31 December, 2008

Sifting through the ashes...

Sometimes I hate the Internet.

On my daily Reddit-crawl in search of a nice, neat meme to wrap up this tumultuous year, I came across this article concerning the Yellowstone Caldera.
"Is A Volcan0 Big Enough To Cause An Ice Age Really About to Blow Its Top?"

There's the kind of headline that can really put some shit in your pants, you know what I mean? And then you read the article, which basically concludes well, we don't know for sure, but hey! it kinda looks like it (last line: "our civilization has now entered the geological interval of maximum eruption risk")...the shit just keeps on coming! Look, it's shit creek! Where's the padd--oh, shit!

Calm down, have some dip. Consider how odd it is that this isn't all over the news like an earthquake swarm. (I caught the coverage of the earthquake swarm last week, and thought humph, eruption comin' up. Didn't realize Yellowstone Caldera was quite that large.)  Note that, while Yellowstone is considered a "high threat for volcanic eruption", it's far from the highest. That'd be Kilauea, which isn't surprising at all since Kilauea has been erupting continuously for 25 years now!) 
Wonder why scientists, contrary to the alarming tone of that "breakthroughalert.com" article, don't seem to be overly concerned. I mean, earthquake swarms and caldera floor movement are generally considered reliable signs of impending eruption. The Yellowstone Plateau has shot upwards up to eight inches in the past four years...doesn't sound like much, but it's more than triple the norm. 
Nobody's given me permission to PANIC!!! yet, so I'll just let this bubble away in the back of my brain. But in the meantime, curse the Internet for filling my pants this morning. And (hello?) I'd really like some sort of definitive answer here. Is it gonna blow? Or isn't it? And if it does, will it stamp us out like bugs? Or will it just parboil a few intrepid tourists?

It occurs to me that people were asking this all year about the stock market, about the economy as a whole, about the cataclysmic spike in oil prices...I even heard commentators likening the swelling of support for Barack Obama to a volcanic eruption. 2008: Year of the Volcano. Who saw all this coming? (Kunstler, put your hand down.) 

And doesn't it feel like the eruptions are ongoing? It does from here. There's a tension, a what next? kind of thing, as we've left the comfortable behind and entered uncharted economic territory. The United States has never printed money at anything like the rate it did over the last four months. Companies large and small have imploded, or sit on life support. Some towns have more vacant, foreclosed houses than occupied homes. This isn't your daddy's recession.

The outlook for 2009 is decidedly mixed. Obama's inauguration will come early and be welcomed as the historic, euphoric triumph it is. He continues to impress me as a pragmatic centrist who will get stuff done, but I worry he'll be at the mercy of a confluence of events beyond his control, threatening to overwhelm him like a lava flow. Internationally, we seem to be regressing into nation-states and spheres of influence; several regions threaten to (there's that word again) erupt. India/Pakistan will only intensify, particularly if Obama follows through with a troop surge in Afghanistan. Iraq, contrary to the incessant crowing of the right wing, is still a mess: whatever good work that has been done there will swiftly be undone if Americans leave. I keep waiting for Israel to finally lose patience with the pinprick rocket attacks of Hamas and simply obliterate them. It hasn't happened yet, if only because of the blowback such an action ensures. (The world's sympathy lies overwhelmingly with Hamas, which sincerely perplexes me.)
And Russia also "bears" watching: the little skirmish with Georgia will not be its last. Look for them to consolidate, bit by bit, while the rest of the world tinkers with its broken economy. 

Personally, this should be a good year ahead. The years ending in -9 have been the best of my life. In 1979, I was the most popular kid in my class, sought out for games of kissing tag that would get today's kids expelled and probably charged with something. 1989 was far and away my best year of high school. I met Eva in 1999. Something big and positive is just bound to happen in 2009, I can feel it.

Or maybe that's just a volcanic spasm.

Happy New Year. 

29 December, 2008

Hobo Bus

Home again, home again, jiggety-jog, from my annual Christmas trip to see my dad and stepmom. As always, I had a wonderful time. I saw The Secret on DVD (blog entry forthcoming: suffice it to say I went into it scathingly sceptical and came out something of a convert). A blast from my distant past came in the form of Aggravation. And I got plenty of rest, relaxation, and hockey-watching in. There's something about the air along the shores of Georgian Bay that relaxes and rejuvenates. Would that I could have imported some of that Georgian air back with me...

Okay, that sentence demands some explanation.Well, a great deal of it, actually (sorry)...Eva didn't come up with me, for the same reasons I didn't accompany her to her parents' place Christmas Eve...reason one being Tux and reason two being  Georgia-Peach. 

We're simply uncomfortable with the idea of boarding our two furry children. With good reason: we tried it at Thanksgiving and Peach escaped from her pen (surprising the hell out of the kennel staff)...and came down with a nasty case of kennel cough (despite having been vaccinated against same). The kennel's reaction to being informed of Georgia's illness tipped the balance over into never again: "Well," we were told, "nobody's reported anything like that."

That's where you take the phone receiver, bang it against something solid a few times, and scream Hello?! Is this thing on?!

Such is the sacrifice you make with pets--these pets, anyway. It's kind of like the sacrifice you make when you don't, ahem, drive.

Eva took me to Cookstown and my stepbrother took me the rest of the way. Getting back meant taking an intercity bus...my first time in almost ten years. And that trip, let me tell you, was an ordeal.

The trip from Pointe Au Baril Station to Toronto wasn't too bad, all things considered. Long, by necessity: it was a milk run, visiting every little hamlet from Tainthair to Tumblenuts. But I was almost alone on the bus until Barrie, with lots of room to spread out and the second volume of the Night'sDawn trilogy to keep my mind off the canned air. *There'll be a blog entry on this one, too, once I'm done the concluding volume, probably sometime in March or April. For now, I can suggest it might well become my favourite work of fiction.
The bus loaded up at Barrie for the run into downtown Toronto. I considered getting off at Yorkdale and taking the subway downtown...then it occurred to me that they might have moved the coach terminal in the decade since I'd last haunted its halls, and I stayed on the bus.

It pulled in at 12:45, right on time. I hurried to catch a 1:00 connection that turned out not to exist. Undaunted, I bought a Toronto Sun and sat down (next to a pristine discarded copy of arrrrgh, the Sun) for a half hour or so. Then I went out to the giant garage full of idling Big Grey Dogs to wait for my transfer, which was supposed to leave at 2:00.

Two o'clock came and went. No bus. Greyhounds and Ontario Northland coaches pulled in and out all around me, including one headed for Parry Sound, Pointe Au Baril and Britt...but nothing to Kitchener.
At 2:40 the bus finally showed up and we all piled on without even showing our tickets: the driver was in a hurry. My luggage, which had fit neatly in the overhead bin on the Ontario Northland coach down, wouldn't even come close to fitting in a Greyhound overhead bin. I thought about disembarking and having them stow the bag under the bus...but there was a seemingly never-ending line of people trudging on to the bus, and besides, if I stowed the bag out of my sight, there was always a chance somebody would decide my luggage looked better than theirs. Don't laugh: it's happened twice.
So I put the bag across my lap. As more and more people got on the bus, I realized that spreading out wouldn't be an option, and scooched over to the window seat. All the old bus-riding tricks hadn't deserted me the way my Sun-sense evidently had. The seat next to me was invitingly vacant. I wanted to keep it that way.
ithout being rude about it, so I buried my head in my book again. People, I've found over the years, are likely to avoid you if you pay no attention to them whatsoever.

I would have gotten lucky, too, except there turned out to be 55 people for the 55 seats. And the second-last guy on took that seat next to me, saying "sorry, buddy."

Not near as sorry as I quickly became.

The man, you see, had been drinking since early that morning. Or since birth. And he hadn't bathed in weeks (or since birth, for all I know). The alcohol stench was quickly overlaid by a fetid miasma the likes of which I hesitate to even attempt to describe, lest I conjure it forth and puke all over my keyboard.
Honestly, I'm not trying to be funny, or to exaggerate, either: it smelled for all the world like something inside this man was either dying or had died some time ago. I couldn't draw a breath in his direction without gagging. My sinuses locked up in self-defense and my head quickly began to feel like a lead weight.
So here I am, crammed into a seat, encumbered by a heavy winter coat and a hockey bag across my lap, trying like hell to wedge my body as tight against the window as possible and wincing every time I caught wind of the putrescence beside me.
Putrescence bestirred himself around Milton and went to use the bathroom, affording me a precious four minutes of sanity; he then came back and settled himself into his seat with a groan of "oh, that feels better." Didn't smell any better, alas.

I arrived Kitchener a little after 5:30, literally stumbling off the bus and almost crying with gratitude. "Air!"

This is the risk you take when you ride a Greyhound. Could be worse, I suppose: the putrescence might have had a knife and an inclination to use it. (Obligatory Greyhound joke in poor taste: have you heard what Greyhound drivers ask as you board their busses? 'Where you be headed?')

