of a paper that purportedly serves a city of well over half a million? I don't think so. I can't wait for the day when our personal media assistants (PMAs) cull the news for us as we sleep to present the kinds of stories each of us finds relevant. Fragmentation of the mediasphere, baby. It's coming.

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

There is much hand-wringing going on here in Waterloo Region over the large number of disappearing factory jobs. There have been upwards of a dozen plant closures in this city over the past decade, and there are doubtless more on the way. The overall employment level is actually up; there is just a huge ongoing shift in the nature of employment, away from manufacturing and towards service and technology.
I don't pretend to understand the underlying economics. The high dollar is often cited, which I could maybe accept if the loonie was trading at significantly above a dollar U.S. What I do know is that corporations will generally go where it's cheapest to operate...where the taxes are low, the labour laws lax, the environmental regulations non-existent. You can't really blame them. Blame instead the overarching societal motive to pursue profit at any cost...and to define profit so narrowly and over such a short term.
This is yet another reason we need One World Government: to abolish multinationals. It'd be nice to see humanity come to the realization that "nations" are figments of a tortured imagination. We are all one "nation": any assertion to the contrary is based on primitive us-versus-them thinking. This will come to pass, if we allow ourselves to grow up. Right now, our species is deep in the throes of adolescence. I hope we get through it intact, I really do.

19 May, 2007

Ahem. Go, Sens, uh, Go

If you go to the Toronto Maple Leafs fan forum and announce, as one unfortunate recently did, that henceforth you are going to cheer for the Ottawa Senators as they make a run for the Stanley Cup, the reaction will be immediate, intense, and unfavourable, to put it mildly. "Don't let the door hit you on...no, wait a second, I hope the door whacks your ass on the way out" is one of the milder things I saw.

You probably wouldn't see this reaction, at least to this degree, if it was any other team. But the Sens and the Leafs have a history. No matter where the respective teams finished in the regular season, we owned them in the playoffs, eliminating Ottawa three times in four years. Then, of course, the Sens completely dominated us two seasons running, one of many reasons we didn't make the playoffs and have a chance at kicking them to the curb again.

And there's been the accompanying soap opera to ratchet up the hatred. For whatever reason, more Leafs seem to get hurt at the Corel Centre/Scotiabank Place than in all other opposing rinks combined. In the course of one season alone, the Leafs lost Bryan Berard, Mats Sundin, Nik Antropov, and Danny Markov--to injuries on Ottawa ice. (Well, perhaps we shouldn't count Antropov, as he gets injured putting on his skates.)

Then there's the "Ratboy" incident. In the final moments of a close game, Leafs captain Sundin snapped his composite stick on a scoring attempt. Frustrated, he threw the upper half of the stick into the stands and was promptly suspended for the next game...which happened to be against the Sens. In that game, with the Leafs losing 7-1, Sens captain Alfredsson snapped his stick in half and pretended to do the same thing, causing an uproar on the Leaf bench. Alfredsson instantly earned himself the eternal enmity of every non-thinking Leafs fan (which is most of them, I'm sorry to admit). He's booed lustily every time he touches the puck.
Me, I found it funny. And considering that Sundin and Alfredsson are very close friends--still--I figure Mats must find it funny, too.

No matter. Ottawa has supplanted Montreal as the team Leaf fans most love to hate. That they are one series win away from the Cup--while Toronto is years away from even contending--has everybody in a real lather.

Well, guess what. I'm cheering for Ottawa, Leafs fan cred be damned.

The alternative is to cheer for the winner of the Detroit/Anaheim series. I predicted Anaheim would win the Cup this year, but I've no real like for the Ducks, especially Chris Pronger, who pulled a Vince Carter on the Edmonton Oilers last year. As for Detroit, I'm an equal unfan of Dominik Hasek, who--talented as he is--likewise suffers from motivational malaise on occasion.

Besides, the last thing we need is another American team winning the Cup. Beyond the team itself and their mothers, it's not as if anybody gives a fart. Even Detroit, which fancies itself "Hockeytown", has struggled to sell out games this year.

I'll admit Vancouver would have been preferable. But I've decided there's nothing to stop me cheering for Ottawa. It's not as if I've abandoned the Leafs. It's more like the Leafs have abandoned me, actually. Whatever their braintrust might say, it's clear they have no real interest in even competing for the Cup. And why would they? The Air Canada Centre is full every game.
Nope. I'll cheer for anyone I feel like. Canadian teams take precedence, of course, and this is the third straight season one's been in the final.

(I do draw the line at Philadelphia, though. I'm not a barbarian.)

GO SENS GO!

14 May, 2007

Well, that's a tad depressing.

