30 July, 2008

The Customer: Always Right?

Only if your definition of "right" includes assault, uttering death threats, and general abuse.


Virtually my entire career to date (nearly a quarter-century) has been in retail of one form or another. Not every job held the promise/threat of interaction with customers--working in a McDonald's kitchen is one *beep*ing thing after another, but those *beeps* generally represent machines demanding attention, not customers hurling profanity at you. (When you're on what McD's calls "lot and lobby", however, you can expect all manner of ill manner...)

7-Eleven is an altogether different story. There, depending on the time of day, abusive customers can actually be the norm, and "nice" customers very rare. But most of the nastiness stems from alcohol and testosterone mixing together and curdling. For my purposes here, that doesn't count: the maliciousness isn't intentional. It's simply university students--the leaders of tomorrow--being assholes today. Given the sheer volume of tomorrow's leaders I served over a period of five years, I can't say I was at all unhappy to escape and light out for Price Chopper.


Ken, if you keep uncovering assholes under every pair of jeans, perhaps the problem isn't them, but you?


Possible, but unlikely. My customer service skills were nationally recognized at 7-Eleven; I've undergone all kinds of formal training, and I'd like to think I'm pretty good at my job. I've certainly had enough practice at it. What 7-Eleven called IRAACs--Irate, Rude, And Angry Customers--in this era of entitlement, they're everywhere.


One of the worst incidents I've been through happened when I was working at a little variety store/gas bar two doors down from my house in Ingersoll, Ontario. An old, rickety pickup truck pulled up to the pump one evening and a man with a, shall we say, certain tinge of red to his neck bounced out of its cab and lifted the gas pump from its holster, setting off an annoying meep-meep-meep-meep! noise in the store. That noise is designed to get you to acknowledge the customer's presence as quickly as possible and hit two buttons that will start the fuel flowing into his tank. Which I would gladly have done, but for the fact his engine was still running. As I'm pretty sure most people know, it's illegal to pump gas with your engine running...illegal, and possibly dangerous.

Rather than talk into the speakerphone--which dehumanizes your voice--I went outside to explain to the customer that he needed to turn his engine off before he could fill up. He told me if he turned his engine off, there was a good chance he wouldn't get it started again. Not my problem, I thought but did not say.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I can't allow you to dispense gas with your engine running. Perhaps we can get someone to give you a boo--"

My voice was drowned out in a torrent of cussing that went on for some time. My colleague in the store was busy at the register and probably quite fed up with the meep-meep-meep-meep!. She was also under the mistaken impression that I was dealing with somebody reasonable, or at least had made him see reason. Without looking too closely, she acknowledged. The pump went live.

And the customer, still cursing a blue streak, grabbed the gas pump, aimed it at my head, and depressed the trigger. A couple of cups of of gasoline fountained out and sprayed me: face, neck, arms, chest.

All coherent thoughts but one vanished. The one remaining thought was fuck, he's gonna throw a match. I high-tailed it out of his range and back into the store; he replaced the pump, jumped in his truck, and peeled out.


What happened a couple of days ago can't hold a candle to that--or it'd explode--but it was pretty bad, nonetheless.


You don't get out-and-out evil customers in our store all that often. It's a discount banner, but the store's in an upper-middle class area. Rudeness abounds, but it's unthinking, careless rudeness: people checking out and leaving their carts blocking the exit for everyone else; frozen food deposited everywhere but in a freezer; store employees treated like walking directories instead of human beings, that kind of thing. Low-grade background discourtesy very quickly becomes just a part of the job, easily tolerated, almost expected.

So here I am, stocking Nestle sundaes off a U-boat that looks a little like this...




...only the top shelf is level with the cross braces about halfway up. I'm down on my knees (where I spend the majority of my day, it seems: I've had about ten thousand people ask me to "say one for me!"), with the boat in easy each as I stock the bottom shelf of the freezer. An elderly gentleman (not so gentle, as it turns out), appeared, and stood up against my ice cream bunker, a good four feet on the other side of my U-boat. Intent on stocking, I reached up and behind, grabbing another box of sundaes. I got that box okay, but the one beneath it slid out and fell to the ground, skittering across the floor and coming to rest against the man's foot. He jerked and said fuck under his breath. Right then, I knew I was in for something special.
I immediately stopped what I was doing, of course, apologized, and asked the man if he was all right. I'm not sure the question entirely escaped my lips before the tirade started.
"You people are always putting shit in the way. And now you're throwing boxes at me?" Belligerance I can deal with: being flatly accused of "throwing" a box put me a titch on edge.
"Sir, I didn't throw the box at you. It just slipped, and I'm s--"
"This--" he gestured at the U-boat "--is blocking the aisle. You people are all fucking assholes here, making it impossible to shop."
Oh, boy, this is going downhill fast, isn't it?
"Sir, where would you like me to put this U-boat?" Damn it, I thought, if that box of sundaes hadn't fallen, he probably wouldn't have even noticed the U-boat that's suddenly 'in the way'.
"If I put it over here, it's still in your way. If I pull it any closer to myself, I can't stock these shelves."
"I don't care", he snarled. "Your old manager wouldn't have tolerated this shit. He knew how to run a God-damned store."'
Christ, now I've got to accept abuse on behalf of my boss.
"Sir", I tried again, "I've been here seven years--"
"--and you've forgotten every bit of training you ever had. Shit-for-brains."
I give up. No getting through to this one.
"What's your name?" he demanded.
"Ken", I said.
"Last name?"
"None of your business." I ain't givin' out my last name to nobody, least of all this headcase.
"Oh, yeah, chickenshit? Well, I'll call your head office. I'm sure they know who you are."
And he stormed out.
By the time the letter came down from head office later that day, I had "thrown a box" at him, "knocking him to the floor". I "offered no apology", I was "rude" and "uncaring". We had a "shouting match". (Pretty one-sided match, I'd say: I barely raised my voice.)
One wee little problem: that entire incident was caught on camera. In fact, I couldn't have asked for a better camera angle. You can clearly see how the box slipped, and how it hit the ground before it came to rest up against the complainant's foot. What you can't see is him getting knocked to the floor. In fact, you can't even see him move.
Nevertheless, I was a little bit worried, because this customer had bypassed our store manager and went straight to the higher levels. There are people up there who are new to the chain and who don't know me from Adam: would they believe these preposterous allegations? It's a good thing that camera's there.
The D.M. batted the problem back down into my store manager's lap, and he called the customer and took even more abuse.
At one point he was asked if he was Egyptian.
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"Because you're in denial", the guy cracked.
Wow, all that and witty, too!
The boss invited this man in to show him just where all these aisles are blocked--which seems to be his pet peeve. The funny thing is, our store is currently about as bare as it ever gets. It's true that we sometimes have to store pallets of product on the sales floor--our backroom is wholly inadequate for the volume of sales we do--but we of course make sure carts can pass all around anything we put down. It'll be interesting to see if this gentleman shows up...although I hope I can be excused for scurrying off the floor. I have no least desire to deal with him ever again.
Meanwhile, if I ever get to thinking I'm alone in the world of retail, that everyone else gets treated with respect, I go here: NotAlwaysRight.com. They've got real-life stories there that will make you laugh...or cry...or scream. And after a good dose of this site, my job seems so much better...