So now I'm home, breathlessly awaiting New Year's Eve, which is our time together. In the meantime, thank you, Dad and Hez, for a lovely time. I look forward to seeing you again soon.

25 December, 2008

For Your Christmas Enjoyment...

From our house to yours, a tradition: Dave Cooks The Turkey. (audio file: runs 21:50 or so). 

The Vinyl Cafe and its host Stuart McLean are Canadian treasures. Over six hundred thousand people tune in each weekend, and countless more download the podcast. McLean hosts his program from a new location every week, and by now has hit practically every community in the country. He makes everywhere he goes seem like somewhere you might want to move to, giving loving descriptions that focus on the human element. He also showcases up-and-coming Canadian musical talent: several of the people featured on the Cafe have gone on to win awards and achieve that kind of obscure fame that is, like the Vinyl Cafe itself, uniquely Canadian.

For most of us, though, the highlight of the show is a new Dave and Morley story almost every week. Dave runs a little record store, the eponymous Vinyl Cafe, whose motto is "we may not be big, but we're small." He and his wife Morley have two children--pretty much grown up, now--Stephanie and Sam. This family and their whole neighbourhood is so realistically portrayed that several times I've caught myself wondering if it really is fictional. 
In fact, as far as I'm concerned, Dave is actually me, in some other universe. The both of us are living proof that Murphy was an optimist: sometimes, even stuff that can't go wrong somehow does. We muddle through, spreading chaos with the warmest of intentions, supported by a loving (if exasperated) wife (and in his case, kids, who have their own charms, believe me)...just trying to get by.

Every year, McLean pens a new Christmas tale featuring Dave and his family. I love them all...but this one is iconic. This is the one McLean is all but forced to repeat every year as people call and write in and say "when is Dave going to cook the turkey?"

Eva's at her folks this Christmas morning. (I had to stay home and take care of the dogs). Yesterday she emailed me an extremely detailed missive entitled 'Ken Cooks The Turkey'. Extremely detailed, because she knows me. She knows that if she skips a single step, I'm going to skip it too, and that would be bad...very bad. Excerpt:

The other thing that may be in there is the giblets (fancy word for guts).  it will be in a little bag.  Transfer it directly to the garbage, it is gross beyond gross, unless you want to eat the heart and liver of the Turkey.  If so, please find another house to cook it in.

Do you think I could find that little bag? I could not. She said there was about a one-in-a-million chance it wouldn't be there..."do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do you?"

Do I ever? I don't believe in luck, unless it's bad.

I'd just about concluded I'd have to go and find another turkey, one with its giblet-bag intact (just so I could prove to her I'd removed the damned thing), when the rinse-water washed out an itsy-bitsy-spidery giblet bag. Yay, grossness removed. I wouldn't have to search all over for a Grade B turkey and...well, you know the rest, or will know once that audio clip's done.

The other point of contention in her letter was how to fit Travis the turkey into the slow-cooker. We all know I'm not so good at fitting things into other things, after all. "Try breast side down", she suggests, not realizing I'm entirely ignorant of turkey anatomy--wings are easy to spot, but it's not like Travis has a winking nipple, or anything.
"If you have to, hack it to pieces." Oh, sure, I thought. Slow-cook your thumb inside the turkey, why don't you? I resolved not to go anywhere near a knife...if it came to that, I'd...I'd...I'd go get a bigger slow-cooker. No, wait a second, it's too late for that...I'd put it in the oven. And burn down the house. I'd call Eva at her parents' place and admit defeat. No, that I would never do.

Lo and behold, the very first configuration I tried worked. The slow-cooker is positively bulging, but the lid is on and the countdown's ticking.

And so I have saved Christmas for this year....

Merry Christmas, one and all. 


21 December, 2008

Planned Obsolescence

The other night, an odd zizzing snap-crackle-popping  emanated from my monitor. The screen commenced to blink on and off and the campfire sounds intensified. There was a mad scramble for the power switch: I've got a fireplace screensaver...I don't really want to see my screen become a fireplace.

RIP Benq 17" monitor (2004-2008).

A couple of months ago, my wife's laptop keyboard threw its u...just like an old typewriter. The keycap was adhered back into place, but the connection was dodgy and the key wobbled a bit. She soldiered on with the thing for eight weeks, trying mightily (the way I am right now) to avoid typing that vowel. Eventually (like I just did), she succumbed.

RIP Toshiba laptop (2007-2008).

For a while, a couple of years back, we had two coffee makers in our kitchen sitting cheek by jowl: a black one for regular morning java and a white one for decaf. That was before we'd taken on enough coffee to understand there's no sane place in the world for decaffeinated coffee; when that realization dawned, we put the cheap white coffeemaker in storage and stuck with the midline black one for our morning bean juice.

I like my coffee the same way I like my showers: piping hot, just this side of tongue-charring. My wife prefers hers at what she calls a 'reasonable' temperature and I call 'tepid bordering on...hey, why not have an iced capp?'
So it was a sudden mixed blessing one day about six weeks ago when Eva found she could drink the coffee right after it finished brewing and I found I could barely stomach the stuff. Inspection showed marked wear on the enamel plate. 

RIP Oster coffee-maker (2006-2008)

Out came the cheapie model. Lo and behold, the exact same wear pattern is starting to show on its enamel plate. It's only a matter of time, and not very much time at that, before it starts serving lukewarm coffee.

This is but a small sampling of the litany of products, some of them high end and supposedly just reeking of quality, that have gone kablooey on us over the past ten years or so, well before what I would think of as their time.
Now admittedly, I seem to harbour unrealistic expectations about the durability of any given product, especially if said product is expensive. The way I look at it, if you're going to spend twenty thousand (never mind forty, or sixty) on a car, that car ought to--with proper care-- last fifteen years minimum. Laptop keyboards shouldn't be falling apart barely a year after they're made. And even the lowly coffee-maker ought to be able to make coffee for a couple of years.

I'm a throwback, and I know it. I search, usually in vain, for real quality items. I'd rather pay a high price for something, knowing it'll last, then buy cheap and have to replace the item two or three times over what's supposed to be its life cycle. 

I'm a relic of another time when durability was the hallmark of quality. Nowadays, durability is so...obsolete. Durability seems to be the last thing most people in this NOW!-obsessed, instant gratification culture care about. What use the old when you can have the new?

And yes, I know, I'm lucky to have any of this stuff when so much of the world can only dream of laptops and coffee-makers and what-all. I think that actually pisses me off more. Planned obsolesence is ethically wrong, no matter how you spin it. I've heard people say that stuff has to fail, so that we can keep spending money, keep people employed, keep the economy going, keep the "terrists" from winning. 


Just think, if manufactured products weren't so damned fragile, we could--sounds Communist, I know--share them. Spread them out a little. Let's face it, do you really need sole possession of a lawnmower, when it mostly sits there doing nothing all the time? Hell, one lawnmower, made properly, would suffice for an entire neighbourhood. Split the cost, even an elevated cost for a properly-made lawnmower, among a hundred households and it becomes trivially cheap. Ditto snowblowers. I'm sure, with thought, you can take this concept and run with it, all the way up to and including cars. That would take a good deal more forethought and organization, not to mention a few paradigm shifts, but it could work: already we find car co-ops in major cities. 

And people could still keep their jobs. Instead of turning out endless doomed-to-fail crap for folks afflicted with affluenza, we could see streams of quality-made goods for everyone. 

Just a thought as we slog through the Christmas season. I've never heard the Voice of the Retailer quite so shrill as I have this season. Buy or die, they almost seem to be screaming. Buy or die.  

What do you want for Christmas?

I've always hated that question...at least since I discovered Santa was really parents. Once the asker becomes a real, close person, the answerer has an obligation to consider his answer carefully. How much does it cost? Is it easily found? And so on. For a while it got easier as what I wanted morphed into what I needed sometime in my teens....the same clothing that would have made me icily polite as a kid made me ecstatic as I grew up. 

Now, there's very little I need, and so it's hard to answer that question again. That said, I'm finally beginning to appreciate Eva's approach to the Christmas season. She presents a list of things she wants, and then I'm supposed to--get this--buy things from that list. 
For years, I couldn't believe it was really that simple. She must mean that list as a very loose guideline, I thought. Where's the fun in knowing exactly what's coming Christmas morning? How anticlimactic is that? Hell, I don't even have the opportunity to demonstrate my love for and deep knowledge of her by presenting her with something she didn't even know she wanted until that inst...
Yeah. That's stupid. And yet surprisingly hard to vanquish.

It'd be easier if the budget allowed me to spend, say, a thousand bucks. Then I could impress her! That same thought ricochets through my head every year, and every year I bitch-slap it into submission, because I know Christmas isn't about impressing people, and even if it is, impressing people isn't about spending vast sums of money. Our budget for gifting each other is kept deliberately small. We do tend to buy one sort-of extravagant thing for the house every year around this time. This year it's two things: a new monitor for me and a new laptop for her--neither of which was a need we (ahem) expected to have...  

