31 January, 2008

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.

Limerick of the Day

A man with the surname of Beebee
Wished to marry a woman named Phoebe.
But he said "I must see
What the minister's fee
Be before Phoebe be Phoebe Beebee."

29 January, 2008

What does it mean to be Canadian?

We Canadians live in a blind spot about our identity. We have very strong feelings about who we aren't but only weak ones about who we are. We're passionate about what we don't want to become but oddly passive about what we should be.--John Cruickshank

This question's been vexing me a little more than usual of late. It's always in the back of my mind; one of the stock definitions of a Canadian is someone who frets about his national identity. When's the last time you heard a resident of Spain musing on what it means to be Spanish?

Complicating matters, I belong to that tribe of people known as "proud Canadians". Many people, including many Canadians, believe my tribe doesn't exist...or if it does, it shouldn't. National pride is seen as a quintessentially American, and therefore distasteful, trait. Meanwhile, my tribe numbers in the millions. I'd suspect most people who hold Canadian citizenship are, on some level, proud to. Our pride is a quiet, measured thing. It lacks Yankee exuberance; it need not be shown publically to be deeply felt.

This bout of navel-gazing was first triggered by this weekend's NHL All-Star Game, or more specifically, the "SuperSkills" competition the night before. Eva, who doesn't particularly enjoy hockey, likes to watch this competition, and I've tuned in every year it's been held. This year, for the first time, they concluded the night with a "Breakaway Challenge": a quasi-shootout in which each attempt at a goal was judged for style and creativity. Basically, it was a license to show off.

I say "quasi-shootout" because, while hockey players are certainly encouraged to be creative, one thing they are never encouraged to do is show off, or show up other players. In this as in much else, hockey perfectly mirrors the Canadian character: we are an exceptionally tolerant nation, but something about showboating rubs us the wrong way.
And so we saw player after player break down the ice, most of them staying within the bounds of accepted shootout protocol. It finally dawned on the final two players that the whole point of this exercise was to hot-dog, and so they tried it. You could read their discomfort just below the goofy smile on their faces. It got me to thinking: the Canadian character isn't as modest as it appears to an outsider. We consider ourselves damned special, thank you very much. What makes us virtually unique in terms of national character is that we don't think ourselves any more special than anyone else.
As proof, we invite the world to come share the Canadian experience. Your colour, class or creed means nothing: all that matters is your willingness to accept that basic tenet: you're special, damned special...but no more special than anyone else.
We judge our celebrities harshly if they act like celebrities, if they bask in their fame and good fortune. We hated Brian Mulroney in no small part because of his perceived arrogance; most of us accepted or even adored Jean Chretien because he was so successful at keeping his arrogance (of which he had at least a Mulroneyful) so thoroughly masked, so utterly submerged beneath the facade of le p'tit gars de Shawinigan.
There's a Crown Royal commercial extolling "the noble spirit": long live the player who knows that an assist is worth as much as a goal. That's as Canadian as it gets.

As I write, the Toronto public school board is considering the establishment of an "Afrocentric" high school. This initiative has been dogged by controversy at every turn. Proponents note that fully half of black students in Toronto either fail or drop out, and surveys show they would be more engaged with an Afrocentric curriculum. Those against say that this is exactly the sort of thing Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, among many others, fought long and hard to abolish.

I see both sides of this...sort of. Actually, after a great deal of thought, I see one side and credit good intentions on the other.
What exactly is an Afrocentric curriculum? I can see how that term would apply in history class and in the literature component of an English course...and that's about it. How "Afrocentric science" differs from "Eurocentric science" mystifies me. Is phys. ed. any different if the students have more melatonin in their skin? How about mathematics? Does 2+2 equal something else in certain parts of the world?
Okay, history and literature. I'd be the first to admit both were whiter than sour cream when I went to high school. By the logic of those surveys, the overwhelmingly white students in my classes should have been fully engaged.
They weren't. Not unless they found the material intrinsically interesting. And when they did, it sure as hell didn't have anything to do with the race of the people under discussion. (In fact, one of the few novels I can remember many of my fellow students really enjoying was To Kill a Mockingbird.)

I understand the objective here: to get more black students succeeding in school. I'm just not sure an Afrocentric curriculum would achieve that goal. Certainly having more black teachers to serve as role models would help. But an all-black student body? Isn't the whole idea to get the kid out of the ghetto?

A particularly Canadian compromise I'd suggest would be to broaden the curriculum for everyone. Certainly our geography and history courses could do with a little reality injection: the world is, after all, round. As for literature, I know of no better way to get into someone's head than through a well-written book. Interesting plots and characters have universal appeal.

Bringing people together. That's what education is about. And that's what being Canadian is about, too.

27 January, 2008

The Joys of Retail (Tales from Aisle 10, Part III)

My work life has been some kind of interesting lately.
Our flyers have taken a turn for the heated, with a real emphasis on my dairy and frozen departments. Items I've rarely or never seen on sale in seven years have been promoted with great fanfare, leaving me utterly clueless as to how much stock to bring in.
Some examples:

Delissio Pizzas, $3.77: These regularly retail for $7.27 at our store and up to $8.99 elsewhere...you can imagine the stampede. To make matters more interesting, I had to book my stock five weeks in advance. At that point, we had just had Delissio on sale for $5 and I'd been amazed at the demand. So I ordered lots.
Nowhere near enough, as it turned out.
Luckily, Head Office had let it be known there was additional stock available, and I took full advantage, doubling and tripling my initial allocation for each delivery. Accordingly, I never...quite...ran out of pizza until late on the last day of the flyer. (At one point I was down to six cases in the store, which is considerably more tight than I like to cut things, but at least I wasn't entirely out for a length of time like, ahem, every other store in the Tri-Cities.)
Of course, I cheated: I put a limit of four pizzas per family per day on right early, after customers were seen grabbing cartsful of pizza, and left it on through most of the weekend.
I don't like to put limits on things, for several reasons. People think they're unfair--at least once an hour you have to explain to somebody that "four per family" applies even if you have fourteen kids, and we won't accept your claim that you're shopping for six different families in your neighbourhood, and we're so sorry, but the limit also applies if you don't understand written or spoken English. (It is really amazing how many people will talk to you in perfectly fluent English until you try to tell them why they have to leave some pizza for other people, at which point they don't understand a word you say.)
And despite our best efforts, the limits don't work very well. Husbands and wives split up and
go through different tills. Mothers send each of their kids around at intervals to garther four pizzas apiece. I've known people who will actually drive from store to store getting the limit from each...which is a great argument for gas at $4 a litre, as far as I'm concerned.
Last time these pizzas were on sale, at $5.00, I was hung with several cases of the Roasted Vegetable variety. So I didn't order quite as many of them this time around, relative to, say, Pepperoni, Deluxe, or Hawaiian. Big mistake: every vegetarian came in from miles around, and when the Roasted Vegetable was sold out (hey, I never said I was in stock on all kinds the whole time), the customers got right ornery. We were threatened with lawsuits ("you people don't care for those of your customers who eat properly!", one elderly man said rather haughtily). Another customer claimed to have been in four times looking for Roasted Vegetable, including the day before the flyer broke. This on Saturday, about half an hour after I ran out of stock for the first time. This, too, is typical.

2L carton milk, $1.88:

Before I detail this little fiasco, let me explain the peculiarities of the dairy industry in Southern Ontario.
Unlike everywhere else on the North American continent, our milk comes, by and large, in two formats: cardboard cartons, for any size under 4L (Americans: think of 1L = 1 qt.), and bagged 4L (roughly a gallon) milk. The latter, a format that so far as I know is unique to Ontario south and east of Thunder Bay, is hard to explain to someone who's never seen it before. Every year we get freshman university students arriving from out of province who regard my milk counter with a completely bewildered eye, looking for jugs that are almost impossible to find outside certain convenience stores. Instead, we have milk bags. Think of the kind of thing bread is wrapped in, including the little bread tie with the expiry date stamped on it...only instead of slices of bread, put three plastic baggies full of milk in there.
This is, of course, patently ridiculous. It requires the purchase of a dedicated milk pitcher to hold each individual plastic baggie; also required is a pair of scissors, a knife, or a dedicated tool to rip the bag open. And then, of course, the bag is open, exposed to the air. Most elderly people who shop in our store refuse to buy a 4L bag of milk despite a significant cost-savings for that very reason. They prefer cartons with screw-tops.
Jugs have screw-tops. But for reasons unfathomable, I doubt you'll see milk jugs in Southern Ontario grocery stores anytime soon. It's a mystery.

Anyway, back to the 2L cartons for $1.88.

We've never ran this before. We did run a 1L sale (99 cents) the last time I went on holidays, and I used those numbers as a rough guide.
Sales like this bring out the mathematically challenged in hordes and in droves. They even put the math on the flyer...prominently displayed: "equal to $3.76 for a 4L bag". (A four litre bag retails for $4.49 in our store...$5.29 if it's homogenized --whole--milk.)
They need not have bothered printing anything on the flyer. I can't begin to tell you how many people insisted the bag was still cheaper. There being three baggies inside a single 4L bag of milk, it seems people believe each baggie somehow contains 2L. Mathematically impossible, but there you go.
I didn't bring in very many milk bags to start this sale, stupidly forgetting people are stupid. Accordingly, I ran out of bags--something my boss was perfectly okay with, because even at the sale retail we were making money on the 2L cartons, whereas we lose a lot of money on every bag we sell.
If the definition of insanity is doing something the same way over and over again and expecting a different result, then besides being stupid I must also be insane. I kept thinking people would eventually twig to the fact they were saving money by purchasing two 2L cartons. Some did, but not many.
I cut my display space for bags right down and put all kinds of crates full of cartons where my bags normally go. It didn't help, confirming once again my suspicion that most people shop on autopilot.

Just to explain the sort of thinking I put into these promotions....

What kind of milk do you drink? I drink 1%, myself (or filtered skim, which tastes the same). In this I am not alone: 1% is almost equal to 2% in sales. Skim sells about half what 2% and 1% do and homo (3.25%) about half of skim. Homo milk is generally bought only by mothers with small children...and Asians, for some reason.
So when we ran the 1L at 99 cents sale, those were the ratios I followed...and was promptly out of homogenized milk. I'd thought people's taste in milk to be pretty static...that they wouldn't buy homo just because it represented a better deal--and I was wrong. Oh, well. I've been wrong before, and will be again.
And was again, I mean. This time, with homo 2L at $1.88 representing an even better deal, I brought in quite a bit of homo. And got hung with it. Not to mention the skim milk, which hardly sold at all. I give up.

Then there's this week's special.

Ristorante Pizzas: buy 2 at $4.00 each and get a Casa di Mama Pizza FREE

This is another thing new to my department: a buy two, get one free event. Total crapshoot. On the one hand, you have to spend $8 to get that free pizza...will people want to do that? On the other, that's $2.67 a pizza. When we ran the Ristorantes at $2.77 a few weeks back, we sold thousands of them...and the number one complaint from that ad was that the Casa di Mamas (which are the only pizzas with meat on them) weren't included.
As it turns out, I got lucky and properly gauged demand. This time. That said, it's been amusing to watch people misunderstanding that bolded line of text. People have been buying three Ristorantes expecting one of them to be free. Or three Casa di Mamas. Or two Casa di Mamas and a Ristorante. Or--my favourite--three Ristorantes and three Casa di Mamas (which are all free...right?)