27 July, 2008

What Do Canadians Want?

I ask this sincerely and beseechingly, without hope of a meaningful reply. On the surface, this country seems placid and serene, but underneath, maelstroms lurk.

Take Afghanistan. The recent statement by Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson that we'll probably be increasing our troop strength in that country by about ten percent has reaped a whirlwind of scorn, if the comments on cbc.ca are indicative.

Almost everyone in Canada claims to support our troops. Nobody seems to support what our troops are doing. This is a clear example of 'love the sinner, hate the sin' thinking that sets me on edge whenever I find it. It's hypocritical in the extreme.

I don't blindly support soldiers. Atrocities beyond the scope of war (which is an atrocity in itself) are perpetrated by each side in any given conflict, and they should be denounced. But there is a real colonel of truth (ha-ha) in Nathan Jessup's speech from A Few Good Men:

Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You?...I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep...and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know...my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives...You don't want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall...

There are many Canadians who take the NDP's stance, that all problems can be solved by mouthing platitudes at each other, and there's never a need for a show (let alone the use) of weapons. While this is undoubtedly a comforting mindset, it's pitifully naive: the sheer number of people fighting each other in the world today proves it.
As does, when you think about it, the polarization of Canadians (and Americans) on any issue you'd care to name. Never mind being openminded enough to admit you're wrong: how many people on either side of any argument these days are even willing to consider that the other side may have some valid points? The only difference between us and them is that we're not willing to kill for our beliefs. Many cultures see this as a fatal weakness. Hell, I see it that way on occasion...like when we welcome known terrorists into our country...and when we insist, not that these people adopt Canadian views, but that they don't.

There are many people who believe the war in Afghanistan has nothing to do with the Taliban or the oppression of the Afghan people, but is instead merely an exercise in securing oil for 'Cheney and his henchmen'. These people tend to characterize our Prime Minister as one of those henchmen, ignoring the fact that it was the Liberals who sent us into Afghanistan in the first place.
This mode of thinking is something I'm often guilty of myself in other contexts: 'either/or' versus 'both/and'. In other words, black/white instead of shades of grey. Of course the war is about oil...partially. It's also about removing a bunch of thugs from power, restoring freedom to women from whom it has been stolen, combating militant Islamism (and it must be remembered, that faction wants us dead whether we're in their country or not)...and there's probably a multiplicity of motives I'm ignoring. All countries act, at least in part, for their own benefit on the world stage. If they don't, they soon cease to be countries. Canada's only able to aspire to the sort of altruism it does by virtue of being blessed with an abundance of space and natural resources...and because we're protected by Uncle Sam.
The last time I brought up that uncomfortable truth (in the context of decrying the typical Canadian disdain for all things Yank, even as we expect them to pay for our security), somebody took me to task on it. "Of course we're protected by America," he said, "when we live next door. They're only protecting us out of their own self-interest." The implication being, we shouldn't have to pay a dime for it. Now who's being selfish?

Back to Afghanistan. The typical Canadian attitude, when you get right down to it, is that we shouldn't be killing people, even if they're trying to kill us. Perhaps especially if they're trying to kill us. If they want us gone that badly, what the hell are we doing there?
Building schools. Repairing bridges. Making sure communities have potable water. Trying to make life just a mite less miserable. You know, noble things like that. Hard as it is to believe, there are people who don't want to see new schools, in fear of what they might teach and to whom they might teach it. Likewise, these people have a deep distrust of any 'improvement' a foreigner makes, lest the have-nots appreciate it and move out from under their thumbs.

The overwhelming consensus is that we should be out of Afghanistan. If I didn't know better, I'd think it was because the Americans are recognizing the peril there: Obama wants a goodly portion of the American forces in Iraq relocated to Afghanistan as soon as possible, and even McCain is acknowledging the wisdom in that idea. Best skedaddle before those Yankees show up in force, eh?

But there's a split in opinion when it comes to what should be done with our troops once they're out. Many people are rightly concerned about other hotspots the globe over--Darfur springs immediately to mind--and say that there's where our troops belong. This support for action in Darfur would evaporate were our soldiers ever to actually show up there and start fighting, because inevitably some of them would be killed. That's the nature of soldiering, and every soldier who enlists knows it and accepts it. But we think we know better, don't we?
Then there are those in the Trudeau school whose belief seems to be that Canada does not belong in any foreign war. That our military should basically be gutted and mothballed, because who would attack stodgy Canada? And more to the point, why would the United States allow it?

I'm positive there are those in Washington just hoping for a wee little terrorist attack on Ottawa or Toronto. Just a little poke, to wake us up. The bitter irony is, we're so far gone that were the unthinkable to happen, we'd immediately blame it on George Bush and Stephen Harper--if we weren't fighting your dirty little war, this wouldn't have happened.

We're long past due for a debate in this country on what our military is for and what it should accomplish. But we're past due on a lot of debates...and with the passage of time, everyone has grabbed a position and dug in. We'd like to say debate solves everything, but in reality, it usually does jack squat...


25 July, 2008

No Shame

The Letter of the Day in today's Toronto SUN. Substitute your city name for 'Toronto' and tell me if it holds true where you are:

For many years I have been a proud member of the Toronto community. My pride is wearing sorely thin. As a disabled person and wheelchair user I am more and more left to wonder where the common sense and common decency of this city's people have gone. My days have become a litany of waiting -- waiting for the able bodied to provide me the space and place to move through this city with any ease or comfort.
Every day I wait at bus stops or boarding platforms while people board a bus before me, leaving me sitting in every kind of weather this city has to offer. Then, I wait again while they grumble when asked to vacate the wheelchair seating they have rushed ahead to seize.
I wait at access ramps endlessly. I wait for people to move their illegally parked cars from the only wheelchair ramps available to enter an area. I listen constantly to the excuse that they were only going to be "a minute." However, it was my minute they were taking.
I wait for elevators that come and go full of able bodies. Most often, escalators or stairs are just a few more paces away. I have perhaps a 1 in 10 chance, conservatively, of going to a public washroom and actually being able to use the accessible stall. Instead, I wait for an able bodied person to finish using it, despite there being several other "normal" stalls available.

I wait for simple courtesies and the rare conscientious apology. I have been hit, fallen into, walked into by people not paying attention to their own space and bodies. Many times I have been left in absolute tears for how such "accidents" hurt me while I get only that nasty glance that says I am the one in the way.
I wait for people to simply give me the space my chair needs to move so I too can go about the events of my day. I have had people refuse to move so I can drive my wheelchair past them on the sidewalk. This, of course, in addition to the daily puzzle of just trying to manoeuvre around the many obstacles placed in the path of any wheelchair user.
I wait for the end to the list of discourtesies and downright mistreatment I face each time, every time, I venture forth in this city.
In the end I am left with only one question, "where is your shame, Toronto?"
Susan Ruttan
Etobicoke


Susan:

I must tell you, first off, that sometimes--often, actually--I feel ashamed to be a member of the human race.
I use 'race' deliberately, because 'racing' is the root of the problem. The rampant discourtesy is only a symptom.
I have seen each and every one of the behaviours you cite from my able-bodied point of view, here in my hometown of Kitchener-Waterloo: some of them almost daily. It's no consolation, but wheelchair users aren't the only ones to suffer such indignities: the elderly, young mothers with children...often people whose only 'handicap' is that they're in the way.
You see it with drivers constantly. You'll be moving at the speed limit in the right hand lane and a maniac will rush up behind you, veer around, and cut in front...only, more often than not, to slam on his (usually his) brakes for the red light three hundred metres ahead. All so he could get that one, crucial car length ahead of you.