15 December, 2008

Political Ignorance Is Bliss

Much has been made of the recent survey (pdf) by Ipsos-Reid for the Dominion Institute, showing that many Canadians are appallingly ignorant of even the most basic Canadian political facts. The findings are damning: over half those polled believe we directly elect the Prime Minister (wrong) and a shocking three quarters of respondents said our head of state is either the Prime Minister (wrong) or the Governor-General (closer, but still wrong). Only six in ten knew that Canada is a constitutional monarchy (the other two-fifths described us as either a representative republic (which is what the U.S. is) or a co-operative assembly (a null term, politically, and it sure doesn't fit our current House of Commons!)

As anyone who has ever voted in, or indeed lived through, a federal election should be able to tell you, Canadians do NOT elect a Prime Minister directly; we vote for local Members of Parliament. Our head of state is in fact the reigning monarch in Britain, currently Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; the Governor-General is merely the sovereign's representative.

When I first read about the results of this survey, I reacted with predictably scorn and fury. Most of us pick up a fair bit of French in passing from all the bilingual food boxes in stores; I kind of thought this basic political stuff would be similar. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize the results of this survey are not surprising in the least; nor are they particularly alarming.

Let's face it, most of us are not political junkies. In fact, the merest mention of politics activates a trapdoor in most skulls, rendering anything afterwards into raving gibberish. 
Theories abound as to why that might be. Mine is quite simple: political parties have assumed many of the qualities of religious denominations, and most of us have little to no interest in being saved.  We react to most politicians the same way we would to J.W.'s knocking at our doors. 
Combine that with the inevitable cynicism that comes with decades of politicians ignoring us and it's not hard to see why so many people flunked this little test. (Simple example: almost nobody voted for Stephane Dion. Okay, yeah, I know it: only people in Dion's riding got to not vote for Stephane Dion. But you know what I mean. And yet he damn near became Prime Minister. The same thing is likely to happen with Ignatieff next month. When you voted, was Prime Minister Ignatieff at the forefront of your mind? Didn't think so.)

Let's look at these questions from a cynical Canadian's point of view.

1) True or false: in Canada, the Prime Minister is directly elected.

Well, let's see now. The people running for PM are the only ones I ever see on television. I vote for the least offensive one I see, so yes, we directly elect the Prime Minister.

If we were to remind this hypothetical Canadian of his local representative, he'd like as not say who dat? Never heard of him...oh, wait a second, he's the guy whose name is all over front lawns every election, and then he sends a bunch of junk mail letting us know what a fine nothing he's doing up there in Ottawa.

Us political junkies know that most MPs work their asses off, of course...and a great many of them do care passionately about their ridings and accomplish a great deal. But I suspect there's a perception that whatever happens will happen no matter who the local MP is: Quebec will get drowned in money, good-paying jobs will evaporate, and taxes will keep going up. That's life.

2) Canada's head of state is

(a) the Governor-General
(b) the Prime Minister
(c) the Queen

Really, I can forgive people getting this one wrong, not least because they forgot

(d) who gives a flying fig-fart?

I mean, how many people even know, much less care, what a head of state is or does? How exactly does a head of state influence my workaday existence? I roll out of bed, go to work, come home, eat, take a long, leisurely dump, and go to bed again without once thinking of the Queen. OR the Governor-General, for that matter. And it's not as if we're often reminded that Queen Elizabeth can yank Harper's balls if she really had a mind to. We like to think of ourselves as an independent country, you know? Like, since 1867? 

(Wonder how many Canadians would get that date right.)

We've all learned over the past month that the Governor General has a buttload of power, should she choose to exercise it. Under certain circumstances, she can force (or deny) an election, for instance. Not once in all that reportage did I catch any reference to her being a mere figurehead for Her Majesty.  So it's not surprising most Canadians don't know who our head of state is.

It's gratifying to see that more than half of us know Canada is a constitutional monarchy, I guess. (I'm curious: how many people got that right, but still thought our head of state was the Prime Minister?) But again, it doesn't really have much relevance to our everyday lives. That's true of politics in general, really. 

Even local politics. I used to find it interesting that municipal elections always have the lowest voter turnout. I mean, c'mon, that's where stuff happens that you're gonna see: garbage pickup. Snow clearance in the winter. A new stop sign down at the end of the street where that kid was killed last summer.

As I'm getting older, I'm losing interest even in  local politics. Because let's face it, the basic shit's going to get done no matter who's in power. The garbage must be collected. And if you live in Canada, the roads gotta get plowed.
It will be announced every year that property taxes are going to go up fifteen percent...then, when they go up only six percent, it'll be a fiscal miracle. Developers are going to raze those woodlands for a new big box store (Ken's New Rule: henceforth, all big box stores shall have the word "SWEATSHOP" somewhere in their names. Underlined. In neon.) A hue and cry will ensue; local politicians will pretend to listen, secretly taking big bucks under the table; the SWEATSHOP will go in as planned, maybe with a big tree in the parking lot as a nice concession to the envirogeeks. And of course, the parking lot will be packed with most of the same people who seemed dead-set against another SWEATSHOP going up in their neighbourhood. 

I firmly believe that we could eliminate somewhere between half and two thirds of all politicians...and nobody'd notice a difference. With that in mind, I find it increasingly hard to rail against political ignorance.

14 December, 2008

Happy whatever-that-may-be.

I read somewhere recently that in America, 88% of Republicans prefer 'Merry Christmas' to 'Happy Holidays', compared to just 57% of Democrats. No shock there, given that much of the Republican base is ardently Christian. 

I don't understand the hullabaloo this raises every...single...year. Hey, atheists: the Flying Spaghetti Monster isn't itching to send you to the Salad Bar of Eternal Damnation because you dared to wish your Christian neighbour a Merry Christmas. Likewise, Christians: there are, gosh darn it, people of other faiths, or no faith, celebrating other holidays at this time of year. Heck, you do it yourself: it's called New Year's. So 'Happy Holidays', while including others, isn't excluding you.

Secular humanists: it's called a Christmas tree. Not a "holiday tree" or a "seasonal tree": a Christmas tree. You don't call it a "holiday menorah", do you?

Christmas bemoaning the deChristification of the season: I'm not even Christian and I'd love nothing better than to see an end to the crass commercialism that starts in October and extends, here in Canada at least, almost into February. Isn't Jesus supposed to live in your heart? The world can't take your Saviour away from you that easily, can it?

Non-Christians: "Merry Christmas" is not an attack on your heathenish nature. Neither is it some sort of subversive evangelist overture. Christmas is a recognized holiday in our society; the mere mention of it shouldn't offend anybody. If it bothers you that much, if December 25th is just another day to you, substitute the words 'have a nice day'. 

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, the Winter Solstice, or something else, odds are you celebrate something this time of year. I wish you a happy whatever-that-may be.

10 December, 2008

Letter To Me

I've been meaning to do this post for a long time, ever since I first heard Brad Paisley's "Letter To Me" last year. If I had to compile a list of my favourite songs of all time (and I wouldn't even want to try), this one would rank at, or near, the top.
It starts off if I could write a letter to me
and send it back in time to myself at seventeen...

Seventeen. 1989. Grade 11. I don't live in the past any more, my present is far too lovely for that...but when I did, 1989 was the year I flashed back on more than any other. Events that came much later are blurry or completely lost to memory, but much of that particular year I can recall vividly if I choose to.

I was in love, for one thing. I'd had little cases of puppy love before that dating all the way back to third grade (I never went through any kind of girls-are-icky stage)...but this was the whole kennel. I'd known this woman since she sauntered into my music class in September of 1987, wearing a denim jumpsuit she'd sewn herself. It sounds corny as hell, but all my internal sensors went redline on me the instant I saw her and didn't really stabilize for three years (an eternity, in teenage time). 
By 1989 we'd become good friends, occasionally trembling on the verge of something deeper, but never going over the edge. She moved away that year; I've only seen her once, since. Thanks to the marvel that is Facebook, we're still in touch, still friends after a fashion. Thankfully, the overhyped teen besottedness has evaporated.
1989 wasn't just Darlene, though if you read my diary from that year, you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking she was the only thing in all existence. 1989 was also the year I finally started to make friends outside of class, friends that thought nothing of inviting me over or coming over themselves. (Yes, it took that long.)  Thanks to the marvel that is Facebook, I've recently reconnected with one of those. 
1989 was a year of ups and downs, but overall to that point was the best year of my life. School was going well, the future looked bright, and I was just starting to discover myself. 

If you'd asked me then to imagine my future now, I would have been wrong in almost every particular. And yet...I'm happier now than I could have comprehended in those supposedly happy years. As Paisley sings,

I'd end by saying have no fear
these are nowhere near the best years of your life...


If I could write a letter to me
And send it back in time to myself at seventeen
First I'd prove it's me by saying, 'your ambition for this year
Is to learn and play the Phantom score with Darlene sitting near...'
And then I'd say I know it's tough
When you can't compete with all that buff
And I know you really like her, so why can't she seem to see
You're not just a geek with glasses, you're as loving as can be...