My friend Jen tipped me off to something called "Pandora" last year, and I've been a subscriber ever since. It's Internet radio with a difference...it "learns" your tastes as it goes, with input from you the listener. Pandora has exposed me to all sorts of artists I never would have heard of any other way. Its library ranges from number-one hits all the way down to songs there's a good chance you'll never hear anywhere (although you should!)

Among the discoveries I've made:

Johnathan Coulton...quirky folk artist, gently funny songs
Hayley Westenra...beautiful clear soprano with the best rendition of "Both Sides Now" I've heard, maybe including Joni Mitchell's original. Mom, you'd love her.
Sixwire...rollicking alt-country, tight, slick harmonies.
Laura Powers...a pagan singer strongly reminiscent of Loreena McKennitt.

Of course, I had to cheat to gain access to Pandora, as did the many thousands of other Canadians who have signed up to have this endless stream of music piped into their computers. You need a U.S. address to sign up. Well, that's a trivial obstacle. I do believe I made mine up, and just made sure the zip code and town matched.
I felt no guilt doing this. The way I looked at it, a desirable service was being offered to one group of people, while my group was excluded purely because we lived on the wrong side of a wholly imaginary line. Doutless I broke at least one law somewhere. In the case of silly laws like that, I try to hold myself to the higher moral code embodied in Heinlein's Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not get caught.

Caught I was. Caught were we all. After more than a year's enjoyment, I got a message in my inbox today from the founder of Pandora.
The message was headed "Change to Availability In Canada", which gave me hope that they'd found a way to make it legal. After all, while I won't quibble over disobeying laws when no harm to persons or property is involved, I would much rather be on the side of the angels, given a choice.
No such luck. The letter, which is quite lengthy, is full of words like "saddened" and "regretfully" and it says that due to their inability to secure international licenses, they will start blocking access in a couple of days.
I don't pretend to understand this. It should be a simple matter to determine how many times each song by each artist is being played, and distribute royalties based on that information. If it was announced that Pandora would henceforth be a pay-only service, I would accept it...and probably find some money to pay my share. Indeed, it amazes me just how much free content there is on the Internet. You can read any number of newspapers without paying a cent. You can play flash games that are admittedly quaint by the gory standards of the industry, but you can do it gratis, and similar games once cost $50 or more to play. I'm always amazed by the few people I still hear saying "I can't afford the Internet". It's the best deal in human history.

So, Americans, if you haven't used Pandora and you like music, do yourselves a favour and click here. And spare a thought for us deprived Canucks.

(Jen, if you know of any alternatives, I'd be glad to hear them.)

13 May, 2007

Adjectives

One of life's little epiphanies gave me a good wallop a while back, reading about adjectives.

Adjectives are kind of neat. You can take two different adjectives that mean exactly the same thing, insert one or the other into a sentence, and completely change the flavour:

My Uncle Paul is spendthrift. My Uncle Paul is cheap.

My boss is opinionated. My boss is bullheaded.


My wife is conscientious. My wife is fussy.

Sure, it can be argued that each pair of adjectives has distinctly different meanings, but every last one of us goes around with preconceived notions of what each word means. Cheap's a great example. Being cheap, in the sense of being a tightwad, is usually perceived as a bad quality in this consumerist society, but who hasn't admired frugality at some point? Still, you hear "cheap" and a whole list of complimentary or not-so-complimentary meanings floods into your head. Usually mostly one or the other.
It's all in how you look at things, how your life experience has shaped you to look at things. Events you paid attention to, songs you listened to, lessons you learned, all influence you later, while all around you, everyone's being influenced by their own markedly different experiences. For instance, somebody throws the word liberal at me and the very first thing I think of is AdScam. Then I think of that ditty by Supertramp, "The Logical Song" (itself a treasure trove of conflicting adjectives), part of which goes

Now watch what you say
Or they´ll be calling you a radical
A liberal, oh fanatical, criminal

It's only after all that negative detritus is out of the way that I remember how socially liberal I am; how liberal I once was with my money (to a fault!); how being liberal is usually, in my world, a good thing so long as the L's not capitalized.

The adjective life lessons go further. Take your best qualities, describe them with adjectives, and turn them up ten notches and suddenly they're not so good any more. Then try to remember that other people operate on different scales, and your spendthriftiness might make you cheap, your conscientiousness might seem fussy.

Would that all that wisdom came to me much earlier.



Hey, Revolution! Wait Up!