But as you note, Susan, it's public transit that brings out the worst in people.

I think that most people who take the bus, whether by choice or by necessity, secretly resent it. They resent having to sit next to strangers, which is why the vacant seats 'reserved for the elderly and persons with disabilities' are among the first to fill up (after the troglodytes stampede to the back of the bus, that is): ah, all that space! But even more so, people resent the fact that public transport is invariably so much slower than driving. This 'time-theft' irritates the hell out of people, most of whom seem to have a sense that their time is so much more important than anyone else's time. So they'll rush on to the bus ahead of anyone else. They'll ignore the prominent sign posted on every bus I've seen ("Leave By Center Door") and rush out the front door while someone like you, Susan, is trying to get on. I often want to say something to these people--hey! Stupid, rude, and illiterate? Boy, you've got the triple combo, there--but these days you can't be sure the stupid, rude, illiterate person isn't carrying a knife or a gun.

Handicapped parking. How I wish there was some kind of quick-tow mechanism that could ascertain whether or not a given car had a disabled sticker and, if not, remove it swiftly and efficiently as soon as its owner was out of range. "But I was only going to be a minute!"--then, buddy, why not take the extra minute and walk to and from the next closest available space? Oh, yeah, that's right. One minute's okay, but two is unacceptable.
(I should note that not every disability is visible. Take Eva, for instance: she suffers from something called cold-induced urticaria. Briefly, sudden exposure to cold will cause her to break out in hives. Hives sound relatively harmless...they're anything but if they're on the inside of your throat. If the cold is severe enough, she can go into anaphylactic shock and die. Hence she can lay claim to a handicapped sticker for her car, over the winter months, so as to avoid prolonged exposure to the cold. Her 'disability' is invisible...but very real.)

What able-bodied person uses the handicapped stall in a public washroom, and why? I've seen this, too, and it baffles me. I'm sure the person thinks they can get away before someone who really needs the stall shows up, and I'm not above using the thing myself if all the other stalls are in use...but what possible reason can there be for walking into a public bathroom and ignoring the toilets you're supposed to use in favour of one that's clearly designed for someone who's not you?

Our culture is sick. There's no other word for it: it's in advanced decay. Robert Heinlein propheseyed it back in the 1930s, calling the closing decades of the 20th century "The Crazy Years"---when anybody exhibiting sanity would have to be locked up for his own good. In FRIDAY (1982), Heinlein described just what he was getting at:

"...a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot...This symptom is especially serious in that an individual displaying it never thinks of it as a sign of ill health but as proof of his/her strength."

In short, not just a total lack of empathy, but a total disdain for empathy. Why put yourself in the head of another when the world revolves around you?

This is one of many reasons I'd like to get the hell out of the city and live some place where I don't have to watch the daily chaos unfolding. As for you, Susan...I hope your letter provokes some sort of decent response and changes your daily routine for the better. I hope we haven't reached the terminal stage, when public shaming no longer has any effect on one's behaviour. (I fear we're perilously close).

23 July, 2008

The Internet: Too Good To Be Free?

Every now and again someone sends me an article to read along with a request that I store my opinion on it in the Breadbin. More often than not, these articles require--ugh!--research in order to determine just what my opinion is, and whether or not it's a valid opinion. And I tend to shy away, because research is too much like work.

But I'll tackle this one, because...well, because I like debunking things.

Here's a link to the article I was sent. And here is its salient point:

What will the Internet look like in Canada in 2010? I suspect that the ISP's will provide a "package" program as companies like Cogeco currently do. Customers will pay for a series of websites as they do now for their television stations. Television stations will be available on-line as part of these packages, which will make the networks happy since they have lost much of the younger market which are surfing and chatting on their computers in the evening. However, as is the case with cable television now, if you choose something that is not part of the package, you know what happens. You pay extra.

Looking around the site, my first inclination was to dismiss the allegation out of hand: "globalresearch.ca" is chock-a-block with corporate, government, and global conspiracies. Indeed, reading this very article further, I find phrases like "corporate New World Order" and "all websites will be tracked as part of the billing procedure" (hello, Big Bro! Howya doin'?) It all set my scam alarms to chonging away. As did the suspicious lack of linked source material. (It oughta be a law: any site alleging The Truth should have links to The Truth.)

But I decided to look into this a little further. There might be something to it after all: God knows the telcos are obsessed with profit, and if they could find some way to monetize the interwebs, they'd be rolling in it...even more than they are already, I mean. First I checked snopes.com, the site of first resort for anything conspiracy-related (and certainly one of the first They'd shut down if Their plans ever came to fruition).
Nothing there, one way or the other. (We can neither confirm nor deny...)
Although, running "Internet charges" through their search engine, I came up with an article tangentially related, dealing with alleged pending long distance charges for accessing the Net in the U.S. Falsely alleged, as it turns out. Snopes had this to say:

As soon as we get a hold of something we really like at a reasonable price, we start worrying that it will be banned, taxed, or made too expensive for us to afford. The Internet is no exception...

End of story? Not necessarily. Here's where the story came from. I found this after an unconscionable amount of Googling that, if all this is true, would cost me a pretty penny in the future. This site is an American version of Global "They're all out to get us" Research, but at least it provides a link to Save The Internet. And this place seems on the level. If companies in the States are dead-set on co-opting the Internet, you can bet Canadian companies are riding on their coat-tails.

The threat appears to be real.

I can't for the life of me imagine people--even Canadians--taking this sitting down. There's enough of an uproar now over those text message charges and Internet throttling. (My view on the latter strangely mirrors my view on cigarettes: if you're that concerned about peer-to-peer services, make them illegal. If it's legal, get your grubby hands off of it.)

Think what people would do if companies announced they'd henceforth be charging you for every site you visit. Pandemonium. The thing that scares me most is the censorship angle. ("We're not censoring: we're just controlling what you can and can not read online.") The 'Net was never intended to be censored. If you start restricting sites, either by blocking them outright or slowing their connection to the point where they seem like they are blocked, there might as well not even be an Internet.

I'll be looking further into this. Expect a follow-up. Meanwhile, Catelli (and everyone else), I'd be very interested in your thoughts.

21 July, 2008

Musical Interlude

Geez, is the whole world on holiday?
Nobody but nobody's blogging, lately. So I guess I'll take this opportunity to do a little throwaway blog on the music that inhabits my iPod.