Apropos of nothing at all, for the second time in just three months we had a customer take a crap on the floor in my frozen department. Or to be more accurate, leave a crap. I thought I'd seen the last of that when I left 7-Eleven. Apparantly not. New Price Chopper slogan: Our prices are so low, you'll shit yourself!

23 January, 2008

Fletch Lives!


Q. How many Maple Leafs fans does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. Six. One to actually change the lightbulb, and five to talk about just how good the old lightbulb was.

Pity poor John Ferguson, Jr. Don't pity him too long, though: he'll land on his feet somewhere, and my bet is he'll guide some other franchise to the Stanley Cup while his old team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, is still and forever floundering in the seas of mediocrity.

I really do feel bad for the man, though. He's been so vilified for so long by so many that the disdain I used to feel for him gradually morphed into a perverse admiration. Because, you see, the state of the Leafs today is (mostly) not his fault.

To be sure, he's made mistakes, some of them doozies. Re-signing Ed Belfour; overpaying for role players; throwing around no-trade clauses like so much confetti. And then there's bad luck: hands up, all none of you who foresaw Jason Blake tanking like he has this season. For that matter, when Andrew Raycroft won the Calder as best rookie, who among us figured he'd turn into a sieve in short order?

But how many of John Ferguson's decisions were actually John Ferguson's decisions? Richard Peddie's blabbing all over the media that John had "full autonomy" to realize his vision of the team--on the principle that if you say something often enough, it becomes true. If you believe Peddie, I have a pair of Leafs platinum season tickets here for you. Three easy payments of $19.99. Or best offer.

The fact is, the Leafs are managed by a multi-headed monster. Each head thinks it knows something about hockey. Only a few do, and those heads are quickly devoured and spit up by the others. Peddiehead acknowledged--publically--that it was "a mistake" to hire Ferguson, but for the longest time didn't fire him. How does that feel? Hey, everybody. I screwed up: I never should have hired this putz. But he's such a convenient whipping boy, scapegoat, and, ahem, smokescreen for my own failings--I'm sorry, was that out loud?--anyway, I'll keep him dangling in the wind for awhile, because it makes me feel so powerful.

Now they've reached back into the past, as the Leafs are wont to do, and resurrected Trader Cliff.
I've got nothing against Cliff Fletcher. He was, after all, the architect of the Leafs' last period of respectability, and he orchestrated arguably the most one-sided trade in NHL history, to Toronto's immense benefit. He was certainly the right man for the job then. Is he now? I'm not sold. Frankly, I'm still miffed the Leafs turned down Scotty Bowman last year. Imagine Warren Buffett coming up to you and saying psst! I can help you make money! And you thinking about it for three weeks, coming back and saying ah, thanks but no thanks. You don't turn down a man like Bowman. Unless, that is, you're a man like Richard Peddie.

Fletcher's job is daunting. The first thing he's got to do is somehow convince Mats Sundin to scram for a few months--or longer. Sundin and Kaberle represent the only tradeable assets the Leafs possess...both of them sizeable assets, redeemable for the sort of wealth of young blue-chip prospects and picks this team desperately needs. The kicker is that both have no-trade clauses and are inclined to invoke them.

If I'm Cliff, I waive Raycroft and Wozniewski and throw the doors wide open. Make me an offer. Nobody's untouchable, though you're going to have to offer me a king's ransom for Kaberle.

Then I tell the fans all about the new attitude adjustment. "Making the playoffs and anything can happen" no longer cuts it. This team will contend for the Stanley Cup. Of course, we'll have to take a couple of steps backwards in order to put this team on a solid foundation...but look out for us in 2009-2010. In the meantime, you're going to see effort from every player every night...or they'll answer to me.

And my other priority is to procure six or seven rolls of duct tape and Wade Belak, waltz into Peddie's office, and cordially invite him to stay the hell out of my bailiwick. Inform him politely that if he so much as wiggles one eyelash over the line into hockey ops, I'll lay a Belak on him and then invent several new uses for this here duct tape.

21 January, 2008

Surprise, surprise.

If Hell isn't breaking loose yet, there's at least an ominous cracking sound...

The TSX fell over 600 points today, its largest one-day drop since 9/11. That's alarming enough, but when you consider the market has shed more than 12 percent in just fourteen business days, you start to wonder where rock bottom might be...and the downward momentum becomes great enough that we'll reach it and start tunnelling.

The official explanation: "fears that the United States may be entering a recession". Hello? May be entering? Mr. Obvious, please pick up a white courtesy phone...

I'm not in the market to speak of--I work in a grocery store, after all--so I can look at this from an outsider's perspective and...I'm sorry, folks, but I have to laugh. It's either laugh, cry, or scream.
Look, I know Jack Squat about the economy, still, but I know two things that it seems the majority of credentialled, highly-paid finaciers have forgotten. One, economies are cyclical. What goes up must come down, and all that. Two, you can't just create money out of thin air...well, you can, but sooner or later you're going to be found out. The finding out is well underway now, and the consequences speak for themselves, as consequences so often do.

But it's the reaction that really amazes me: the huge collective huh? followed by what certainly appears to be sheer, unadulterated panic.

Um, people? They've been forecasting this for years. Sure, maybe somebody cried wolf a few too many times, but once that sub-prime mess started to ooze into the light, once the cries of yonder circling wolfpacks became audible, it must have taken supreme effort to ignore the warning signs. You'd have to have your heads buried deep in the sand--or at least the latest copies of US Weekly and Hello!--to miss them. (Interesting: Hello!'s circulation's up 54% over the past year, and Time's is down 17%. Not that Time is necessarily the best source for news out there, but it's a damn sight better than celebrity rag-mags.)

As for the panic, once again I must quote Blood, Sweat and Tears: What goes up/ Must come down. Do you get into a tizzy every night at sunset?

Unless...