I have this perverse streak in me that prevents me from enjoying popular things, simply on the grounds that they are popular. The more popular they get, the more I'm likely to dig in my heels. This usually means you'll find heel marks in the technology sand as I'm dragged into the future. Where Tomorrow Beach intersects with the Ocean of Popular Culture, that's where those heel marks are most pronounced. Oh, I'll do things, buy things, in my own good time, for my own good reasons. I don't consider the fact that millions of other humans are doing something to be sufficient reason unto itself for me to join in. Commit suicide, goes the old saying. Ten billion lemmings can't be wrong.
Examples? Well, J.K. Rowling had published three books about a certain boy wizard before I'd deigned to read even one. I haven't seen so much as a single episode of--well, you name the popular show. House, say. Survivor. (Although I heard somewhere the ratings on that are starting to tank, and I'm fiercely grateful for the increase in humanity's collective IQ that portends). American (Canadian, British, Uzbekistani) Idol . Grey's Anatomy. And so on.
I only recently got an mp3 player, having poo-pooed them in the past. I'm still kind of iffy on cell phones, even though we have one of those now, too.
Of course, I'm as big a Harry Potter fan as the next man, now...although I still kind of wish I'd held off until, say, this July before I dove headfirst into that particular pool, if only so I could have read all the books in succession without these annoying year or more gaps. Television? I might watch House, after the masses have moved on to something else--I've nothing against the show itself other than its absurd popularity. But you'll never catch me in front of Survivor, not until it has something to do with actual survival. Nor any of the Idols. You'd think I'd enjoy those shows, as I'm a pretty musical kind of guy, but no. Not as long as they employ people to eviscerate contestants on stage for daring to get up and sing for an audience of six and a half squillion. And not so long as they rely on those six and half squillion people to act as judges of talent. The mere existence of websites like http://www.votefortheworst.com/ pretty much confirms my low opinion of this practice, don't you think?

MP3 players, now. I'm a convert.

Eva bought me a little 1 GB Ipod knockoff (something called an ERi) for the commute to work. I held off on using it much through the winter, not sure how to comfortably wear headphones under a toque, but once I started in on these night shifts the thing has been a godsend.
Of course, the god involved turned capricious pretty quickly. Just my second night in, the player suddenly died out mid-song on me. Battery's dead, I thought. Two hours later, weary of the satellite radio, I checked it again. This is a quirk of mine, a quirk that works, more often than not. I keep pens that run dry, because in half an hour they'll work again. I turn off the television in disgust if the Maple Leafs are losing badly, and if I turn it on again ten minutes later, sometimes they've clawed their way back into a game.
Worked fine. For about 45 minutes. Then it happened again.
Undaunted, I came home that morning and changed the battery for one freshly charged. Left the house that night, bopping along to our wedding recessional...and before I'd even made it to work the bloody thing died again. I kept trying it through the night, and it worked every time, but for progressively shorter and shorter intervals. I'm sure my night crew-mates appreciated my singing along...

Once I was the King of Spain (now I eat humble pie)
Oh, my unspeakable wife, Queen Lisa (now I eat humble pie)
I'm telling you, I was the King of Spain (now I eat--) zzzut!
SHIT!!!

"Hey, Ken, quit eating shit over there!"
"Sorry. Damn mp3 player died on me AGAIN!"
"I had one did that. Here, let me look at it...yeah. This baby's overheated."
"So...what? Should I start spending the whole night in the freezer?"
"No offense, Ken, but this thing's kind of cheap."
"Well, I know that," I said. "My wife wanted to make sure I'd actually use the thing before she laid out tons of cash. Besides, it's not that cheap. Throw in the rechargeable batteries and it costs quite a bit, actually."
"Yeah, but those headphones cost more than the player, right?"
"Well...yeah. I'm hard on headphones. No matter how much money I spend on them, sooner or later one side or the other will short out. I'd just rather that happen next year instead of tomorrow."
"Y'oughta get an iPod."
I nodded my head at that and went back to work. Of course I oughta get an iPod, I thought darkly. Everybody else has one!
I got home from work Friday morning and went out on the Net seeking opinions. What I wanted, ideally, was a durable mp3 player with an FM tuner in case I got tired of my own music. I wasn't, actually, too keen on iPods, because I'd be a slave to iTunes--and I'd just mastered Windows Media Player; I had no real urge to learn yet another program.
Further research started to overturn my objections. It turns out iPods are popular for good reason. Several surveys have ranked the nano the most durable player out there. Also among the most easy to use. As for iTunes, it seems to be fairly intuitive. I was under the impression that you had to, gasp, buy all your content from the iTunes store. I don't know why I thought this. Maybe because Apple uses its own music format...the retailer web sites state that mp3s aren't supported. That's odd, I thought. The very definition of an mp3 player, and yet it doesn't play mp3s.

Turns out that iTunes automatically converts files from mp3 to whatever Apple calls their standard, compressing them in the process. Most importantly, I can import songs I got off SHAREZ or Limewire into iTunes and thence onto the iPod.