About eight times out of ten, when I ask someone what kind of music they like, they'll say "well, everything, really."
Oh, really?
"Do you like opera?"
"Yuck. No, I mean, like, music." Somebody actually said that to me. It was a struggle not to bray operatic laughter all over the place.
"Oh, okay. So...Dixieland jazz?"
That's when people get to thinking I just might be a smartass, and they helpfully narrow things down. Usually to one genre of music. Maybe two.
So now I ask people what kind of music they don't like. They still ignore anything more than half a century old (and quite a few newer things, to boot), but I at least get an idea where they're at, musically.
Usually, I can find something they like that I like too. I don't like everything...but if there's a discernable melody I'll at least give it a listen. If there are English lyrics, I prefer they be intelligible (Dylan fans: sorry). I won't run away if the lyrics are in some other language. I've got stuff on my iPod in Gaelic, French, German, Italian, and Hawaiian. I'm not terribly keen on rap (most of the stuff I've listened to I find nihilistic and, frankly, disturbing)...but I do like old-school rap up to and including early Eminem. Hip-hop, likewise, not my thing...except there are a couple of songs by the Black Eyed Peas which I am thoroughly addicted to.
You get the picture. Name any artist and even if I hate them, chances are I'll like at least one of their songs.

Without further ado, five songs picked sort of at random out of my iTunes library. (Sort of: I've got Heart's Barracuda in there, but everybody knows that one. I think.) These are a tad more obscure. Try 'em, you might like 'em.

1) Adiemus --
Chorale VI (Sol-Fa)

Adiemus is the brainchild of Karl Jenkins, a British composer who has fused New Age, classical and 'world' music into something unique and, I think, very interesting. There are no lyrics as such; instead, the singers restrict themselves to a carefully chosen set of syllables, in effect using their voices as instruments. In this piece, they merge their own 'language' with the sol-fa scale. It really picks up at 2:00.
This is the second album by this group. I'd already listened to the first half a hundred times before I got this one. I settled down to let the pieces here lull me to sleep...by the time I got to this track, I was out of it. Until the end. If you listen to this all the way through, you'll have no trouble picturing me peeling myself off the ceiling.

2) Jonathan Coulton --
Re: Your Brains

I discovered Coulton via Pandora, before they figured out how to stop Canadians from accessing Pandora. I've since bought three of his albums. This is probably my favourite song of his. Somebody oughta make a movie out of this--Shaun of the Dead meets The Office.

3) David Wilcox --
That Hypnotizin' Boogie

I once dated a woman who was absolutely obsessed with Elvis Presley. I don't mind some of his stuff, but a steady diet of it gets mighty tiring. After the umpteenth playing of 'In The Ghetto', I finally worked up the courage to ask her if there was anyone else she liked. Out came the David Wilcox tape. Man, this guy can flat-out play guitar.
I like this live: it's even more raw than it is on the album.

4) The Black Eyed Peas --
Dum Diddly

Okay, so maybe most of you have heard this. Don't care. I freakin' LOVE it. It put me in mind somehow of that Musical Youth song from the 80s, "Pass The Dutchie"...researching on Wikipedia I find that they did indeed interpolate that song. This gives me a kick in the butt whenever I need one.

5) John McDermott --
Song for the Mira

It's an unwritten rule, I have to include a John McDermott piece in any musical list I compile. Okay, now it's a written rule. John has, as far as I'm concerned, the most beautiful voice I've ever heard. This song does the exact opposite of "Dum Diddly": it mellows me right out and reminds me what's important in life: rest and relaxation...which is probably what all my fellow bloggers are doing right about now.

19 July, 2008

Down the Sinkhole

"If you haven't heard of it, it doesn't exist."
--Eva, to me, on several occasions

Guilty as charged. But how the hell did I miss Batman becoming a more iconic movie than Star Wars?

Admittedly, I'm so naive about movies, I actually scare people. I saw the first two Star Wars flicks when they came out--which would have made me six and eight years old, or something like that. The first one scared the crap out of me (that trash compactor scene still has the power to chill my dreams); I fell asleep during the second one. I haven't bothered with any of them since.

Star Wars is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my cinematic ignorance. As far as I know, I've seen all of three movies made before I was born (The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, and A Christmas Carol (the really old one). I've watched one James Bond movie (Casino Royale, and I did like it), no Dirty Harry flicks, nothing by Tarantino...and so on and so forth.
Part of it is a deeply ingrained hatred of violence. I can tolerate very limited amounts if it's integral to the plot, but I have a marked aversion to plots involving violence, if that makes any sense. And at the first sign of Hostel-style gore, I'm gone.
Part of it is a just-as-deeply ingrained hatred of what tends to pass for comedy these days. Humiliation, in other words. As I'm sure I've mentioned, I don't find pain of any kind funny.
And part of it--might as well admit it--is an inability to follow movies. I miss things, things on which entire plots seem to hinge. Give me a linear plot with adequate character development and I should be okay....provided, of course, there's dialogue in abundance. I just flat-out can't interpret silence. Meaningful looks mean nothing to me. I came away from Lost In Translation sure of two things: one, it was a very good movie; two, I didn't have a freakin' clue what was going on through most of it.

I got dragged into one of the Batman movies, the one with Nicholson in it. Having never read a Batman comic (true that: I was childhoodless by choice), I was lost from the get-go. The noirish atmosphere was entirely too noir for me: half the time I could hardly see what was going on. That was two hours of my life I'll never get back. To be honest, the only reason I remember it at all was Nicholson. Jack Nicholson is for my money the most overrated, undertalented actor ever. He seems to be completely incapable of playing anybody who isn't a lunatic. So that movie went by in fits of puzzlement interspersed with fits of boredom at Jack Nicholson playing Jack Nicholson. Ugh.
And so Batman joined things like the O.J. Simpson trial and, later, the whole of reality television: down the sinkhole it went.
This sinkhole: if there's anything about me that medical science would be interested in, that's it. Once I decide I'm not interested in something, I won't hear about it...and it won't exist. I had no idea somebody remade Batman, because "Batman" is one of a bunch of words that triggers the trapdoor in my head.

I did know Heath Ledger died--I don't live on Mars, just in High Earth Orbit. I can tell you he starred in Brokeback Mountain, but that's it.
No, I haven't seen Brokeback...I tried, but the first ten minutes had like three words of dialogue in them and I just tuned right out.
(You think that's bad? I didn't make it halfway through the opening credits of Gone With The Wind... the dramatis personae scrolled on and on and on and on and on and on and on and holy crap how the hell am I supposed to remember HALF of these characters?)

So now there's this Dark Knight movie. Apparently there was a bigger demand for a Batman sequel (a sequel to a REMAKE, no less) was greater than the fifteen-or-whatever-YEARS worth of pent-up demand for another Star Wars flick, because the midnight showings of Dark Night outgrossed those of Return of the Sith.

That flabbergasts me. I kept turning that over and over in my head, worrying it from all angles. Eva finally looked at me and snapped "why are you making such a big deal out of this?"

Because the sinkhole managed to swallow something huge this time: a pop culture phenomenon bigger than the biggest film of my childhood. (And yet the Batman series, all seven films, only ranks as the tenth-highest-grossing film series, all time..???...) But people are lining up by the hundreds of thousands to see this at midnight the night it opens? The movie was SOLD OUT ACROSS THE COUNTRY on opening night?