Unless maybe--just maybe--the reason everybody has lost their freakin' minds is because they've just realized they lost their freakin' minds there for awhile, thinking they could get something for nothing. Maybe the thought has crossed a few brains that staking your entire economy on a buttload of derivatives isn't the wisest thing to do. It mght be that the entire house of cards is about to be--whoosh!--blown over. If that's the case...

...well, go ahead and panic if it makes you feel better.

16 January, 2008

Naivete

I'm naive, sometimes. Actually, a lot of the time. On matters big and small.

Matters small: the Writers' Guild strike still all but paralyzing television. It's hardly affected my viewing habits (the Leafs still lose two or three times a week, and news still happens), but many people are missing their favourite shows. Including, until recently, all those late-night shows airing long after I've retired: Letterman, Leno, and the like.
That surprised me. These people have writers?
The Sunday edition of the Toronto SUN prints what purports to be the funniest excepts of the week from each of these shows. They rarely elicit more than a chuckle (if that) from me, and I think my wife has laughed once in seven years of Sundays. Now I find out that Letterman, Leno, Colbert et al can't even claim this dreck as their own intellectual property; it rightly belongs to writers the names of which you never hear. What I want to know is: if none of these late-night hosts are smart enough to write their own material, why are they being paid millions of dollars?
(Because they're actors, Ken. Just actors.) Yeah, but people are actually tuning in to these shows to find out what's going on in the world. I find it actually rather frightening that at some point, somebody had a brainwave. "You know what newscasts need? More cynicism!" And that other people agreed.

Naive. I have this naive belief that honesty is the best policy. Having been a chronic liar in my childhood and having had every last lie of mine found out eventually, I've come around to thinking that the truth shall set you free.
Except when it doesn't. I naively put all my cards on the table when we went to adopt kids and the table collapsed. I watch in election after election as people do everything possible to avoid telling the truth, even if it means telling blatant lies. And these people get elected. It's the people who speak straight that get punished for it.
Why is that? Because people don't want to hear the truth if it's bad. See, I don't think like that, myself. I'd rather hear the worst possible news than no news at all, and I certainly don't want it sugar-coated. It doesn't take long for the underlying bitter taste to register, all the more bitter for the ersatz sweetness.

Honesty may make the best policy, but it makes the worst politics.

Matters large: At work the other day, I got into a rather heated three-sided debate on privacy issues specifically RFID microchipping. I found it hard to keep an even keel. On one side, I was facing a man who seems to believe in every last conspiracy theory out there ("The Illuminati caused 9/11! I saw it on the Web!") On the other side was a person whom until that point, had never revealed her fundamentalist Christian beliefs. (At one point, she blurted out "oh, why should we listen to you? You don't even believe in the Bible!")
Anyone who's read more than, say, ten posts of this blog can just guess my internal reaction to that.
My position is quite simple, really. Some would probably call it naive. It's this: we microchip our pets because we care about them. We don't microchip our kids because...why, exactly?
("Because our kids have souls!" shouted the fundamentalist. "It's in Revelations! It's the Mark of the Beast!")
("Because the government can track your kids everywhere they go!" shouted the Conspiracy Theorist.)
Knee jerk reaction: It's Revelation, no "s", and why should I believe anyone who doesn't get that simple fact right? And...if there is such a thing as a "soul" (something I personally do believe, but I can argue both sides at will), who says animals don't have 'em? You? Oh, then it must be true.

Ken, beset on both sides, really needed a few extra hours and a captive audience. Because I have read Revelation, and researched it extensively. As I said not too long ago, the Christian people I hung around with when I professed that faith were obsessed with three things: Genesis, Revelation, and sex, especially gay sex. (And no, smartass: I didn't research all three of those things, only what the Bible said about them.)
A quick and dirty summary of theories about the Mark of the Beast can be found here, for those who are interested. You'll note that a RFID chip is merely one theory of a great many, and one of the more recent theories to boot. The fact is nobody really knows for sure what's being referred to here...which puts it on a par with much of the rest of Scripture, incidentally. I wouldn't put my money on the interpretation of the Left Behind folks, myself.
As for the government tracking my kids, if I had any: well, yeah, that's kind of the point. Should they become lost or kidnapped, it would certainly be nice if agents of the government (also known as "police officers") could track them down. As I said, we do it to our pets without a second thought.

"But what gives somebody the right to spy on you?" said the Conspiracy Theorist the next day, after tempers had cooled.
Now this I had (naively) never considered, and I told him so. I've thought hard about it since, though, and now see the source of my blind spot: I've never framed this as a "rights" issue--perhaps because I've never recognized "privacy" as a right...didn't your parents ever barge into your bedroom when you were a kid? "Privacy", to me, is merely a courtesy...and courtesies are not obligatory, particularly when there is a larger issue (such as safety) at stake.

"But the media work hard to engender a culture of fear, so that people can be controlled!"

On this you'll get no argument from me. (Man, do people in a debate ever hate it when you agree with them. It throws them right off stride.) I have no doubt that people are living in fear, and most of their fears are practically baseless. But not all of them. You can't possibly tell me pedophiles are a media invention, for example. If there's a pedophile living in your neighbourhood (and I'm sad to say it: no matter where you live, there probably is), does that mean you shouldn't leave the house? Of course not. But it does mean you should be aware of your surroundings, you should be streetproofed...and, should the unthinkable happen, you should be protected, say by means of a simple RFID chip.

If that makes me naive, I'm glad to be.


10 January, 2008

It Don't Matter if you're Barack or White

I'll revisit this topic at least twice over the next year...but I'd be remiss if I didn't comment now that the 2008 American presidential election is (sort of) underway.