Another problem: iPods don't run on the same kind of batteries my ERi player uses. Cursory research seemed to indicate there are two ways to charge an iPod: through the USB port on the computer (like our computer desk isn't crowded enough) or by shelling out an obscene amount of money for something called an iPod station. Wow, I thought, Apple's really got you by the short and curlies there. That one costs $170!
Once again I was wrong. The iPod "station" is actually a full-fledged stereo system that just happens to dock an iPod. You can buy a wall adapter for a fraction of the cost.
No FM tuner, which is annoying but not a dealbreaker. I Googled "mp3 player FM tuner reviews" and kept running across durability concerns on site after site.

An iPod was looking more and more likely.

Long story slightly shorter, I am now the proud owner of an 8 GB Ipod nano. A nice black one, razor thin. It's charged but not loaded as of yet. We'll see tomorrow night how it performs.

10 May, 2007

Georgia, Part II

There wasn't supposed to be a second installment of this narrative.
Our "Georgia-Peach" came home from the vet's and everything seemed okay. She was keeping her food--what little we were supposed to be feeding her--down, always a good thing, and her personality was returning. If anything, she was a bit dopey and lethargic, but nothing too out of the ordinary.

Eva was chatting on the phone last night when Georgia suddenly gave out a piercing scream, jumped two feet straight up in the air, and came down snapping at her own heel. What the hell was that?, I thought to myself. Did she step on her?
Our puppy looked around, seeming to come out of some sort of trance, and darted behind her Mommy, where she cowered.
No cats up here...nothing to explain why she'd suddenly--
Just then, she did it again.
She landed splay-footed this time, wailing. Tux went over to sniff her, anxiously. I approached cautiously, I petted her head, murmuring the kinds of things you say to your kids to calm them down, while I tried to calm down myself.
She accepted the petting, and I examined her. No obvious sore spots, but she's...well, not exactly panting, but out of breath, anyway, and she's making retching noises. Nothing's coming out, just an ominous huk! huk!
Then she tore off around the living room as if all the bats of hell were on her ass, ending up, once again, cowering behind Eva.
That's not normal canine behaviour, I thought to myself, conjuring all sorts of awful explanations like tumours and infections and imminent death.
These...episodes...continued, alternating with periods where Georgia laid perfectly quiet, quivering a little, an occasional huk! the only thing to let us know she was still with us. With no warning at all, she'd suddenly snap her head up and bark piteously, shaking.
Eva and I looked at each other.
"That's not right", I said. She nodded.
"We ought to take her to the vet."
A little more conversation on that point, a call to the after-hours clinic, who assured us we weren't overreacting, and it was decided.
I had to go to work, right then--didn't want to, let me tell you--and we really didn't want to leave Tux at home by himself. The humans in the house weren't the only ones worried.

Auntie Suzie, thankfully, agreed to take Tux in for a bit, and we all piled into the car. Of course, by now, Georgia seemed pretty much fine. Isn't that the way? It's like when you take your clunker of a car in to the mechanic and it runs like a dream.
I was dropped at work, Tux was dropped at his favourite aunt's place, and Georgia was ferried all the way to Cambridge. Ninety minutes later, Eva called.

"She's okay", she said.

Apparently there had been a noticeable change in Georgia just while she was being examined.
"The vet thinks it might be psychological, stress-related."

Great. We have a crazy dog. MAD DOG ON THE LOOSE!

Then again, with the week she's had--taken away from Mommy/Daddy/big brother, knocked out, hysterectomized, revived all alone, brought home, subjected to fits of voluminous vomiting, face puffed up like a balloon...well, I'd go a little nuts, too.

"This vet doesn't have psychological background. Ours does. So when we bring our chlluns in next week, we'll chat a bit. But the clinic vet here did ask if Georgia had taken to chasing her tail obsessively, lately."

"W-e-ll, I wouldn't say obsessively..."
"I asked her to define obsessively. She said more than once a week. Our wee girl qualifies, don't you think?"

"I think." I was thinking of all the times I'd reached out to give her tail a friendly little yank, only to find it coated in dogslobber.

Sure enough, our peach has been just fine today. She slept with me all day, glommed to my side like she used to do when I slept at night like a normal human being. No sign of hallucinations, no vomit lagoons, and a dog who's playing-with-the-Tux as if nothing whatever happened last night.


Tux and Georgia, together again
I hope she's okay for real and for good, now.

08 May, 2007

Sweet Georgia's Down...