Please tell me it isn't because an actor died just after filming the thing. I don't want to have to believe people are that ghoulish. (Then again, everybody slows down to look at the car accident, don't they?)

16 July, 2008

Credit where it's due

So Afghanistan is now more dangerous than Iraq. For the second month in a row.

Of course, most of the media are very careful to reference this as rising acts of insurgency in Afghanistan rather than falling acts of insurgency in Iraq. Why? Because the latter is the direct result of a George W. Bush policy...the "surge". And God forbid Bush ever do anything right. ESPECIALLY on his own, in defiance of his National Security Advisors.

I'm not going to mount a defense of Bush's overall strategy and tactics in the Iraq war at this late date. I think we can all agree that lies were told, mistakes were made, and bumbles were bumbled badly, even criminally. He never should have gone into Iraq in the first place. But...
he did, and the situation deteriorated, and it was what it was: ghastly. When things were looking their worst in Iraq, Bush argued that more troops needed to be sent in. Pretty much everybody screamed bloody murder at that, and Bush, in true imperial style, ignored them and sent in more troops. And gosh dang it! it's worked.

It shouldn't be a surprise, in this soft age, that there's still a place for "hard power" in the world.
Oh, it's not something we like to talk about (blood! violence! death! get it off my plate!), but the reality is our world exists in its present state--the good and the bad--by virtue of hard power and the threat of it. At some point, the diplomacy must end and measures must be taken.

Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is not going away. We keep asking him to, politely; he thumbs his nose at us and insists he's there for life. And we tsk-tsk and whine and oh, do you believe the nerve of that guy? See, we can talk about this endlessly and convince ourselves that all our talk means we're doing something...that we care. Meanwhile, babble babble rigged elections babble blah blah beatings blah de murders babble rapes...
A cynic would suggest that if somebody discovered oil in Zimbabwe, Mugabe would be removed yesterday. That cynic would probably be right. And let's say it happened, and the U.S. moved in and eliminated Mugabe, putting an end to his atrocities...I imagine there'd be a sizeable contingent of Canadians shaking their fists at those Yankee bastards and accusing of them of things that would make Mugabe's flesh crawl.
Nor is Zimbabwe the only country we've chosen to pretend to care about. The Darfur region of Sudan has been the site of an ongoing genocide (as many as half a million killed) that means diddly-squat to anybody beyond being a suitable topic to mention at dinner parties ("oh, the genocide in Darfur? Yes, isn't it awful? Something should be done, babble-di blah blah blah...)
It goes on. How many of these conflicts does anybody even bother to report on? It's so much easier to bash those good-for-nothing nosey-parker Americans.
It's a parenting thing, I think. As recently as the seventies, if you were a kid and you misbehaved, you could expect retribution that would be swift and unequivocal and usually physical. Contrary to extremely popular belief, being spanked didn't turn us into monsters. (Your grandparents knew the indignity of a belt or a peach switch when they were little and so did their parents and their parents going back unto the dawn of time.) We learned, or most of us did, that if we didn't want to experience the pain and humiliation of a spanking, all we had to do was behave ourselves.
These days, we have the 'time out'. I can tell you right now that that wouldn't have worked on me. Go stand in the corner? Okay! And after that, do I get punished?

As an aside, anti-spanking advocates go on and on about corporal punishment and child abuse. That's not what bothers them about spanking at all, and if they were being honest with themselves, they'd admit it. After all, there's a difference between a whack on the butt and broken bones: nobody's suggesting we should beat our kids. No, what's got those folks in a right rage is the humiliation and indignity of it all. That's what's seen as child abuse in this twisted era when nobody's allowed to fail at anything lest he injure his priceless self-esteem.

Tyrants the world over are not kids and don't need to be treated with kid gloves. A geopolitical "time out" is what these people want: it gives them free license to continue with their agendas, which do involve beatings and worse. If you go in and administer a sound spanking, the humiliation alone will prick the ego like a cheap balloon.

Here's another thing that pisses the world off about America: when it does decide that diplomacy is failing and hard power becomes an option, it doesn't take half measures. Not like the Canadians, who fought an action in Kosovo where the stated mission goal was "to get everybody home safe". Admirable for a school picnic. Stupid for a war.
The U.S. tried in Iraq to balance the need for hard power against world opinion, and found itself in a quagmire. It took guts and gumption from Dubya to insist that more power, not less, was the way out. And whaddaya know? it's working. Credit where it's due.

All you Canadians who wish for nothing more fervently than America to take its fingers out of all the world's pies and mind it's own business? All I can say is, be careful what you wish for.

Why so glum, chum?

One of life's little joys is discovering that an author you like happens to like another author you like. It's not all that surprising, on the friend of my friend is my friend principle, but it's kinda neat nonetheless.
Reading the diary of Charles Stross, I find him discussing Jim Kunstler's latest doom-and-gloomfest, which, by and large, he (Stross) seems to agree with. I particularly like Stross' penultimate paragraph:

For a perfect storm, all it'll take is for the fruitcake-in-chief to decide that two wars isn't enough, and order an attack on Iran before he leaves office. Or for another hurricane to make landfall on the Gulf coast. Or a coup in Saudi Arabia. Or, or. Too many ors.

The responses to this diary entry were many and varied, but I'd like to take issue with one in particular, that calls Kunstler and people of his ilk "apocaphiliacs": people who look forward to the end of the world with great glee.

Not that long ago, I wrote about my inner conflict between hope and despair. It still rages--it'll probably always rage--but I've come to realize that sampling viewpoints from both extremes keeps me centered. I think it's vitally important to recognize and understand that there are fundamental problems with the way our human race is living, and just as important to understand and recognize that solutions exist. Just about every problem that a human being has ever faced, another person has solved. All that's necessary is the collective will to implement multiple paradigm shifts on a large scale.
Oh, that's all, is it? I'll get right on that. What's the deadline? Yesterday? How does never-thirty sound? I'll have the solutions to you by never-thirty.

(Sorry, Commander Cynic intruded there for a second.)

It seems to be a basic human trait that people don't recognize, let alone want to deal with, problems until they're right up in your face and threatening to disembowel. We've known oil is a finite resource for decades, so what do we do? Use up more and more oil. We've been through variations of this credit crisis over and over and over again, but never seem to learn from our mistakes. There's a deep-seated and widespread belief that we can get something for nothing; lately it's metastasized into I'm entitled to something for nothing. You see this everywhere. On a micro scale it's the kid fresh out of school that expects to get a job making $75K a year, plus benefits, but without all that distasteful responsibility. On a macro level, two words: Las Vegas.

Tangentially related is the other thing holding our species back: a shared denial of the notion of consequence. I don't know whence this came, but it almost seems as if we think we're above all that. On the micro level you've got your drunk drivers and your jaywalkers getting killed and thousands of other like examples. On the macro level: banks lending money to poor credit risks by the millions and then being shocked (SHOCKED!) when the mass defaults push them off the cliff of solvency.