Caveat lector: I am a deeply, deeply confused individual when it comes to this election. That'll change come November, when the multitudes are winnowed out and I'll have had time to examine the two remaining candidates and present an endorsement, hopefully a more ringing endorsement than last time. But as of now, all I can say is wow, I'm glad I don't have a vote in this thing.
There are a multitude of quizzes out there (Google "who should I vote for") that attempt to align you with a particular candidate. Great idea, for people whose politics are certain. Mine aren't. Depending on my mood on any given day, I'll be matched up with anyone from Dennis Kucinich to Ron Paul. Trust me, those two are worlds apart. Good thing neither of them has a snowball's chance.

Watching this 50-ring circus unfold from up here in Canuckistan, I confess myself fascinated. For one thing, there's the ungodly length of the campaign. The primaries alone run six months. In reality, of course, this thing's been going on for about a year now, and it won't stop 'til we've all had (more than) enough. Come November 4th, win or lose, I think just about everyone will be relieved the whole mess is over.

I like some aspects of the electoral method down there. Having the party leaders directly elected is a step I'd like to see taken in Canada: it sure beats our current system, in which only card-carrying Party members have a say. Although I find it well-nigh incredible that every last governmental position is so politicized in America. Everybody is affiliated with a political party, from the mayors to the dogcatchers. You just don't see that here.

Can one of my American readers enlighten me as to why the primaries drag out so long? Couldn't they all be held on the same day, say, in May sometime? The internecine warfare in these things is appalling. It's like a Liberal leadership convention weekend spread out over half a year.

Then there's the candidates. As with Canadian elections, the people overshadow the policy, and Exhibits #1 and #1A for that argument this time around rest in the persons of one Hillary Rodham Clinton and one Barack Hussein Obama. (Gee, I wonder why you never hear his middle name...)

The media are going nuts with these two. As Ezra Levant observed recently of Obama,"[h]e has a policy platform, but in the eyes of many media commentators being black is his platform."
>The same goes for Hillary Clinton's gender. Politicians are loath to bring up race or gender, of course, lest they be perceived as racist or sexist...and yet the media bring up both every chance they get. Michael Moore laments Clinton's unwavering support for the Iraq war and speculates

Hillary knows the sexist country we still live in and that one of the reasons the public, in the past, would never consider a woman as president is because she would also be commander in chief. The majority of Americans were concerned that a woman would not be as likely to go to war as a man (horror of horrors!). So, in order to placate that mindset, perhaps she believed she had to be as "tough" as a man, she had to be willing to push The Button if necessary, and give the generals whatever they wanted.

Maybe Hillary just plain supports the war in Iraq, and it has nothing to do with her being a woman. It's not a popular position, but it can be defended. It's entirely possible she voted for war (as many who have since recanted did), and continued to vote for war not because she liked the direction the war was heading but because she felt that withdrawing would lead to even greater troubles in that part of the world. If that's the case, I'd actually applaud her...because that's the sort of nuanced thinking that goes over the heads of most of America (and Canada)'s chattering class.

I'd love to see a President who is female. In my wildest dreams, I'd actually like to...hear me out...disenfranchise men for a century or so and see where that might lead. Somewhere better than here, likely. Here I go indulging in gender stereotypes, but anyone who's observed men and women for any length of time would probably agree: women are more likely to take a longer view of the world (particularly if they are mothers); their first recourse to any problem likely won't be to call in the troops, much less toss a nuke somewhere.
Men often say that women do nothing but yack. Have you seen Question Period? A bunch of mostly white males yacking endlessly. It's a miracle anything in government ever gets done. Let's give women the reins...if my wife and my mother are any indication at all, women will talk with the express goal of getting problems solved, not scoring political points.
And of course I'd bar men from voting until I could be certain they weren't going to vote for the woman with the biggest bust.

All that said...

I personally don't like Hillary Clinton. I never have. Maybe to be a powerful woman in politics, you've got to triple-armor-plate your ass and assume a bitchly manner everywhere you go...and maybe I'm Michael Moore. I'd respond a whole hell of a lot differently to Clinton if she were more authentic. You get the sense with Hillary that every word, every thought, is calculated for maximum political gain, that nothing of the real Hillary Clinton must ever be seen. I don't like that in a person.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, seems to radiate authenticity...which is also suspicious. I mean, when's the last time you met a genuine, sincere politician? They don't exist and never have...right?
A black president would be a great thing for America, if only because maybe, just maybe, after a year or three, people will actually forget he's black. Social change is like that: just look at gay marriage. The mere prospect of Jack and Gill tying the knot caused furrowed brows and anguished, angered cries all over Canada. Now that Jack and Gill have climbed that hill, the issue's all but dead. People saw gays getting married and their own marriages didn't magically dissolve. With Barack in charge, people would first see a black President...and then just a President. And that's as it should be.

I'll delve into policy as events unfold, and I should note there are still many races yet to be run before either Hillary or Barack can claim the Democratic nomination. Possibly neither of them will. We'll have a much better idea on my birthday, February 6. The day before, nearly half the States in the Union will have voted.

One further note: I've ignored the Republicans here, and hope to continue to ignore them right through November. With one exception: if Mike Huckabee is nominated, and somehow becomes President, I'm migrating off-planet, and anyone not interested in Armaggeddon would be wise to follow me.

Good luck, America. You're gonna need it.

06 January, 2008

Star-Cross

Call me a masochist: I still pick up the Toronto Star every Sunday. Their "Ideas" section is precisely the sort of thing I look for and rarely find in a newspaper: in-depth articles on interesting topics. Unfortunately, before I get there I always detour through the front section, specifically the editorials and letters to the editor. The Star generally treats the two things as being one and the same: that is, it cherry-picks its letters to support its editorial stance. (It's also abandoned a column that used to elevate its op-ed page slightly, one in which a left-wing and a right-wing columnist argued a given topic. I suspect that somewhere in the bowels of Star headquarters it was decided that featuring even one right-wing columnist exposes its readers to alien, un-Canadian--or at least un-Torontonian--ideas. Can't have that!)