When our Tux first came home from the pound, we made a token effort at crate-training him. That didn't take; I think it reminded him too much of the cells he'd just escaped. So we enlarged the crate...we gave him our guest room during the day (not like we were using it), and let him sleep with us at night. It wasn't too long before Tux had the run of the house 24/7 (save the basement, which is the cats' domain).
When Georgia came along, things got a little complicated. We got her young enough to crate-train, so we used the cage we'd originally bought for Tux, placing it in the corner of our living room and confining her in there during the day. She grudgingly accepts this, with the aid of a Kong and a knifeful of peanut butter, although I'm sure the sight of her brother roaming free galls her mightily. Still, she's not old enough to join him in gambolling all over the place while we're gone. So there she rests. Of course, she sleeps with us at night, too, because we're just softies. Anyone got a good quality king size bed?

Okay, so last week Georgia got broken. They say "fixed", but I say let's call a spay a spay, okay? She went away Thursday morning and came back Friday afternoon. In the interim, any remaining doubt we may have had about how well our wee girl had integrated herself into the family dissolved into a big pile of mope named Tux. Seriously, he didn't want to move until she came back, and Eva reports that he was absolutely ecstatic when he caught sight of her.

Everything was going fine in the aftermath of her surgery. In fact, she wanted to run and play-with-the-Tux immediately, and it was impossible to restrain her.

Getting Georgia crated, me in bed, and Eva out of the house in the morning now entails some sleight of hand. See, I don't want Georgia to know I'm home, or like as not she'll yip her face off all day (and she does have a yip on her, does our Georgia). So Eva takes her (and Tux) outside, I scoot to bed, and then Georgia comes in, gets her peanut-butter Kong, and retires to her cage. Tux wanders upstairs within about thirty seconds and finds me. Ssshh, Tux, I tell him. We don't want your sister to know I'm here.
Okay, Daddy, he says amiably. I'll just sleep down here at the base of the bed and keep you safe.

Today I woke up around two to the sound of Georgia yipping. The first thing I noticed, after my ears stopped ringing, was that Tux wasn't standing (okay, laying) guard. Damn, I thought. Ratfink tattleTux. Now Georgia wants attention.
Two o'clock. Well, an hour's more sleep would have been nice, and 90 minutes even nicer. I could maybe lay up here and block that noise out...
Nope.
There will be no blocking out of that noise.
Downstairs I went, snap-crackle-popping Rice Krispies out of my eyes. To be confronted by Georgia, clamoring as usual to get out. And...what the hell?
Puppies?
There are two other puppies in there!
But she was spayed last week, how the hell did that happen?
I opened the cage and Georgia shot out. So begins the daily game of race-the-bladder, a seven metre dash to the door. The impossible other puppies didn't move (well, one of them kind of spread itself out a bit), so I shelved them for the moment and raced Georgia to the side door, Tux along for the ride.

Back to the cage I went, to examine the miraculous additions to our happy little family.

Not puppies.

Puke.

Giant colossal freakin' MOUNDS of barf, an interesting brindle pattern marking them distinctly as the property of Georgia Breadner. Holy gee, I thought. Georgia yarks like she craps: prodigiously. I'd be yipping too, having brought that up into the world.
Kidding aside, the sheer quantity of vomitus was alarming. Georgia frolicked around, seemingly unconcerned, but I was worried about her.
Eva came home shortly thereafter, and we called our vet (slogan: "Your other family doctor"). She was in with a client, so we described the situation to the receptionist, making sure to repeat the phrase "giant colossal freakin' MOUNDS of barf" several times.
No, she seems okay otherwise. She runs, she plays, she eats, she sleeps, she horks up Rhode Island.
The vet was with a client, so we awaited a call back. While we were waiting, Eva called Georgia over. She's really good with "come"...better, in fact, than Tux.
"Her bum's red...and look at her eyes! Are they swollen...shit, her whole face is swollen!"
The vet called back, and we added this information. It was quickly decided she should go in for a look-see.
Of course, Tux wanted to go with her, and he was despondent when he couldn't. I fretted to myself, hoping that whatever it was, it wasn't as serious as it looked.

Me, I was thinking bee sting. Or several of them. That'd account for the swelling, anyway. We have bees just outside the house, almost as big as a pile of Georgia-sick. I know this because they dive-bomb me whenever I go outside. The sun actually went dark for a second the other day. I shot back into the house as if I was on wheels.

They were back surprisingly quickly. No idea what it was--a reaction of some sort, said the vet. Our wee girl got a cortisone shot, and some special food to calm her stomach, and we're supposed to keep a close eye on her for the next little while. No problem there. These puppies are our children. They're just furry, is all.