I don't think Kunstler--as gloating as his posts seem to be--actually looks forward to the end of civilization as we know it. I think he's a man with a well-developed sense of consequence, surveying the world around him and deciding, on the evidence, that it's gone utterly mad. There's a sense of 'die, lemmings, die!' I get reading his blog, and I can't fault him for it, not without reeking of hypocrisy, because I have that sense myself. In spades.

I've stated several times that I find schadenfreude--happiness at another's pain--to be the most monstrous and inhuman of emotions. And I do. But the shoe switches to the other foot with astonishing speed whenever I judge that pain to be self-caused and avoidable...to the point where I come off sounding monstrous and inhuman myself. A driver crashes while not wearing a seatbelt: he's ejected from the car and lies on the side of the road, alive but horribly injured. I wouldn't deny him medical care, but let's just say his passengers would be my first priority. I recognize how spiritually juvenile this is, but I'm helpless against the implacable tide of you asked for it, now you're gonna get it rising up out of my childhood.

I can't muster any sympathy for Darwin Award winners. I've tried, but it always seems to come out gee, I'm so sorry you died from imbibing three liters of sherry...up your ass...that's just awf--WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?!?

I sense a kindred spirit in Jim Kunstler. He's shouting from the rooftops: you asked for it, now you're gonna get it. Eighty six million barrels of oil per day right into the ol' bean-blower, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING?!?

Besides, I'd argue Kunstler and people like him serve a valuable purpose. Along with the denial of consequence and urge to dismiss all problems out of hand, we humans have--thank God, or Evolution, or Whatever--a very strong desire to prove other people wrong. That urge may yet save us.
People read the doomsayers for many reasons. Many like to have their own beliefs confirmed...indeed, that seems to be why most people bother reading anything any more. Others like to laugh and scoff at Mr. Sourpuss (hey, Jim! You've been calling for Armageddon for at least seven years now! Cry wolf much?) Still others may actually recognize that Mr. Kunstler's repetitive jeremiads are an attempt to make people recognize and understand some pretty nasty home truths about where we're at and where we seem to be going (right over yonder cliff). If he repeats himself, it's only because we didn't get it the first time. Why so suprised? We never get anything the first time.

13 July, 2008

House of Cards

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity....

from "The Second Coming", by William Butler Yeats


I'm pretty lucky--at least so far--to be living where I am. Canada, by virtue of having commodities to spare, has as of yet been largely shielded from most of the mess of the American economy. The housing market here has seen a bit of a slowdown, but it's still humming along. This is due in part to Canadians' reluctance to embrace such things as 40-year and zero-down mortgages. Both 'innovations' arrived here in 2006, some time after they had thoroughly infected the U.S. While some people bit, there hasn't been the same widespread enthusiasm. Our government recently announced that it will no longer insure mortgages with amortization periods longer than 35 years, and homeowners will be required to fork out five percent of the home's cost to be eligible for a mortgage. This policy is lamented in places like Vancouver, where housing prices are insane, but it's welcome just about everywhere else.

Debt up here is still something of a four-letter word...and while we don't save to the degree our parents and grandparents did, we still save a lot more than our friends to the south. Gas at $1.349 a litre (about $5.10 a gallon) has curtailed our driving habits somewhat, but not so as you'd notice: because distances in this country are so vast, we've always preferred smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

That's not to say everything's rosy in Canada. The Ontario manufacturing sector is battered beyond belief, hemorrhaging jobs by the day. There are a myriad of factors at play here. One is the soaring dollar (which actually hasn't soared nearly so much as the U.S. dollar has tumbled). I used to fume that all these plant closings were a direct result of relying on a 60-cent dollar as a crutch, but I see now that's not exactly fair. There's little doubt the American economy is in the tank. The mainstream media are still a little hesitant to call it a recession: other sources are more shrill, claiming the economy's in a nosedive that's threatening to turn into a death spiral. Regardless, the United States, still our largest trading partner, is now in a position where it can afford only to import the stuff it absolutely has to: raw materials. It's a damn good thing we've got those in spades, because the Americans sure don't want anything to do with our finished products. Demand sinks and pulls jobs down with it.
Again I've lucked out here. I live in Canada's tech town, home to giants like Research In Motion and OpenText, along with scores of others. We're not immune to the manufacturing implosion (we've lost thousands of factory jobs over the last five years), but it's been more than offset by the booming technology industry. The local economy is running tickety-boo.
Outside my bubble, though, things are looking increasingly bleak.

I'll admit until last Friday I'd never heard of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I still say they sound like somebody's grandparents, not companies that between them hold nearly half the American mortgage industry in their feeble, wrinkled old hands.
The Federal Reserve is apparently looking at bailing these two giants out. I'm not sure it can. We've seen the Fed try to prop up investment banks: look how well that turned out for Bear Stearns. IndyMac, America's third largest bank failed on Friday, singlehandly wiping out more than ten percent of the FDIC's reserve funds. The reason for the failure? Essentially, a bank living beyond its means by encouraging its customers to do the same. Mortgages were extended to people who had no businesses applying for them, let alone recieving them. This was all well and good while real estate prices kept rising: if somebody defaulted, their home was usually worth more than the amount owing on the mortgage, so the profits would roll in regardless. That is, until the inevitable downturn in prices set in.
(The economy runs, and has always run, in cycles. Why is it so many people who should know better seem to forget that?)
Banks aren't the only entities living on the knife's edge. There's increasing talk of America's Big Three automakers going bankrupt. The federal government would undoubtedly step in before that could happen--not least because the American auto industry maintains a powerful Washington lobby that, according to this linked article, started the U.S economy down the road that led to the whole economic charlie fox event in the first place. But again, look how well government intervention worked for Bear Stearns.

If companies as large as General Motors and Fannie Mae collapse, the reverberations will shake
the American economy like a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. The debris field will be considerable. I've tried to imagine the aftermath, but the dust and smoke obscure mental vision somewhat.

Disaster may be averted, somehow. Nevertheless it seems prudent to prepare for the worst, to earthquake-proof yourself and your family as much as is possible.

HOW TO SURVIVE A 9.0 ECONOMIC EARTHQUAKE

The key to survival in any earthquake is to fully adopt two principles that seem, at first glance, to be contradictory. You must be firmly rooted and you must be flexible.

By "firmly rooted" I do not necessarily mean tied to a place. Indeed, you may have to get the hell out of the way of the lifestyle failing all around you and relocate somewhere far away--possibly very quickly, too. But you must be thoroughly grounded in reality. Look behind the news: always ask what you're not being told. Assume, when the bad words actually get uttered on national television, that things are considerably worse than they're letting on. If you're religious, and have always counted on God to smooth over the rough patches, remember "God helps those who help themselves".
PAY ATTENTION. Keep a close eye on developments, even if they seem far away and unimportant to you personally. Remember that the global economy is interconnected: a butterfly fart in Beijing can result in an economic tornado closer to home. Also remember that in our 24/7 world, things can spiral up and out of control remarkably quickly.
READ. Read various perspectives on where the world is at and where it's going. Don't allow any one perspective to wholly dictate your response.
HOPE FOR THE BEST, PLAN FOR THE WORST. Don't expect the worst--that's a sure way to bring it on--but formulate a mental plan in case things go to hell in a hurry. Here's a good one from Jim Kunstler's archives, with my comments after each point. This is dated November 8, 2001.