And oh, you got so much going for you, going right
But I know, at seventeen it's hard to see past what's in sight
She isn't right for you, I think deep down you know that's true
Come on, Ken just admit it, you've got some growing up to do
You'll make it through this and you'll see
You're still around to write this letter to me...

When you start school at I.D.C.I.
Don't hold Westminster's torch so friggin' high
And when you get a date with Sandy, why not play along
For God's sake don't be stupid and deprive her of her prom...
Each and every time you have a fight
Just assume you're wrong and John is right
And you should really thank your mother, 'cause she's done the best she can
And her best is pretty good, just watch her boy become a man...

And oh, you got so much going for you, going right
But I know, at seventeen it's hard to spread your wings in flight
Tonight's her soccer game and you're there to cheer her on
You should have told your parents, because they're wondering where you've gone...
Trust me, a liar ain't what you should be
Not if you want to write this letter to me...

You've got so much up ahead, you'll make new friends
You should see your house and wife
And I'd end by saying have no fear, these are nowhere near the best years of your life...

I guess I'll see you in the mirror
When you're a man grown
P.S. Go spend some time with Uncle Ted, every chance you can...

And oh, you got so much going for you, going right
but I know, at seventeen, it's hard to see that inner light
I wish you'd study business
I wish you'd learn the stuff John knows
I wish you wouldn't worry, let it be
Just have a little faith and you'll see

If I could write a letter to me
To me...

09 December, 2008

Terms of endearment...

I've had a nickname since I was two years old...or perhaps even younger: Macaw. I was so christened by my father because, he said, "all I ever did was squawk and shit." Oddly, despite the ignominous origin, I don't mind being called Macaw. It beats being 'Kenny', anyway...I haven't been 'Kenny' since fourth grade and to be honest, that -y suffix makes me feel like a child every single time.
I got thinking about this after Rocketstar mentioned how much he detests songs with 'Baby' in the title. This post sent me scurrying to my iTunes library, of course. A search on 'Baby' yielded five matches (out of almost 700):

"Shoo Shoo Baby"--The Andrews Sisters
"So Not My Baby"--Josh Turner
"My Baby Loves Me Just The Way That I Am"--Martina McBride
"My Baby Loves A Bunch of Authors"--Moxy Fruvous
"Baby I'm Home"--Trace Adkins

Three country tunes, an old '40s swingtime standard, and rollicking Canadian folk. "Baby"'s everywhere. 
He's right: it's annoying. What's so endearing about being infantilized, anyway? Babies may be cute and all (until they squawk and shit)...but you don't really want to refer to the love of your life using that word, would you? Kind of creepy.

You want cloyingly cute? Fifteen years ago I was Kenbear. She was Cathybear (Kbear and Cbear for short, of course), and we sprinkled 'bear' liberally throughout our conversation. Seemed perfectly normal at the time, and I just rolled my eyes at all the people who were rolling their eyes at me. Now it just seems like a saccharine overdose, and points to how juvenile the relationship actually was.

I call Eva "love".  Not very creative as a term of endearment, but the thing is, nothing else seems right, somehow. I couldn’t use a word I’d used on previous girlfriends: that would be like cheating. And in any event, I've grown up enough now not to use things like 'bear' or, so help me, 'snuggums' or 'snooky-poo'. (Oh, barf.) For a very brief time she was 'dear', but that sounded in my mouth like I was her maiden aunt. 
 In the end I settled on “love”, and why not? It’s what I do to her and what she is to me.
"Darling" derives from OE 'deorling', "little dear"--and shows we've been diminishing love with our words for a very long while. A 'little dear', as far as I'm concerned, is a child (and not just any child, either: a colicky infant is most certainly not a little dear). And anyway, definitely not a word for your adult partner (unless maybe you've got a diaper fetish or something). 

I'll admit, I've got something of an emotional blind spot.  Example: "cute."
Oh, isn't that cute?
What, that little tiny jacket?
Yes! It's so cute!
"Cute", so far as I've been able to determine, is girlspeak for "small". It's not universal (a little turdlet in the toilet is never cute. Well, almost never)...but anything tiny that could concievably be in the same room as a baby probably qualifies. Or something animal. Aww, look at the little tiger cub, she's so cute. Meanwhile, I'm thinking where's Mommy, and am I about to be eviscerated?

"Honey"'s another weird one, when you stop to think about it. Sure, it's sweet, and it gets points for lasting damn near forever. But it's sticky as hell, which is the last thing you want in a life partner. Plus it comes from bees, which sting.

(Okay, I'm reaching.)

"Baby", though, is just plain icky as a term of endearment. What amazes me is how many women (good feminists, all) don't seem to be mind being shrunk. Who beg for it..."I'm your baby". Yuck.

05 December, 2008

Political Zero-Tau

Better a prorogued Parliament than a Parliament of rogues.

(Am I the only person who thinks the lot of them should be standing in the corner for the next seven weeks?)

Surprised Jean decided on this course. I wonder what Harper said to her to get her to agree. It seems to me this sets a dangerous precedent. Any time a leader is facing a non-confidence motion (s)he can just hit the suspended animation button. 

Now it's a battle of wills. How coalitious is that coalition? Can it last seven weeks in stasis? (I'm betting yes.) Will Harper come back at all chastened? (I'm betting no.) Will we be reliving this come Groundhog Day? (Aside: isn't Harper a hell of a lot like Bill Murray's character in that movie? at least early on?)

04 December, 2008

I've changed my mind.

For now. Wait a few hours, it'll change again.

Watching the PM-for-now on TV last night, I was struck by how meek he sounded. Things have spiralled up and out of his control so quickly. This is a man, remember, who relishes control, who craves it, who can never have enough of it. Every moment of the last election campaign was elaborately scripted. Every statement by the least member of the CPC must meet with Harper's approval before it's allowed to be uttered. 
But now--whodathunkit?--a Liberal Party that can't agree on anything meaningful, with a leader so spineless he makes amoebas look rigid, somehow cobbled together a coalition with a whole other party in the space of a week...and is making it stick. So what does Harper do? Back down? Hell, no! He's out there telling Dion, buddy, I can outpiss you without unzipping. Dion's saying dis way to the pissoir, ami. And a pair of grown leaders are engaging in a giant pissing match, when last I looked, there's governing that needs doing.

Piss off.

Make no mistake, and characterize this as a socialist-separatist power grab if you have to: whatever you call it, it's entirely Harper's fault. Had he been the slightest bit willing to work with the other parties, rather than, oh, I don't know, trying to eliminate them, we wouldn't be here now. Even after he's recognized the corner he's back himself into, Harper's still unwilling to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other parties, saying that what they're doing is unconstitutional and undemocratic.
Bzzzt. Steve-O, have you read our Constitution? What the Opposition is doing is not only legal, it was put in there by design, just in case some boob came along, got himself elected PM in a minority House, and then decided to clap his hands over his ears, say "nah-nah-na-na-nah!" and ignore all the other parties. 

So now it's off to the Governor General to ask her to prorogue Parliament. If I can't govern, nobody can, so there. And if she refuses to do so? If she instead takes little Steve by the arm, bends him over and gives him a few on the behind and tells him to act his age? Well, the rumour is then Stevie and his posse will  take their balls and slink home quit en masse.

Meanwhile, down south, we see Obama appointing a bitter rival to a prominent post, keeping a Republican in another, and generally seeming to remember there's more than one side to any story. I never thought I'd be looking to America for better governance than what we've got up here--but then I never thought we'd go and elect a schoolyard bully to the highest post in the land. 

01 December, 2008

Who says Canadian politics is boring?

So the coalition of the willing is ready to go.

Well, good for the Liberals and NDP for coming together. But is it good for Canada?

Progressives--the majority of Canadians, if you believe most polls--will dismiss the question: the answer is self-evident. I'm not so sure.

While I recognize that this is a legitimate way to proceed in our parliamentary democracy, I'm just not comfortable with a transfer of power without an election. There is a complete lack of transparency towards the Canadian electorate here. Anyone care to guess what Dion and Layton have cooked up as regards an economic stimulus package?  (Is "economic stimulus package" only a fancy term for "flushing money down the toilet"?)

Do we have the slightest idea what our foreign policy will look like once "Taliban Jack" has had a go at it? Given that Liberal supporters deserted Dion in droves six scant weeks ago, how it is he's suddenly poised to become Prime Minister?

And another thing. To survive, this proposed government will need the support of Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Quebecois. I like Duceppe as a politician and admire his tenacity. Pity about that traitor thing, though. How much will Dion have to shovel Quebec's way to keep his coalition intact? The CBC article linked above doesn't say but I can speculate in three words: bend over Canada.