07 May, 2007

The Music of the Night

Turn your face away
from the garish light of day,
turn your thoughts away from cold, unfeeling light
--and listen tothe music of the night . . .
--Andrew Lloyd-Webber, The Phantom of the Opera

I've joined the Night People.
This undoubtedly comes as a shock to those who know me, even more so for those who knew me when last I worked a steady stream of night shifts and did little else but complain about working a steady stream of night shifts.
But this time's considerably different. When I worked nights at 7-Eleven, it wasn't so much the shifts themselves I hated, but what they contained: an endless parade of drunk, obnoxious, and vaguely (or sometimes not so vaguely) threatening types. Once I relocated to a store where the natural order of things reigned--meaning the busiest shifts were days and afternoons, and nights were pleasantly slow), I actually began to enjoy life in the bottomless pit between midnight and dawn.
Last night's shift was my first overnighter in a bit more than a year, and tonight will mark the first consecutive night shift for me in very nearly six years. My schedule is simple, now: Sunday night through Thursday night, leaving me off Friday, Saturday, and most of Sunday. In many ways, it's potentially a better schedule for my home life. I'll see considerably more of Eva than has lately been the case. There's more room in the bed (although Tux expands to fill some of Mommy's room, and, to be honest, I still don't sleep overwell when my wife's not here).
The downside is having to sleep through the day. I got about six hours today, and it wasn't real quality sleep. I'll probably end up spending a good chunk of tomorrow comatose.
But I got through the night okay, with the aid of my little Ipod knockoff. I loaded it up with an eccentric mix of music, trying to strike a balance between relaxing and stimulating. Its relatively puny capacity isn't too much of a problem when every single song is one of my favourites.

So why am I doing this? One word: STRESS.

To my utter lack of surprise, I was recently diagnosed with Peptic Ulcer Disease . Stress is at least a strong contributing factor. I'm on pills that have already done wonders (i.e., I can eat most things without feeling like my intestinal tract's going to rip itself out of my body and squirm away). But my doctor says once I've got one of these things it can recur at any time, and I ought to limit the stress a bit.
But Ken, I hear you all saying, aren't you the calm, capable type, always coucilling others from the school of Bobby McFerrin....'Don't worry, be happy?' How do you square that with an ulcer, hmm?
That's an easy one: shut the hell up.

Apparently I should practice some of my preachery. The fact is, the daily workload is increasing beyond my ability to keep up with it. I don't have time to place my orders properly, much less get needed cleaning done. It's all buried in the minutiae of working days: stock the milk, the eggs are running low, here's a customer with a question, there's a cashier with three questions (and it's usually the same damn cashier), there are two orders at the back door, okay, the eggs...oh, a rep discussing a booking, and...yikes, that order's due in ten minutes and I haven't even started it. By necessity I've become something of a multitasker (at least at work), but I've yet to subvert the laws of physics that prohibit me from being in three places at the same time.
Strip all the little stuff away and you're left with the core of my job: ensuring we're in stock and everything's rotated and well presented.

We're trying this for a month to see if it works for (a) me and (b) the store.

If I can re-learn diurnal slumber, I think it'll work.

04 May, 2007

The Raptors are Dead. Long Live the Raptors!


Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer): It [basketball] is the archetypal male bonding ritual.
Niles Crane (David Hyde-Pierce): Couldn't we just go into the woods, kill something, and have done with it?

Such was my attitude towards basketball, until this past season.

When it comes to sports, I am an inveterate homer. So when the Raptors came to town twelve years ago, naturally, I became a fan. Not much of a fan, mind you--not fan enough to watch an entire game. Enough to keep tabs on them in the newspapers, and catch the odd fast break when there was absolutely nothing else on television.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the NBA and NHL seasons overlap. Given a choice between watching a Maple Leaf game and watching, well, just about anything else that could possibly be on TV...no contest. In fact, on those few occasions I find myself away from a television whenever a Leaf game's on, I am possessed of a curious itching sensation that only goes away once I track down a radio and get the score. Then you'll have to drag me away from the radio...

But that's only part of the problem. The other part was that I just couldn't get into the game.

My dad's a big enough hockey fan (when you're born and raised in Parry Sound, the home of Bobby Orr, it kind of comes with the territory) that a knowledge and love of that game just kind of seeped into me through my diapers. Baseball I picked up on my own, and it appeals to my leisurely side--what's not to like about a game with no time limit, where vast stretches of it are played standing still?
My first real exposure to basketball came in that Raptors inaugural season. I'd played it in gym class, of course--actually, it was one of a very few sports I had any proficiency in whatsoever. I still remember one gym teacher criticizing my extremely unorthodox shot...until I made ten straight free throws. "I don't know what you think you're doing," he said, "but keep doing it."
But that was long ago, and in any event, watching a sport and playing it are vastly different. And watching these Raptors and their opponents scrabbling up and down the court put me in mind of spiders. I like hockey's frantic pace--but hockey players don't score practically every time they go down the ice; if they did, it would be boring as hell. (ARE YOU LISTENING, GARY BETTMAN?)
I quickly learned that basketball games came in two flavours: blowouts, which are only fun to watch if your team's winning them, and nail-biters, which always come down to the last minute of the game. That last minute seems to take about an hour to play, and the way I used to think, it renders the rest of the game meaningless.