-- Get out of the Sunbelt while you can. Places like Atlanta and Houston will be unlivable in a world of expensive air-conditioning and iffy gas.

How did he see this coming, I wonder? The price of oil in November, 2001, stood at less than $30/bbl. It's nearly quintupled since then.

-- Look for a traditional small town to live in, as close to the center as possible.

If things go really squirrelly, I'd suggest a small town that's good and far away from the nearest big city. Depending on how paranoid you are, you might actually consider two possible destinations, one no more than a single tank of gas away and another as far away as you can get. A city is only three days of supply disruption away from mass civil unrest. (And that's what I mean when I say you might have to up and move fast.)

-- Favor places where supplies of fresh water are relatively assured.

In other words, think like a pioneer. Discard the mindset that's crept into the Western urban way of life, that everything you need is stocked on a shelf someplace, waiting for you to come and buy it.

-- Do whatever you can to reduce your car dependency.

Don't count on the electric car to save us. At least, not until you start seeing Tesla Motors dealerships in your home town. Besides, you'll reap the health benefits of getting off your ass.

-- Those of you who think "country life" will be a refuge from difficult times ahead had better be prepared for farming or some other rural lifeway. The end of suburbia also implies the end of urban lives lived in the rural setting.

If things get bad enough, you might have to be responsible for your own food. Just on that off chance, you may wish to pick up a book such as John Seymour's The Self-Sufficient Life and How To Live It. You don't necessarily need to read everything in it right away (though it's a dense, fascinating read)...just remember where it is in case you have to grab it on the way out of the house. Incidentally, there are plans in here for limited self-sufficiency on as little as an acre, while five acres, carefully chosen, will support a large family.

-- Get out of debt.

That's important no matter what happens. Even if the economy rights itself and things somehow continue on as before, it would be wise to view the averted catastrophe as a warning sign.
Speaking as somebody who once had absolutely no concept of the value of a dollar, and who frittered away literally thousands of dollars on frivolous stupid crap most of which I didn't need, don't have anymore and in some cases can't even remember...debt is a four-letter word. It's a handicap that can become crippling in short order even without external factors like soaring interest rates and economic ruin.

-- Learn how to do some things that will make you useful to other people, and consider doing it at the scale of a small or home business.

Most people can't and wouldn't want to survive on their own. Even if you're one of the people that can and does want to, by definition, skills that are valuable to others will be valuable to yourself as well.

-- Become involved in public life and community activities. In the shitstorm of political recrimination to come, there will be a great need for reasonable citizens.

This ties back into paying attention to what's going on. Crises bring out the worst in people: you'll need to counter it with your best.

-- Learn to play a musical instrument. Produce your own entertainment (your brain will thank you).

Do you really need to watch the ritual humiliation of American Idol and Survivor? Does it really give you such great pleasure to "kill" a bunch of pixels that look like a human being? There's joy in the simple things. That's why they've been around so long.

The second principle key to surviving an economic earthquake is flexibility. Never mind Plan B: have at least the rudiments of Plans C through Z in your head, and be prepared to ditch any or all of them as circumstances warrant. In the short term, that means thinking about what you'd do if you suddenly lost your job. In the long term, consider the possibility (however remote it might seem) that you could lose your house and car.
If you've at least thought of these things, you probably won't freeze if and when decisive action is called for. You may never have to put any of these plans to the test...but then again, you might.

12 July, 2008

Tales from Aisle 10 (III)

May I vent?
Thank you.
Two major specials in the frozen department this week. First up: Polar ice cream pops, 8x40 ml, 97 cents. The pack contains 4 orange pops and 4 grape pops.
Never seen this product before and probably never will again.
Okay, let's think. Head Office wants me to take five skids. There's 144 cases to a skid and 8 in a case for a total of 5760 sales. Seems a bit high to me. But I'd better take them...it's supposed to be wicked hot and humid outside. Small problem: what with the four skids of meat department crap in the nine-skid-capacity freezer we share, there won't be room for anything else. So I'll take four skids on Thursday and one on Monday. Problem solved. Ken solves his problems with a chainsaw, and he never has the same problem twice.
Wait a minute.
We have a three day sale on 2-pack Delissio pizzas for $6.97. Head Office has decided I need seven skids of this stuff, and further that they're shipping it to me all at once.
You can perhaps appreciate my concern. I have space for one skid in my freezer. Another will fit out on display. That leaves five skids of frozen pizza that won't stay frozen for long.
Well, now. I get a delivery on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday...why can't I just get that automatic distribution split four ways? No worries, I was told. Just order what I need, when I need it. Simple like that.
Thursday's order shipped no problem. The sale started yesterday and by the time I got in to work at 2:00 yesterday afternoon that shipment was almost gone. Luckily, yesterday's delivery came in right on time--I never quite ran out.
But I was a little worried. These pizzas were selling even better than I'd expected: I estimated I'd be out of stock by about noon Saturday. The Saturday warehouse delivery window is between 1 and 5 p.m.
We get an email notification the day before a delivery of what time that truck is supposed to arrive. I anxiously awaited that email, and breathed a sigh of relief when it came: 12:09. Things are working out just peachily.
So I wander in to work this morning and peruse my invoice, which comes up on the email system about six hours before the truck gets to the store. Imagine my chagrin when I discover that, instead of the 48 cases of pepperoni pizzas I had ordered, I'm getting 33. Imagine my horror when I notice that instead of 48 cases of deluxe, I'm getting 14.

I knew right away what had happened...and was powerless to do anything about it. When they cancelled my automatic distribution of seven skids, that product shifted in their system from allocated to Ken's store, hands off, everybody else! to humph, Ken doesn't want any pizza, so here's his stock. Anybody who needs more than we gave 'em, feel free to poach the motherlovin' hell out of this. Somewhere in our 95-store chain, somebody has my pizza. And has probably sold it by now.
Meanwhile, right about...now...I'm out. And with the warehouse out of stock too, there's no way to get more. Not quite two days through a three day sale, and not a pizza to be found. All because I have one of the smallest freezers in the chain.

I said all that to say this.

Customers (and you're all customers of some place at some time), please bear in mind two things. One, when there's a "limited time only" sale on something, that time may be more limited than it says. Two: most times, when a store is out of stock on something, it's not their fault. It's never the cashier's fault, NO MATTER WHAT. Yelling at somebody because you didn't get your pizza may make you feel better, but it makes us feel like shit. You're here to buy two pizzas. We're here to sell a thousand of them. Believe me, we don't run out just to spite you.

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

We've had an exceptionally rainy couple of days here chez Breadbin. Yesterday it monsooned from three in the morning until nine, dropping 78 millimeters of rain: a shade over three inches. We haven't seen that much rain in one day here since 1991. Today, it poured again. In the middle of this latest deluge, a cashier called in to work and told us that since he had no ride and it was miserable outside, he wasn't coming in.
It's a good thing I didn't pick up that phone. If I had, this is how the conversation would have gone:
Cashier: "Uh, yeah, it's miserable outside and I don't have a ride, so I'm not coming in today."
Ken: "Oh, really? And how were you going to get here if it was sunny outside?"
C: "On my bike."
K: "Do you have a rain jacket?"
C: "No."
K: "And now you'll never afford one, because another thing you don't have is a job. Goodbye."