Still anxious to escape the devil we know?  The NDP's looking at suing the Tories over taping their private caucus meeting...lost in all the righteous outrage is what that tape uncovers. They've been planning this for a while--since the election, if not before--and so the indignation at Flaherty's economic update was all fake. They would have seized any excuse to spring this. That pisses me off.

And no, I'm not excusing the taping of the meeting, any more than I'd excuse snooping through someone's private belongings in an effort to prove she's cheating on you. But should you discover irrefutable proof that she is, are you supposed to forget all about it because your eyes were where they shouldn't have been? I mean, the ends don't justfy the means and all that, but the means don't obliterate the ends, either.

One thing I will say: from now on, whenever elections happen, we'd be well advised to make damned  sure we elect a majority. 


29 November, 2008

Mumbai could be anywhere

Mark Steyn writes:

What’s relevant about the Mumbai model is that it would work in just about any second-tier city in any democratic state: Seize multiple soft targets and overwhelm the municipal infrastructure to the point where any emergency plan will simply be swamped by the sheer scale of events.

Islamic terrorism is evolving, becoming at once less and more lethal. It is exceptionally difficult to prevent relatively small-scale terrorist attacks; co-ordinate enough of them in a short period of time and you wreak total chaos completely out of proportion to your actions.

Back in 2005, I imagined multiple terrorist attacks in Toronto. I've linked back to that blog entry a couple of times, each time I hear somebody say "it can't happen here." It can. It probably will, in fact, sooner or later. Because, as Steyn writes,

The Islamic imperialist project is a totalitarian ideology: It is at war with Hindus, Jews, Americans, Britons, everything that is other.

We are other. I'm proud to be other. I will fight and die, if necessary, to remain other. I'd like my fellow others to recognize that we're at war, though. With each new atrocity, I keep hoping we'll put two and two together and notice it makes four. 

This page puts a few things into perspective

The World Clock

I'm not sure where these figures are coming from, but many are interesting...and some are terrifying. Note--

--about three times as many births as deaths
--Earth's temperature trending up
--about a thousand barrels of oil produced every second
--war is not near the scourge I'd thought
--"abortions"...boy, an awful lot. One presumes this does not include miscarriages.
--three bicycles produced for every car. (Doubtless that ratio will increase, too.)

28 November, 2008

All the snooze that's fit to peruse

What I want to do is go to bed. I've had a brutal day, which you don't want to hear about because all the brutal days are pretty much the same in their brutality. Suffice it to say our store's too small, I don't have a crystal ball, and, well, fuck it all.
But of course the news intrudes upon the snooze. I'm not amused. Are youse?

(Can you tell I'm tired?)

Mumbai first. Jesus, it's progressed a ways beyond a "terrorist attack" and into the realm of "war" now. The casualty rate may not be anywhere near 9/11's, but the organizational level is an order of magnitude higher. Several boatloads of terrorists, armed with all manner of guns, grenades, and explosives. Targets so far: a popular tourist cafe, the train station, a couple of luxury hotels, and (of course) a Jewish cultural center. The head of India's anti-terrorist squad is among those killed, which has got to count as a major coup if you're a terrorist.

I find it chilling that, according to Global National tonight, the mujahedin went door to door in one hotel, seeking out westerners. They had a pretty good idea where they'd find them, too, having procured passport copies and room numbers from the front desk. 

The intent here seems threefold. First, as always, terror for terror's sake. Second, the terrorists are obviously hoping to provoke a response from India, enraging the Indian Muslim minority and drawing them into the simmering India-Pakistani conflict.  (By way of reminder: both India and Pakistan have nukes.)
Third, there is a pointed message directed at the West: we're still here, and we can both seek you out and wait you out.

Anybody still think we can talk to these people and they'll politely cease and desist as if they were Mormons at your door? (Final point...I occasionally lash out at the Christian fundycostals and say harsh things about them. Give them their due: they may want to convert you, but at least it's not at gunpoint.)

Canadian political news brews, toos.


The perception that Stephen Harper only notices the economic downturn as it might pertain to political popularity persists. The Opposition parties have taken notice, and served it, too: a coalition government is in formation, ready to take the Conservatives down. The Liberals and NDP are said to have already formed the rudiments of a cabinet, with Dion as prospective PM, Layton (possibly) as deputy PM, and the Liberals in charge of Finance.

Note for my American friends: it is possible in Canada to get a new government without an election. If the government falls on a matter of confidence, the opposition parties have an opportunity to request of the Governor-General that they form an alternative government. It's then up to her whether to call an election or not.

The Liberal motion reads:

"In light of the government's failure to recognize the seriousness of Canada's economic situation and its failure in particular to present any credible plan to stimulate the Canadian economy … this House has lost confidence in this government and is of the opinion that a viable alternative government can be formed."

That's only part of it. What they're really ticked off about is Harper's proposal to scrap the $1.95 per vote that goes to each party. Although it would affect the Conservatives, too, it's widely seen as an attempt to drive the Liberal Party into bankruptcy. 

It's true that Harper hasn't proposed any sort of stimulus package for the Canadian economy (which, it must be said, is still far healthier than the economy to our south...for now, at least.) His financial update proposes selling $2.3 billion worth of government assets, some sort of wage freeze for public servants, and a denial of the right to strike for public sector unions. Nothing for the battered manufacturing sector--but then again, doesn't that equal the very corporate welfare Canadians are usually against? Just sayin'. 

As of right now, Harper has responded to this by delaying the first opportunity the Opposition would have to raise this motion--to December 8. 

I haven't decided how I feel about this. On the one hand, a Liberal-NDP coalition represents more of the popular vote than the Conservatives got last month, so one could argue they're in fact more legitimate than the Conservative minority we have. But--and it's a big but--I know nothing about how Dion or Layton would govern us through this minefield of an economy. I trust the Green Shift is off the table, for now. I would hope that wiser heads prevail and that taxes are not raised. I'd much rather see this go to the polls, even though we just had an election. I do tend to side with Harper, minus the spin, when he says 

"While we have been working on the economy, the opposition has been working on a backroom deal to overturn the results of the last election without seeking the consent of voters. They want to take power, not earn it,"

Harper had better tread carefully. His first move (unless it's too late) should be to strike an all-party committee to try and deal with the economy in a fashion befitting adults. 

And with that, I'm off to bed. I'm rapidly losing coherence--may have lost it ten paragraphs ago, for all I know.

26 November, 2008

Why I read science fiction

My reading background is atrocious for an English major--even a half-assed English major who dropped out after third year. When I attended high school the curriculum hadn't been standardized yet...which meant that somehow I ended up taking Heart of Darkness and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" five times each. (Still like the latter, oddly; I hated the former the first time I read it and let's just say it wore on me afterwards.)
The first order result of this is that I'm not near as well read as I should be. Even such stalwarts of the high school scene as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Catcher In The Rye, and Catch-22, anything by Hemingway--all have escaped my attention. As for the real heavies...I've dabbled in The Canterbury Tales, read exactly five of Shakespeare's plays, muddled through Paradise Lost, and tried to read the Iliad last year, giving up fairly quickly. As for monsters like War and Peace and A la recherche du temps perdu: you won't catch me in the same room.
I'm a close attentive reader if the story holds my interest, but I'm the laziest reader ever you'll find when it doesn't. And sad to say, most don't.

I really don't like fantasy. I prefer my characters human, for one thing--about the only book with almost entirely non-human characters to make my top 100 would be Watership Down. Whereas I love science (or, more properly, speculative) fiction--which many consider a subset of fantasy. The difference for me is important:

If anyone were to force me to make a thumbnail description of the differences between SF and fantasy, I think I would say that SF looks towards an imaginary future, while fantasy, by and large, looks towards an imaginary past. Both can be entertaining. Both can possibly be, perhaps sometimes actually are, even inspiring. But as we can't change the past, and can't avoid changing the future, only one of them can be real.
--Frederick Pohl

That's it in a nutshell. It seems paradoxical, but when I'm reading fiction, I'm looking for a sense of the real...and when I'm reading fantasy I can't "shake the fake".  There's always a little critter niggling away in my head going this never happened, this couldn't happen, c'mon, now, ogres and hobbits and elves, oh my! It seems--and I recognize how blasphemous this sounds--childish.

Oh, really, Ken? You can't abide a troll, but if you take that troll and give him a troll society about three hundred light years from here...and suddenly you're fascinated.

I have no defense. Except to say that if trolls do exist, they're probably...on some planet about three hundred light-years from here. And just what does their world look like? What are their hopes and dreams and failings, and how will they greet the human beings hurtling towards their planet? What does troll society have to teach us about human society?