But still, if I followed any basketball team at all, to any extent at all, it was the Raptors. Used to the annual soap opera that is the Toronto Maple Leafs, I felt right at home throughout the tumultuous history of their hoop-shooting cousins; the Raptors were more entertaining off the court than they were on it. Player-coach blowups, player-player feuds, insane trades and signings--yup, these guys have Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Limited's fingerprints all over 'em.
Until MLSEL wised up and hired Bryan Colangelo out of Phoenix.
Now, I'll be the first to admit I couldn't have told Bryan Colangelo apart from a bowl of lemon Jell-O. But he came very highly recommended, having won the NBA's Executive of the Year Award. And, in what may have been only the second smart thing MLSEL's done in twenty years (after hiring Colangelo in the first place), they left him alone to run the team the way he saw fit.
With their new GM installed, a flurry of trades and signings followed in short order, completely overhauling the team. A bevy of Europeans was brought in: Calderon, Bargnani, Parker, Garbajosa, Nesterovic...A team with no depth at all was suddenly transformed into a very deep team indeed.
After the typical Raptor start to the season (2-8), things gradually improved...and kept right on improving, past the .500 mark into the strange new land of division titles and homecourt advantage. With the Raptors suddenly contending, I figured I owed them a real look. I'd try to get over my dislike of the game they played and cheer them on. (Shallow of me, I know...but everyone loves a winner.) The fact they were playing Vince Carter in the first round was just icing on the cake.

Vince Carter. He's the Martin Straka of the hardcourt. Scads of talent, the ability to effortlessly outclass everyone he's matched against...when he feels like it. And he usually doesn't. His Wikipedia entry, at this writing, contains the following text:

"Carter made it clear in the 2004 offseason that he wanted to be traded from the Raptors since he was a little baby that quit on his team like a sore loser."

God, I love Wikipedia. I know it's prone to fraud every once in a while, but man, that's priceless. And true...backed up with this, a little further on:

In early January, 2005, he admitted in a television interview with TNT's John Thompson to not giving effort in his last months as a Raptor; when asked if he always played hard, Carter replied, "In years past, no. I was fortunate to have the talent. You get spoiled when you’re able to do a lot of things. You see that you don’t have to work at it.”[

Ugh. My respect for the man, once sky-high, went underground. Maybe Michael Jordan didn't have to work at it, either...but he did.

I actually watched a couple of Raptor games this post-season, start to finish, and have altered my opinions on basketball. Played by a team that distributes as well as the Raptors can, basketball is something like hyperkinetic ballet. So what if nearly every possession results in a field goal? That just makes defense that much more important. The winning bucket might have actually taken place three quarters ago, whatever happens in that final minute. The atmosphere, which I had once found to be far too cluttered--imagine! Music played during the game!--suddenly became electric.
I had little hope for them, honestly. It's axiomatic, no matter the sport, that a new roster's first appearance in the playoffs rarely goes well. Sure enough, they played maybe one good half in their first four games and found themselves down 3-1.
Game five, though! The Raptors stormed out and utterly demolished New Jersey in the first half, scoring at will. The Nets picked and clawed their way back, aided in no small part by injuries to T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon, and nearly won the game. But Toronto held tough.

"You know", I said to colleagues at work today, "if they lose by less than twenty I'm going to be absolutely amazed. And proud of them." I'd figured neither Ford nor Calderon would play, eliminating the luxury of depth at a key position.

Both did. Both had great games, considering the injuries they were playing with. I have to say, they could have been hockey players. And the Raptors lost--and were eliminated--by one whole point.

I know the goal is a championship. (Unless you're the Leafs, then it's making the playoffs and "anything can happen..." The Raptors failed in this attempt at the goal. But mark my words, you won't hold this team down much longer. Congratulations on a fine, fine season. And thanks for making me appreciate basketball.

03 May, 2007

Excuse me...haven't you got anything better to do?

Okay, the topics on the docket today have been discussed in both the blogosphere and in what said blogosphere derisively refers to as the "mainstream media". (Which is, by the way, an increasingly odd appellation in these days when anyone who is anyone has a blog...) At any rate, I have nothing new to add on either topic, but both are just so...damned...annoying that I feel compelled to write out some frustration.

Both topics, needless to say, are political.

1) DOAN GO THERE...

(or...Everyone's A Little Bit Racist...except Captain Canada...

Boy, you really gotta hand it to Parliament.