Today: not one, not two, but three letters to the editor that raised my blood pressure. I will reproduce them in toto here and respond to each in turn...because somebody's got to, and I'd bet the farm the only letters referencing these to be seen in future issues of the Star will be congratulatory.

First, a letter from Damir Karaturovic from Burnaby, B.C. Please take special note of his location as you read the following:

While the federal government's reduction of the GST may not have been sound economics, the greater yet more unheralded tragedy is the fact that many provinces did not take the gift granted to them and raise their own consumption taxes. Ontario alone could likely have directly collected at least $3 billion a year--surely enough to provide the economic stimulus Ontario so desperately seeks.

Okay, I'm back now with my response.

NNNNNYYYYYYYYYYYAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!

Oh, I'm sorry, was I supposed to argue rationally? Yes? Okay. Just let me calm down a little, first, here.

No quibble with the first bit of this letter: many, if not most, economists agree that consumption taxes are better than taxes on income. The GST is sound economics: give Mulroney and Mazankowski credit. I'll even give the Liberals their due for breaking a promise and not scrapping the thing.
That doesn't mean the GST needs to be 6% or 7%.
Mr. Karaturovic dramatically parts ways with my reality when he calls it a "tragedy" that the provinces didn't take this "gift" and raise their own taxes to compensate. Has he been into some of that fine Burnaby bud, or what?
To be perfectly honest, I had forgotten that Harper had cut the GST a point until I noticed a slight reduction in the cost of food for Tux and Georgia the day after New Year's. When I realized the source of my extra ninety cents, I cheered a little. It wasn't that I was ecstatic about a tiny reduction in my daily tax load (although when you add up all the GST you pay in a year, one percentage point is still a tidy chunk of change). No, I was just happy that taxes didn't go up. Because that's what taxes do, don't they? Municipalities frighten their voters with threats of tax hikes totalling five times the rate of inflation to make their eventual tax hikes of two or three times the rate of inflation look good. And the sort of shell game Mr. Karaturovic is proposing is standard government behaviour most years: the right hand giveth, the left hand taketh away. To quote an important (and oft-forgotten) maxim: THERE IS ONLY ONE TAXPAYER.

I still have this attitude (disgraceful, I know) that money I earn is my money. It seems Stephen Harper agrees with me: unusual. In past years I've had to be shipped off to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau National Reprogramming Centre in Ottawa for extensive lobotomization: of course, it's all government money. They just let us have some of it. I' come out thinking of taxes as "gifts", or even better, "entitlements". If they overdo the dose at all I'll even suggest that a tax is an "economic stimulus"--whereupon right-thinking people such as my wife will bop me on the head and restore common sense.
Taxes do not stimulate the economy. Taxes kill the economy. For proof, look no further than the places corporations (you know, those things whence come all the jobs) choose to set up shop. Check out the mass exodus of head offices out of Toronto, where they've never met a tax they didn't want to marry.
Allowing people to keep more of their money is what stimulates the economy. Because they turn around and spend that money...which spins off into more jobs.

Should Stephen Harper have cut income taxes instead? Probably. Am I going to quibble because he cut something else instead? Don't think so. Am I going to suggest that Mr. McGuinty would do a better job managing my tax dollars? Not a chance in hell.

Moving right along (and if this blog entry stops halfway through this next letter, it's because I exploded and little Ken-gobbets are raining everywhere):

The Conservative government's GST cut is nothing short of a joke and shames us as Canadians. While nearly two-thirds of the people on this planet live on less than $2 a day, here's Stephen Harper smiling while announcing a tax cut that will save the average Canadian a couple of bucks purchasing what most likely will be more junk we don't need. All the while his government quietly decreases its contribution to foreign aid.
This GST cut could effectively save thousands of lives in countries not as fortunate as ours. Our country's wealth is unprecedented. It's time we woke up and proved to the world that we see the lives of distant others as valuable as our own. Shame on Harper and his government.
Bob Salveda, Toronto

Whew, that was close.
So, Bob--may I call you Bob? Correct me if I'm wrong, but what you seem to be saying here is that in the best Canadian tradition, our government shouldn't be limited to running our lives from cradle to grave...it should also be saving the lives of thousands of people worldwide?
Hmmm. I must be due for some more reprogramming: I'd forgotten that was in the Constitution someplace. Seems to me--silly, I know!--that there exist these things called "charities" that serve that function already. In fact, I'm pretty sure these "charity" things exist, because they're all over my television and telephone looking for money. Hey! I've got an idea, Bob! Why don't you give them some of your money and cut out the government middleman? If most of us did the same, I'm sure we could prove to the world "that we see the lives of distant others as valuable as our own". And our government could stick to, uh, governing.

Finally, a letter from Norm Beach, also of Toronto, and I'm going to let someone else type this because if I do it, I will blow up.

Mike Mays asks, "Who will trust our word on the world stage if we don't honour our commitments?"
He applies this to Afghanistan, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper so often does, but I can't see how moving troops out of Kandahar at the end of our scheduled rotation next year violates any promises. Yet there is a much more significant commitment our government has turned its back on, in the form of an international treaty that Canada signed and ratified, but our Prime Minister has repeatedly said he will not honour. When Harper says Canada can't afford to comply with the Kyoto Protocol, but can afford to spend billions of dollars to fight Afghan insurgents, he is really signalling that only certain international commitments matter--the ones made to George W. Bush. Can't he see that our children and grandchildren will pay the price for this shameful toadying, as a rapidly deteriorating climate provokes the biggest wave of species extinctions in history?
Yet he persists in the delusion that being a dependable U.S. ally is more important than passing on a liveable planet to our kids.

Thanks, Tux.