SF is the literature of ideas. Some authors take a single what if? and run with it--James Halperin's The Truth Machine is a superlative example. What if somebody invented a 100%-accurate lie detector? How would that change the world? It's clunky literature, but the speculation is gripping.
Many of Robert Sawyer's novels take a single SF trope (like uploaded consciousness, rejuvenation, or first contact) and examine it in detail, from unexpected angles. 
Other authors toss off ideas like sparklers. Charles Stross loads his stories up with so many thought-provoking premises I occasionally have to stop reading just to catch my mental breath. His far-future novels read just as I imagine the far-future looks: crammed full of technology that's almost unimaginable to us and yet boring and routine to the denizens of his worlds. And for all that, the people are recognizably human...which brings up the relationship of man to his technology, a key SF theme. The dystopian works resonate with me because I believe our spiritual growth as a species lags far behind our tech; the utopian works resonate because I derive a deep sense of satisfaction envisioning the two spheres of human growth equal, each driving the other...and I do think we're headed that way, albeit grudgingly. 

Peter F. Hamilton--my latest discovery--manages somehow to maintain an intimate focus even as he's populating his universe with hundreds of characters on dozens of planets. I love this galaxy-spanning space opera: I feel like I'm reading six or seven books for the price of one.  

And there are many, many authors I haven't read yet and intend to. That's another trait of mine, true with both books and movies: I understand that things are called 'classics' for a reason, but with so many new things constantly coming out I can't be bothered to make time for the old. My loss, I'm sure. But I'll bear it.

23 November, 2008

Paradigm shift

Interesting essay here.


...[C]onsideration of the common interest - rather than self-interest - must be our focus, as it is literally our lifeline. Developing a global consciousness isn’t some New Age fancy term for advocating hugging trees. It means that me, you, he, and she, and all of us together must be conscious of the well being of everyone of us, and every person and every thing, while doing our business or even while living our daily lives, whether it’s vacuuming the floor, shopping, or having coffee with friends.

I have long believed that we are all one, even before having the message crystallize for me so clearly in Neale Donald Walsch's Conversations with God series. I think this is the central (and yet often forgotten or minimized) message of many of the world's great faiths and philosophies.  You can couch it in whatever terms you want. New Age-speak has a host of them that grate on my ear: for example, this from the Namaste Cafe:

What we call "God" is the Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent and all-encompassing luminous Presence of Divinity that envelopes ALL life everywhere. This includes every minute electron, atom and subatomic particle of life evolving in any time frame or dimension, known or unknown, throughout infinity. What that means, both literally and tangibly, is that everything that exists anywhere in the whole of Creation is a "cell" in the Body of God.

Wow, that's good weed, man.

Put another way:

Today's world requires that we accept the oneness of humanity. In the past, isolated communities could afford to think of one another as fundamentally separate and even existed in total isolation. Nowadays, however, events in one part of the world eventually affect the entire planet. Therefore we have to treat each major local problem as a global concern from the moment it begins. We can no longer invoke the national, racial or ideological barriers that separate us without destructive repercussions. In the context of our new interdependence, considering the interests of others is clearly the best form of self-interest."

--Tenzin Gyatsu, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, 1990

Or yet another:

"...Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matt. 24:40b)

I'm the farthest thing from a Bible literalist, and yet it pleases me immensely to take that particular passage literally. I think it expresses a Great Truth that desperately needs expressing as the economic vise tightens and the consequences of rampant greed begin to take their inexorable effect. 

You will find variants of the Golden Rule--"do unto others as you would have them do unto you"-- just about anywhere somebody's bothered to consider ethics for any length of time. I think it's safe to say that if you could only pick one maxim to live by, that'd be it. If we are indeed headed for another Depression, we must keep the Golden Rule ever more firmly in mind. To discard it in tough times is to abandon our shared humanity. 

21 November, 2008

I'm awake...

I'm currently suffering through a bout of insomnia the likes of which I haven't experienced for about a decade. It's not pleasant. Bouts of almost obscene exhaustion alternate with periods of lucidity and alertness. Unfortunately the clear periods tend to be between eleven and about four in the morning...I'm sure you can guess when the fatigue hits.

Anyway, I'm up for a while, I might as well get some thoughts out.

One--Ontario's passed a few new laws governing teenagers and their drivers' licenses. Drivers under twenty one years of age are now subject to zero tolerance for alcohol in their systems, and the first speeding offense will result in a thirty day suspension. Also, teenage drivers are only permitted one teenage passenger, not counting siblings.

I'm more than okay with the first two laws. The third, while well-intentioned, is not very well thought out.

Suppose you're a responsible teen driver. (They do exist: in fact, they're probably the majority.) You are no longer allowed to act as a designated driver for your drunk friends; nor can you drive your co-workers home after an evening shift wherever you work. If you live out in the country, where a car is a necessity, you're pretty much pooched as far as a social life is concerned. (You can just tell these laws were thought up and approved in downtown Toronto.) 
If I was a driving teen, I'd be up in arms over this.

Back when I was in school, it was common to hear from teachers (and parents) that "a few bad apples spoil the bunch." I remember getting in a long, involved argument with my parents on the subject of car insurance for teenagers. (At the time, I still had every intention of joining the rest of the world behind the wheel: it was only later that my driving phobia asserted itself.) It irked me to no end that teens paid more in insurance, simply because statistics showed they were more likely to get into an accident. They even broke it down further, as I recall: boys paid more than girls, and you could get a discount for being a A student, as if that had anything to do with your inclination to drive like an idiot. I guess it does, actually: some actuary says so. But what really bothered me was that this all-seeing actuary could look at me and determine,  on the basis of my age alone, that I was an asshole driver and should be dinged accordingly. 

That was the first argument among many where I'd made up my mind and no amount of reason could make me see any different. So much so that I still feel exactly the same way twenty years later.

My worldview is at odds with most peoples'. I think people are fundamentally decent. I trust people until they give me a reason not to. That's not because I'm some kind of saint: I've just noticed over the years that most people live up or down to your expectations of them.  That's totally contrary to the spirit of insurance, which distrusts one person not because of anything they've done, but because of what other people they don't even know are wont to do. That's simply not fair.

Cue the parent-voice in my head: Life's not fair, Kenny-me-boy.

Yeah, well, sometimes life can go ---- itself. 

I think everyone should pay the same insurance rate to start out with, and those who drive like assholes should pay the asshole premium. But only after they've been proven to drive like assholes. Likewise, once you've got your full license (which, by the bye, I'm not averse to making it much harder to obtain), you should be free to operate your vehicle any ol' legal way you please...with the understanding that anything illegal you try will be punished. Regardless of age.

And that's the first blog. The tiredness is starting to creep back in. I think I've got one more of these in me before I can (hopefully) sleep.

16 November, 2008

Silly questions

One I've had since grade school--

Why is it called "evaporated milk" when it's still a liquid?

They taught me that "evaporated" meant 'boiled away'. So when you open a can of evaporated milk, you should get a puff of milky gas. (That sounds lovely, doesn't it?)

One almost as old--

Why can girls have 'girlfriends'--which are, obviously enough, friends who are girls--but boys can't have 'boyfriends' without being flaming queers?

I wrote an essay on this in high school, and again in university, without coming any closer to an answer. 

Why is so many of the same people who call themselves 'pro-life' also for the death penalty?

That's just one of many vexing correlations I've noticed--the two issues seemingly have nothing to do with each other and are, at first blush, anyway, kind of contradictory. 

I've noticed, too, that  people who like cats tend to like books. Do cats like books? Let's turn to Bill Richardson, for today's helping of poetry:

Cats Are Fickle Things

They say that cats are fickle things,
Impervious to laws:
Except the rule that when one reads,
They'll knead you with their claws.
The reason that they need to knead's
Instinctual perhaps.
We only know for certain that
They hop into our laps
The moment that we lift a book,
Then splay upon our loins
And rake their nasty nails along
The stretch from knee to groin.
Each time you take a book in hand,
It's never known to fail,
They try to lie upon the page,
Manoevering their tails
So that they brush against one's lip:
They then assume a pose
That's possitively yogic,
With their butts against one's nose.
And if you put them on the floor,
They carry on abominably;
The only way they're happy is
To know you well abdominally.
Oh kitty cat upon my lap,
You know I love you well;
Though why you have to read with me,
I simply cannot tell.
But love, I want my book in peace,
And so I'll risk your wrath,
By dumping you upon the floor 
And reading in the bath.
--from The Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast

Moving on...

What is the purpose of cursive writing?

I ask that one in all seriousness. A quick look online gives one reasonable answer: it's quicker. (In Australia, it's sometimes called 'running writing'.) But then the question simply shifts: what is the purpose of printing?
I still have vivid, unpleasant memories of "learning" cursive script. (I never really did: despite my mother's best efforts, my writing is atrocious.) Part of the reason I hated the experience was that I never saw the point of it all. Mom made me write out page after page of cursive capital Ks--to this day, the K I sign Ken Breadner with looks more like a printed capital C squinching backwards against a small l like it wants to mate with it, or something. I wanted to crumple every last page and set fire to the lot, because I already knew how to "write" a capital K. 

Why does the body crave sugar--which is, in fact, a poison? What possible evolutionary advantage does that serve?

Why are thundersnowstorms so rare (but not unheard of)?

I posed that to the sci.weather newsgroup in 1991 and sent it off to The Weather Network some years later. Never got a response either time, which means it's either a stupid question or nobody knows.