How many problems are facing this country right now? Let's start a little list. Here's mine:

--Of course, the environment's going to hell.
--Perhaps worse, nobody knows exactly what to do about the environment going to hell.
--Our troops are at war in Afghanistan.
--Our dollar's approaching parity with the Yankee greenback, meaning our manufacturers are facing the horrors of competing with Americans on a nearly level playing field. Yikes.
--Our relationship with the Chinese, soon to be the dominant economy on the planet, is not exactly favourable.
--The American economy is overdue for a serious correction, accompanied by a housing crash the likes of which has never been seen. If you don't think that's a Canadian problem, you'll learn otherwise when it hits.
--Our birth rate is well below replacement and falling...presenting a whole host of problems from the erosion of Canadian culture to the eventual inability to fund cherished social programs. Worse, very few seem to notice or care.

I suppose I could go on. Many people would suggest spiking fuel prices are a problem. For some, perhaps: long-haul truckers, for instance. Then again, the higher gas prices get, the more likely we are to make meaningful changes to our lifestyle. Maybe people will move closer to where they work, for example.
I could talk about crime--the rate for which, Statistics Canada insists, is dropping (although there's a rise in trifling little things like murder, attempted murder, assaults and robbery. You know, the kinds of crime where the judge pats the accused on the back and sends him out to offend again.)

In short, I could talk about a whole lot of things. So could you, I'm sure. And none of us would rank Shane Doan anywhere on any of our lists. Shame on us all.

Shane Doan, for you non-hockey fan, non-political types, is an NHL player for Wayne Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes. He's also, at least for now, the Captain of Team Canada, presently competing and undefeated at the World Hockey Championships. But, see, Doan supposedly said something racist two years ago, and, well, he was cleared of any wrongdoing by the NHL, but since the NHL itself is racist...or something...oh, hell, I don't know. He'd better be stripped of his captaincy, or perhaps kicked off the team altogether. This, by the way, is coming from a Quebec Liberal...of the Quebec Liberals...from a province so racist it won't even allow English signs.

Doan's been cleared, as I said. The non-incident launched two lawsuits, proving once and for all that Canadians are just as frivolously litigious as their American cousins. If I was to sue everybody who ever called me a name, I'd have to retain a regiment of lawyers.

What concerns me most is that this is taking up time and money in Parliament. Wouldn't it be nice if our Parliament ran like a reality television show? (I know, it does, it does.) But really, we could all phone in every day and kick people out.

Speaking of politicians acting crazy...

2) STOP HIM! HE'S NOT SPENDING TAXPAYER DOLLARS!

Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.
--P. J. O'Rourke, Parliament of Whores

Be grateful you don't live in Toronto. Or if you do, now's about the time to GET THE HELL OUT.

After four years of socialist government, Canada's largest city totters on the edge of bankruptcy. It has robbed its reserve funds on numerous occasions in order to balance its budgets, keeping yearly tax increases at merely three times the rate of inflation. The mayor, David Miller, graduated magna cum laude in Economics from Harvard, has evidently forgotten everything he ever learned there, as his chief fiscal strategy revolves around begging other levels of government for more money. Given the way it's impossible to walk three blocks in downtown Toronto without being accosted (not always by people who are genuinely down on their luck, either), I guess Miller fits right in.
Here's a city run by unionists, where "contracting out" is about the worst epithet you can possibly imagine. (Why pay one person $12 an hour when you can pay four $24 an hour to do the same job?) It's bloated beyond belief--somehow, despite having amalgated six cities into one, there are thousands more employees now than before.

In addition to their overinflated salaries, Toronto city councillors have an office budget of $53,100 per annum. Some councillors--many, actually--seem togo out of their way to spend as much of that as they possibly can. George Mammolitti, for example, spent $49,795 last year...and he wasn't even the most profigate. Meanwhile, we have Doug Holyday, who spent $1471, and Rob Ford, who spent...zero.

At my work (and at a lot of other places besides, I suspect), we have something called Peer-to-Peer Action Plans. The idea is to take similar stores, of similar square footage and projected sales, and compare them against each other on dozens of criteria. If you find you lag in some areas compared to your peers--and everyone does, somewhere--you talk to each other and figure out what they're doing right and how you can improve. This seems like endless busywork, but done properly it makes all of our stores better.

It's no surprise to learn that Toronto city council's got something similar in place. Council has singled out the two tightwads above and placed them under investigation. Not so as to rein in other councillors' expenses, mind you. No, Rob Ford and Doug Holyday are not spending enough.

The horror.

Look, I don't like Rob Ford's politics--read his Wikipedia entry (which makes no mention of his frugality, at least as of this writing) and you get a picture of a not-particularly-nice man with issues. But I applaud his stinginess with taxpayer dollars. The same goes for his colleague, Doug Holyday, whose views I'm more in tune with. In a city with self-inflicted money wounds, these two ought to be cloned, not castigated.

There. I think I feel better.