Look, I'm STILL not sure how I feel about the war in Afghanistan. I do know our soldiers are accomplishing a lot of good, to steal somebody's phrase, "in the lives of distant others". I also know we're not in Kandahar at the behest of the United States, let alone George W. Bush. Nor has Harper anything to do with it. We're in Afghanistan honouring an obligation as a member of NATO.
I do know how I feel about Kyoto: it's dead. And rightly so. As I have argued seemingly every other week for about four years, the Kyoto Protocol wasn't worth the paper it was printed on, not as long as the United States didn't sign it and, more importantly, China and India were exempt from it.
And then, of course, there's the inconvenient truth that Kyoto's a drop in the bucket compared to what really needs to be done...if you believe the computer models, which I, frankly, don't. (Any computer model's output is automatically suspect on the "garbage in, garbage out" principle...and have you noticed that by the time these predictions are verified or debunked, those who made them will be safely dead?)
I also know Canada has taken a leading role in getting the U.S. on board with some kind of agreement with respect to greenhouse gas emissions. And last I looked, something is usually better than nothing. So I say it's demonstrably incorrect to suggest Harper is "toadying" to the United States, and irresponsible to print and propagate such nonsense.

But I've learned to expect no better from the Toronto Star.

03 January, 2008

Well, this is a first.

Lately--over the past couple of years or so--I increasingly find myself starting books and not finishing them.
I used to think this was heresy, only slightly more defensible than the grave sin of skipping to the back of the book to see how it ends. But I'm older now. There comes a point in any novel where I lift myself out of the story and ask myself, "Do I care?" And quite often now, I don't.
A slow-moving plot doesn't faze me; in fact, some of my favourite books meander along at a snail's pace. All I need is one character whose fate concerns me, one way or another.

But in all my reading life, I've never been confronted with a situation where I identify more with the villains than the heroes. Such is the case with The Fourth Realm, by John Twelve Hawks.

The first installment of the trilogy, The Traveller, was quite entertaining in a Matrix-meets-1984 kind of way. In the novel, governments are portrayed as unwitting puppets of a vast, shadowy organization called "The Tabula" or "The Brethren", whose goal is Jeremy Bentham's
Virtual Panopticon on a worldwide scale: constant surveillance of every citizen on earth. Our heroes, the "Travellers", seek to subvert the Tabula by peaceful means; their allies and protectors, the "Harlequins", are considerably more violent.

John Twelve Hawks is quite the enigma: publically, very little is known about him--in fact, nobody seems to know if that's his real name. He claims to live "off the Grid", by which he means his existence is as untraceable as he can make it. Supposedly he communicates via satellite phone, doesn't own a television...and yet he has a
website, a rather spectacular website. I smell a publicity stunt.

Amidst the quasi-Buddhist cosmology and mysticism in this series, there is plenty of meat about the "culture of fear" (so necessary for control), and the free and easy way so many people hand over aspects of their freedom to government and corporations. If you believe the novel, or the material on Twelve Hawks' website, the technology necessary for total survellance is not very far off. The more you read into this series, the more disquieted you are supposed to become.

And yet I found myself, more and more, welcoming the idea of a virtual Panopticon. This is not a new sentiment with me. I once mounted a spirited defense of Big Brother in front of my Grade Ten English class. People thought me nuts then; people still think I'm nuts now.

I hasten to add that even then, I conceded that "Big Brother" was a grossly perverted version of a fundamentally sound (to my mind) philosophy. And I was eventually wrestled to the intellectual mat by the repeated assertion that, given Big Brother technology, Orwell's dystopian vision is all but inevitable. It's much like Communism that way. From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs is a beautiful precept that always seems to be distorted to evil ends. Here's another: What would Jesus Do? That one almost always magically morphs into What Would I Do If I Were Jesus?

Robert J. Sawyer, in his excellent
Neanderthal Parallax, presents a society in which each citizen wears what's called a Companion. Your Companion implant records everything you see, say and do, sending it all to a vast, ultrasecure database called an alibi archive. Your alibi archive records are accessible to you at any time, and to the authorities only when you have been accused of a crime. Of course, there are those who choose to leave their Companions wide open to public viewing 24/7: called Exhibitionists, each of them wears silver at all times (so you know who they are) and each has a devoted cult following...the ultimate reality show. But these people aside, your Companion/alibi archive link is yours alone.
The benefits of such an approach ought to be self-evident. Crime is virtually unheard of (serious crime, in this society, is punished by sterilization of the offender and anyone sharing fifty percent of his or her genes). Any crime that is committed is easily solved; framing someone for a crime is almost impossible. After a few generations, the very idea of criminality is almost expunged--what would be the point, when you know you're going to be found out? No one ever goes missing; your Companion functions as something like an ultra-deluxe Blackberry device to help you solve problems and instantly communicate with anyone, anywhere.

This is sort of an anti-Fourth Realm kind of series, positing the idea that "total information awareness" is not necessarily a bad thing. It's also one of probably very few novels ever written that takes this view...which happens to be mine.

I have always believed that the desire for privacy is, on some level, kind of bizarre. I mean, what are you doing that you're afraid somebody might see? The only non-criminal acts I can think of that people want total privacy for tend to be sexual. Masturbation, for instance. While I'm not arguing for giant public masturbation sessions, let's get real: anyone who claims to have never masturbated is lying. Where's the shame in something so common? In a sane world, catching somebody masturbating would induce no awkwardness...it wouldn't even rate mentioning.

Freedom? We're all prisoners in some way, not of government or some organization acting behind the scenes, but of ourselves. We're slaves to convention, to time, to the almighty dollar sign. Freedom is a state of mind: like all states of mind, it exists independant of external surroundings. This is a lesson most of the human race has yet to learn. Once we do learn this lesson, it will be understood that freedom can not be bought and sold, taken or given away.