How is it that the human race took its first baby steps towards interstellar civilization--landing on our only satellite--thirty years ago, and then, trembling on the verge of growing up, abruptly lost interest?

There's enough raw wealth in this solar system to make multibillionaires of every person living on earth today. Getting at it is difficult, but possible even with today's technology. Moreover, the tech used to get us to Luna has had untold positive spinoff applications here on Earth. But "we shouldn't waste our money on space when there are so many problems here on Earth."
Stupid, stupid, stupid.

15 November, 2008


"IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, please remain calm, stay seated and wait for your federal bailout."

I get it.
Really, I do. The word "bailout" triggers an automatic vomit reflex in all and sundry. I'm not immune myself, not after I've seen how so much of the bailout money went to executive bonuses, and so much more went into funds to buy up other companies, rather than, oh, I don't know, restore liquidity to the market. 
And if you dare suggest a bailout for the beleaguered auto industry, the vomit reflex will be aimed squarely in your face. What did they do with their billions in profit during the good years and silly unions, negotiating unsustainable contracts and why should we bail out companies that can't lead their way out of a paper bag are some of the milder comments I've seen.

(In the interests of disclosure, it must be noted my stepfather works for CAMI Automotive. I've tried not to let that colour my perspective on the foregoing. Probably failed.)

If I lived in any other province, I'd be right there with you, upchucking away. But I live here in Ontario. This province manufactures more light vehicles than anywhere else on the continent. Including spinoffs, the auto industry accounts for over 400,000 jobs and a third of Ontario's exports. Given this and a host of other stats showing the vital nature of the automotive sector to this province, the consequences of letting it fail are really too dire to contemplate.
Besides, many of our auto plants have been cited for superior quality control, by no less an authority than J.D. Power. The days of slipshod, lazy line workers are well in the past.
There is some truth to the unsustainable union contracts...in some plants, anyway. GM's pension plan was in trouble even before the market went kerploof. But everyone realizes the times are getting tight, not least of all the Canadian Auto Workers union; they willingly renegotiated contracts with the Big Three in the last year, giving millions of dollars in concessions, in the ironclad knowledge that if they didn't, they'd lose their jobs altogether. 

It's also true that the domestic automakers in particular have been slow to respond to changing public demands. But even that's more perception than reality. Ford's Focus, Flex and Fusion models have won numerous awards; their fuel economy is comparable to, and in some cases superior to, like-sized imports. Unless you're driving a Hummer, you're getting middlin' decent sippiness to go with your zippiness. Hell, even the Escalade comes in a hybrid now. Besides, before this year's oil spike, the Ford F-150 (made in Ontario) vied with the Honda Civic (made in Ontario) as the best-selling vehicle in Canada. Car companies build gas-guzzlers because people buy them. 

These companies generally work five to seven years ahead; right now the 2013 models are on somebody's drawing board. In that context, it's perhaps a little more understandable how flat-footed the run-up in oil prices caught everyone. (Now there's talk that oil might fall to $30 or even lower before recovering. Sounds great for happy motoring, but it would crush the Canadian economy.)

But...everyone knows the oil's running out...if not now, then soon, if not soon, then at least within the foreseeable future. Car manufacturers should be weaning themselves off oil now, and if they're not, they don't deserve bupkuss.

So car companies have been guilty of shortsightedness. That merely suggests they're run by human beings. Being human ourselves, we should not judge them. As I suggested in my last bailout-themed post, we're all in this minivan together. Or something like that. 

Speaking purely pragmatically, perched on the precipice of what looks to be, at the very least, a severe economic downturn...I can understand the opposition to a bailout. Suppose the government does step in and provide billions of dollars to the automotive sector, allowing them to continue as before. Right away you run into a problem: models moldering away on dealership lots because few can afford to buy. You might be making the world's best car, getting a light-year to the gallon, but unless people are buying it, your assembly line will be a breadline in short order.
It's an ugly problem with no simple solution. I sure as hell don't have one. All I know is the crippling of our province's automotive sector cripples us all. I'd like to open this blog to suggestions...how do we keep the plants running and people employed? Anyone? Anyone at all?

12 November, 2008

Not this again.

About a week ago, I told off a collection of bigots on the Dan Simmons forum where I'm a semi-regular contributor and one of the resident odd ducks.  

Dan Simmons is, for my money, one of the most impressive authors working today. He's won awards in nearly every genre he's tackled and written superlative examples of space opera (Hyperion), horror (Song of Kali), hard-boiled detective fiction (the Joe Kurtz novels) and historical literature (The Terror).  A former teacher of  the 'talented and gifted', he's both. Intellectually, he can run circles around me. 
He's one of the few authors I've run across (Charles Stross is another) who (a) has his own web forum; (b) posts regularly to it (c) engages his readers in conversation and debate on any topic that happens to catch his or their fancy. The forum members are almost uniformly of higher than average intelligence and their backgrounds are diverse enough to make life there very interesting. What really sets the place apart, though, is the openness and general civility. Competing views are aired and thrashed out with an absolute minimum of ad hominem attack, although things can get quite heated. Simmons himself will jump in and fling insults about, but--it took a while to realize this--they're always directed at a mental process, not the person him or herself. 

Oh, and the forum leans fairly heavily rightward, politically. The social conservatism is mostly kept in check, but let's just say there are a number of disappointed McCain supporters there who care (in my view) a little too much about their pocketbooks.

Anyway, the night after the American election, I posted a quick, two-sentence lament over the passing of California's Proposition 8, to wit:

The amendment to the California Constitution "protecting" marriage looks like it's going to pass, albeit narrowly. Sad to see that on a night when history is made electing one minority member President, so many people saw fit to stomp all over another minority.

That touched off a shitstorm. I should have known it would; the forum had gone through the issue before, writing about a book's worth before agreeing to disagree. Still, I felt I had to say something: Prop 8 directly affects my closest friend and the sentiment behind it affects countless others. 

All the arguments against gay marriage were duly trotted out--including a novel one I hadn't heard: homosexuals have every right to get married, the same as straights; they just wouldn't be sexually attracted to their spouses. Marriage, not too long ago, had nothing to do with sexual attraction anyway. So what's the problem?

The mind boggles, reading that. I have a very hard time thinking so coldly and dispassionately. I mean, suppose you, a straight man, were told you could only marry another man. What's your reaction likely to be? Bear in mind that sex with a woman under these circumstances--sex outside marriage--is a sin. So you have a choice if you want to remain virtuous: go without sex...or try to engage in a kind of sex that at the very least does nothing for you and at worst actively disgusts you.  You'd probably find such a prospect alarming.

So I'm arguing and getting nowhere. Arguing and getting nowhere. Arguing and getting nowhere. I mentioned that the United Nations sees marriage as a fundmental human right, to which the reply was "thank God the United States isn't subject to the 'exhaustive' list of things the U.N. considers 'rights'.  (I beg to differ...)

In the midst of all this, somebody told me "the case for these [gay marriage] rights has not been compelling" and I, politely, snapped:

When you say "the case for these rights has not been compelling", right there is one disconnect among many for me. You shouldn't have to make cases for human rights. When you start questioning human rights as they apply to human beings, on some level you're dehumanizing them.

Whereupon Mr. Simmons jumped in and stomped on me with both feet, leaving me seething for days. Here's the full text:

 Originally Posted By: KenBreadbox
mrstandfast: I'm sorry. I saw a number of pro-Prop 8 commercials essentially characterizing homosexuals as monsters and fools and retaliated in kind. I will try to define my terms and advance the argument as best I can...when I can. Time constraints prohibit the kind of in-depth argument I'd like to mount.

When you say "the case for these rights has not been compelling", right there is one disconnect among many for me. You shouldn't have to make cases for human rights. When you start questioning human rights as they apply to human beings, on some level you're dehumanizing them. Lest we think marriage is not a fundamental human right, let's go to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 16.
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Now, you will note the first clause does not specify that men must marry women, or that women must marry men. It simply says that men and women of full age have the right to marry. It also implies (in my mind, at least) that marriage in and of itself is sufficient to "found a family". I only note this because so many people seem so determined to deny family status to any couple without children--which includes most (but not all) same-sex couples.

There's my first salvo. Intercept and destroy.

Dan Simmons comments:

Bold in quoted statement mine.)

This statement shows a profound lack of understanding of culture, government, the United States, of democracy, and of the entire idea of "rights." It's a staggering misperception and the fact that more and more young people tend to think this way -- that whatever they think should be a "basic right" needs to be imposed on entire societies by force -- makes it no less a misunderstanding.

The constitution of the United States created no rights. It tried to define the universal human rights that should be protected through guaranteeing that NO GOVERNMENT SHALL INTERFERE WITH THEM. Thus the right to free assembly, free speech, voting, etc. But the list was very short -- and meant to be. The idea that there is a cosmic, universal, Gaiea-given right for men to marry men (and have sex with them) and women to marry women, (etc.) is absurd.