This is where I think John Twelve Hawks has it wrong. He's crafted a world where there's lots of freedom from, and imbued every "right-thinking" person in it with the desire for loads more "freedom to". Given the choice, I'll take freedom from every time. Maybe that makes me an odd duck, a traitor to the human race. It also makes it very difficult to finish this book.

01 January, 2008

Watching Your Language

I often tell people I had no idea why I decided to major in English, beyond the fact I was good at it in high school.
I lie.
I was good at a lot of things in high school...pretty much anything that didn't involve numbers, in fact, I distrusted mathematics for the same reason most people trust it: in math, there's no room for argument. Something's either right or it's wrong, and despite the practise of many math teachers to award marks for "partially" right answers, if you don't know how to get the completely right answer, nothing you can say or do will derive it for you.
The same holds true in the hard sciences (the degree of "hardness" proportional to their basis in pure mathematics). There's a right formula and a great many wrong ones for any application, and if you apply an incorrect formula, it's possible nothing will happen; it's also possible you'll blow yourself to smithereens.
It's been my experience that life doesn't work that way, and I'm immediately and intensely suspicious of people who feel that there is a single "right" answer to most any problem. How do people in the real world work to solve problems?
With words.
I've always been fascinated with words. It's true that words are slippery little buggers--but it's also true that most problems you get into using words can be solved with more words. Try that with numbers.
I buried myself in words when I was a kid, all but abstaining from comic books and television and other, perhaps more visual, media. My love of language is one of the few constants I can trace back to early childhood. Almost since I can remember, I've liked to play with words.
So does my mom. She was born into a French-Canadian family and had to learn English, which she's done, impeccably. In fact, she's lost most if not all of her once-native tongue.
But she's come out with some weird words over the years. Serengated for serrated springs to mind. Or thermomistat. Or sirp, that stuff you put on pancakes.
"Mom," I said once, "what do you call a distinguished gentleman?"
"Sir."
"And if something's not down, it's..."
"Up".
"Put them together?"
"Sir-up."
"And what do you put on pancakes?"
"Sirp".
I misprounounced impala for years. Also decor (out of my mouth, the former had two syllables and the latter sounded like "decker", as in "double-decker sandwich".) The first time I came across the word for male prostitute, I pronounced it "giggle-o", provoking giggles. And of course there was that time I was in the doughnut shop with Dad and I read out the sign I saw in my three-year-old's piping clear voice: "Open 24 whores!"

So I guess I shouldn't be so upset when I hear other people mangling the language. But I can't help being puzzled: why do so many people pronounce sherbet "sherbert"? Just this morning I heard a newscaster on 680 News say "nuke-you-lar" several times...and she wasn't trying to impersonate Dubya. (I'm pretty sure this is the same newscaster who said "sim-you-all-tane-ee-us-ly" twice last week.)

In an onging effort to avoid such malapropisms and embarrassments, I continually delve into etymology and the history of language. I could spend several lifetimes at this: English is such a weird, weird tongue. I've collected questions about it for years, from minds that think like mine.

For instance, everyone knows you drive on a parkway and park in a driveway, but why does your nose run and your feet smell? How is it we recite at a play and play at a recital? When you send something by car, it's called a shipment, but send it by ship and it's cargo. What's with that?
How can something burn up while it's burning down? Why is a fat chance and a slim chance the same thing? If runners run and singers sing, how come hammers don't ham and grocers don't groce? One goose, two geese; one moose, two...
Why is it called a "building" even after it's built? Why is a lion "the king of the jungle" when lions don't even live in the jungle? Why do we say "after dark" when we mean "after light"? By "after dark", of course, we mean "after nightfall"...but it's not night that falls. If anything, it rises: it's the sun that seems to fall.
Why do we call them aboriginals when ab- means not, as in "abnormal"? Why does the word sanction have two meanings..."to allow" and "to disallow"? Has anyone ever been ept, gusted or gruntled? And if the prefix in- means "not" as in inanimate and ineffable, than something that's invaluable shouldn't be valuable at all, should it?
Why do people say "I could care less" when they mean they couldn't care less? Why is it, when two airplanes nearly hit each other, it's called a near miss? You are, aren't you? Why not I am, am'nt I?

Yup, English is odd. Did you know you can spell fish g-h-o-t-i?

You can. "Gh" as in enough,
"o" as in women
and "ti" as in nation.

Canada adds its own unique phrases to the language. I grew up hearing words like pogey (unemployment insurance, what the Brits call being 'on the dole'); wobbly-pop (alcohol, especially beer), a two-four for a case of 24 wobbly-pops...drink enough two-fours and you'll get some serious Molson muscle (potbelly). Then there's double-double (a coffee with two sugars and two creams); serviette (French (and Canadian English) for "napkin"; housecoat (bathrobe); homo milk (homogenized...what 'Merkuns call "whole milk")...and I never had the slightest clue these terms were all but unknown just two hours to my south. It's weird, you know: in Canada we're forever bemoaning the Americanization of our culture, but from eh to zed our language proves there's still some culture left in us. We ask for the bill in restaurants--why Americans ask for the check is beyond me (and we'd spell in c-h-e-q-u-e in any event). Many Americans of my acquaintance have never heard "he's S.O.L.", which is a pretty common phrase up here meaning "he's shit out of luck". Some Americans say "pop" and some say "soda", but I've never heard a Canadian say soda unless it was preceded with cream or club.

Language is a source of endless diversion for me. I take great delight reading things like

A tutor who tooted the flute
Tried to tutor two tooters to toot.
Said the two to the tooter,
"Is it harder to toot or
To tutor two tooters to toot?"

or

"A canner, exceedingly canny
One morning remarked to his granny,
"A canner can can
Anything that he can,
But a canner can't can a can, can he?"

or again

She offered her honour
He honoured her offer
He was on her and off her the rest of the night.

On that note, I'll adjourn. Night, all. And again, happy 2008.