Marriage is such a basic societal function that every culture in history, while having variations in it, has reserved its own right to legally and socially (and usually religiously) define what marriage is and to whom its status will be granted. These definitions and boundaries to marriage are decided within each culture by human beings based on their basic religious and civil mores and have nothing to do with "basic rights" that have to be imposed by force on citizens and cultures unwilling to recognize them.

Throughout history -- and in some Arab nations today -- it is a man's "right" to marry any number of women he so chooses. The United States does not now and never has recognized that right. Indeed, the U.S. government refused Utah's admission to the Union for decades until the Mormons there legally and officially abandoned polygamy. Thus this "basic right" was denied.

Throughout history -- and in some nations today -- a man's "right" in marriage was to be the de facto owner of the woman he marries. She is legally counted as property and protected in the courts as such. This "basic right" has never been accepted by the people and culture of the United States. It is denied.

Throughout history -- and in many parts of the world today -- it is a basic right of men to marry (and to have sex with) women and girls of any age. A man might marry a girl of six and, if he wishes, force conjugal relations at any time he wishes. The societies supported this (and continue to support it even in some modern industrial nations). The people of the United States -- because of their religious and philosophical background -- have never acknowledged this "right." It is a right denied.

Throughout history and in much of the world today, cultures recognize and legally enforce the "right" of men to divorce their spouses unilaterally and easily -- in some cultures by publicly saying "I divorce you" three times while dropping a stone each time you speak. The United States denies this basic right so commonly associated with marriage.

Until recent years in certain post-industrial (and, whether incidental or not, post-Christian and post-religious) nations, there has been no culture anywhere in the world, no culture in all the annals of history, that granted the term "marriage" with all its accruing legal rights and privileges, to homosexuals wishing to live together. If it is a basic human right, it is one which no one -- not even the homosexuals from ancient Greece (where many city states had elaborate social accommodations for the man-boy relationships, but which held the practice itself to be illegal and immoral) through thousands of years of European pagan and then Christian societies, Asian societies, Islamic societies, African societies, aboriginal societies in Australia, South Pacific tribal societies, Aleut societies in the arctic . . . nowhere in history or the world did men wishing to have sex with men or (much less common) women admitting to wanting to have sex with women -- believe it was any sort of "right" for them to have a public union recognized by the society as marriage.

The United States preserves the democratic mechanism by which to change its official state (but never the many religious) views on what constitutes even so central an institution as marriage -- which has always, in all cultures, at all times, been defined as a recognized union between men and women -- but the idea that this new demand for homosexual marriage is a "right" that trumps all democratic process, and one that must be inflicted on the majority of Americans not wanting it as a feature of their society, and that a small minority of special pleaders should be allowed to enforce such a basic change to society, culture, and laws simply because they shout "basic right!" -- goes beyond being arrogant. It's essentially fascist.

Someone on this forum recently argued -- actually, stated as if it were a truism -- that the best sort of government was a "benevolent despotism." Benevolent by whose definition? Despotisms, by their very nature and definition, are never benevolent because they deny and suppress the most basic right acknowledged and defended across more than two centuries by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States -- the right of a free people to decide their own destiny by free speech, free ballot, and by the will of the people being heard and heeded by their government within the safeguards and protections of the constitution.

These "progressive" judicial fiats that attempt to change the legal and cultural definitions of the single most basic human association and legally protected institution in our or any other culture are not merely wrong-headed, they're dangerous to the very structures of freedom that protect homosexuals and other formerly unpopular groups from real discrimination and harm.

Several years ago, almost two-thirds of Americans were polled as being "very sympathetic" to homosexuals' demand for various "rights." The support of the idea of legally recognized civil unions was -- and remains -- very high.

But gay groups and their supporters overreached by demanding judicial recognition of the basic and profound redefinition of marriage as one of those "rights." Public support went from two-thirds in favor of supporting "gay rights" to almost two-thirds opposed.

It's not Americans' basic tolerance and sense of fairness that changed. It's their recognition that this superior, arrogant, anti-democratic demand that the historical and social definition of marriage itself be changed -- without due democratic process and simply through claims of moral superiority by a minority and their supporters demanding special treatment -- is wrong.

It's not right and it's not their right.


I can't even begin to tell you how furious this made me. It's that kind of "let's-be-reasonable-and-when-you-grow-up-you'll-finally-see-it-my-way" style of arguing that chafes on me like a lack of lube.  (Sorry...)
Besides, it's irrelevant in many places and plain inaccurate in others. It engages in an extended logical fallacy (the appeal to tradition: "this is how it's always been") and concludes with the statement that "it's not Americans' basic tolerance and sense of fairness that has changed". 

Oh, really? First off, the last Prop 8-type bill passed in California, eight short years ago, 61% to 38%.  A full sixty one percent voted to outlaw same-sex marriage. This time, despite massive spending by religious groups (chief among them the Mormons, who don't even have a dog in this hunt), Prop 8 passed 52% to 48%. If current trends hold--and there's no reason to suggest they won't--California will revisit this issue in a couple of electoral terms and gays will have their marriages back. Which is no excuse for the eighteen thousand-plus couples that have had their marriages nullified, of course...but it does show that Americans' basic sense of tolerance and fairness is changing for the better. In some areas. 

Also, Mr. Simmons' assertion that almost two thirds of Americans are opposed to same-sex marriage does not jibe well with its acceptance in other parts of the world, most notably above America's border. In Canada, nearly two thirds of people polled in 2003 supported same-sex-marriage, with the data showing the young were more likely to be in favour. This is the reverse of conditions Mr. Simmons cites for the United States...and also the sentiment about a decade before in Canada. In short, acceptance of same-sex marriage is inevitable. We don't see it as a "special" right--just a matter of equality. 

When I calmed down enough to come back to the debating table, I was armed with all manner of statistics and such supporting my side and refuting Dan Simmons'. But in the end I decided not to use them...because they prove acceptance is growing for something the forum members, by and large, don't accept. My posting them would only rub everyone's nose in it...and I'm not...quite...that mean. I went, once again, with an appeal to empathy:

This will be my last word on the matter, and then I'll give up. I feel like I'm tilting at windmills.
Once again we're drawn back to "marriage is a union with an established composition, and same-sex marriage is a violation of this composition." Or in other words, "this is how it's always been done, so any other way of thinking about the matter is invalid." Also known as a logical fallacy: the appeal to tradition. And not even universal tradition. Same-sex marriages date back to the Roman Empire. Lo and behold, they exist today in several parts of the world...including within the borders of the United States of America itself.

So yes, I've ignored Dan's history lesson because, while eloquent, it couldn't be more irrelevant.

Marriage is, in almost all cases, between a man and a woman. So what? 

To answer that, you need to know the purpose of marriage. And since each couple has a different answer to that question, marriage being deeply personal--I submit you can't. Oh, many have tried. Quoting Charles Stross:

"[M]arriage is for the purpose of having children," they say, conveniently side-stepping the question of why they aren't in favour of mandatory divorce for childless or elderly couples, or why they oppose allowing gay couples to adopt. Or, "marriage is a holy sacrament," which kind of assumes that everybody shares their definition of "holy".

I've heard the idea that marriage is the basic building block of society so many times, I'm surprised I don't believe it yet. The *individual* is the basic building block of societies everywhere, and always has been. Surely that's a fundamental truth in a country that values individual freedom as highly as does the United States. An individual is not required to marry in order to be a fully functioning member of society; nor is he or she required to be a product of a married mother and father. Even the social stigma of bastardy has all but abated in civilized places.

As to marriage being a right--well, yes, in fact I do side with the United Nations on that matter. I should think all married persons would: imagine a world where you didn't have the legal right to marry your spouse and get back to me on that. 

My issue with Proposition 8 is, and always has been, the revoking of rights previously granted. Over eighteen thousand couples were married in California before this travesty of a proposition robbed them of their marriages. Put yourself in the place of a newlywed gay couple, if you can, and imagine learning that "the people" have decided your marriage is unacceptable and unlawful. Anyone with a shred of empathy would scream bloody murder.

Other states are free to pass their hateful "Defense of Marriage" acts--defense against what? Why, that awful gay agenda, of course!--and progress will have to come from the judiciary. The onus ought to be on "Focus On The Family" and groups of their ilk to explain how humans in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York are different from those in Arizona and Florida; why people in America should be denied rights granted in Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa and Spain. Good luck with that.

That's it--I'm done. My words probably won't convince anyone: this is one of those issues that people have made up their minds on and can't be swayed. But I find I must, however, write them, for the sake of friends and relatives who deserve what I myself enjoy: the security of marriage.

Only then did some measure of support come out of the woodwork. There has been some attempt to goad me back into the debate, but I haven't bitten and don't intend to. There are vast, probably unbridgeable chasms between both sides of this argument. The underlying assumptions and definitions are wholly incompatible. And so--I know how I feel, and you know how I feel, and that's all I have to say.