09 July, 2008

Ur Gonna B Raped

In Canada, we expect to be scammed. In fact, I think it's in the fine print of our Constitution somewhere. Governments, private companies, it makes no difference. Bend over and enjoy.

But the latest announcement from two of our leading (?) telecommunications companies raises the buggery to a whole new level. Bell and Telus announced yesterday that henceforth that unless their subscribers opt for a "package"--no word on how much that'll run you--they'll be charged 15 cents for each incoming text message. (Hmm, two companies announce the same new rate on the same day...can you say collusion, boys and girls? I knew you could!)

Now, normally I wouldn't give a fiddler's fart about this sort of thing: I'm still landline-locked, and will remain so until I have no choice. My wife's had a cell phone for about a year and has received--she thinks--all of one text message. I'm still of the opinion that text messaging is silly and redundant. (If whoever you're calling can't talk right now, you can, oh, I don't know, leave a message...) When Bell starts charging for each website visited, that will hit me where I live. Until then...

No, damnit, this is criminal. How I feel about text messaging is irrelevant: literally millions of Canadians text every day. We sent over twelve billion messages last year. Now, sure, most of these people have or will opt for "the package", but a fair chunk won't, and as far as I'm concerned they shouldn't be punished for being occasional users. Besides, Telus actually sends its customers unsolicited text messages for marketing purposes. And now they've found a way to make you pay for their advertising. Nice.

We're gouged unto death in this country, especially when it comes to media. I pay more than twice what my friend in San Diego does per month for internet, phone and television...and he's got a better phone plan, a faster 'Net connection, and many cable channels some minder at the CRTC has decided I'm not allowed to watch.

Mark my words: this is only the beginning. Next they'll find some way to ding you per television hour watched, per website visited, per email received....it'll never end unless we end it.

It's been proven time and time again: in the absence of vigorous competition, companies will charge what the market will bear. And Canadians are a bearing lot: we bitch, but that's all we ever do.

As far as I'm concerned, we should open up our market to the American telcos. We're already bombarded with the culture: we might as well pay less for it.

06 July, 2008

Rocketstar, you'll LOVE this

"A fanatic is someone who can't change his mind and won't change the subject."
--Winston Churchill

New (to me) author: Charles Stross.
I'd heard good things about his novel Accelerando, tried to read it, and succumbed rapidly to Quicksilver disease. (I named that syndrome after the first novel I got it from, Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver. It has one symptom, but it's a dilly: the more you read, the stupider you feel, until you're too dumb to turn the pages.)
But I thought I'd give the guy another chance...there were far too many people telling me to read him. So I took Glasshouse out for a spin from our local library...and loved it to pieces. I bought Iron Sunrise next and I gotta say it rivals the Hyperion series for the title of Ken's Favourite Space Opera.
So I'm reading the man's web site and soaking up knowledge by the minute...until I came across his diary entry for January 16, 2006. A whole different kind of knowledge was revealed to me. Behold, the Wisdom of the Fundamentalists:

"I can sum it all up in three words: Evolution is a lie"

"One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn't possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it."


I almost choked reading that. I mean, c'mon, that can't be real, can it? I almost expected this quote to finish "they'd probably point to that YELLOW BALL in the SKY and say THAT was it..."


"all the evolutionists, tell me something. i know how the big bang "has happened, but tell me, wouldnt an explosion, especially one that size, take away life instead of allow it? think about it. ex: the a-bomb, the h-bomb, grenades, cannon balls (when fired from a cannon of course), mines, rocket launchers, and anything and everything in between. they all have taken lives."

Oh, dear.


"several million years for a monkey to turn into a man. oh wait thats right. monkeys dont live several million years."



That almost convinced me! Oh, but this one's classic:

"Everyone knows scientists insist on using complex terminology to make it harder for True Christians to refute their claims. Deoxyribonucleic Acid, for example... sounds impressive, right? But have you ever seen what happens if you put something in acid? It dissolves! If we had all this acid in our cells, we'd all dissolve! So much for the Theory of Evolution, Check MATE!"

Mining the comments for more gems, we move from science into social studies:

I am a bit troubled. I believe my son has a girlfriend, because she left a dirty magazine with men in it under his bed. My son is only 16 and I really don't think he's ready to date yet. What's worse is that he's sneaking some girl to his room behind my back. I need help, God! I want my son to stop being so secretive!

As if these weren't enough, I then found this site, continually updated with the latest in fundie wisdom.

And I gotta tell ya, I have SO MUCH to learn. I'll give you an example.

[about a girl being born with mental disabilities]

This girl is like a leper so what she needs to do is try and find god if she really believes she can be healed from this state, she will be healed from this state Most afflictions like this are caused by sins committed while still inside the womb. If she can repent for what she does god will embrace her and make her as human as you or me but if she chooses not to she'll always be like this god tests every one of us [emphasis added]

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Now, everybody, before you go off the deep end, I know that not everyone who believes in God and/or Jesus automatically believes all this....stuff. I'm just sayin', the people who do believe stuff like this scare me. A lot. As someone mentioned on Stross's site, stupidity is curable, if the afflicted wants it to be. ("If she really believes she can be healed from this state"...oh, never mind.) Stupidity mixed with ego is almost incurable and can be deadly. And while I'd argue most people of faith aren't this irrational, it seems like a sizeable minority are.

Remember, these are all real quotes culled from around the Internet: Christian fora, and atheist fora where Christians often venture in search of hearts and minds.

[spelling and grammar unedited]

What do the other human persons here think ? No doubt someone will object, saying something obviously ridiculous like, but atheists are persons. But clearly this is mistaken because anybody without a well developed belief in God is obviously not a full human person. What could be more obvious than that ? How many full human persons do you know without a well developed belief in God. Obviously none, because if they were full human person they would have a well developed belief in God. Now some people might object to killing atheists for there (and obviously it is there and not thier as they are not whos but whats ) organs but think of all the full human persons that would benifit from the organs and the medical research that could be done on these non-persons. How could anybody object, they are not human persons and if you think we should not kill them then that is just because of out dated ideas and because they must really just want people to suffer. For shame on you ! So what do people think ? Should we kill these atheist human non-persons for the benifit of fully human persons ?

Here's another:

What do doctors who perform abortions deserve?) I vote death..... It will be a double whammy... kill the murderer and we will be one less liberal too.

There are a bunch more in this vein. I pray to God (ha-ha) that one of these types doesn't move in next door to me. I'm not even an atheist, strictly speaking, but since I don't believe in the God these folks do, I don't think it'd matter much. And I can play the part of someone continually washed in the Blood of the Lamb--I can play that part very well--but it's draining.

My prayer: God in Heaven, please deliver me from these Your followers.

05 July, 2008

Happy Belated Fourth!

My apologies for not getting to this blog entry on the actual Fourth of July (and what could be more Canadian than an apology?)...but I needed additional material to finish the Canada Day entry, and lacked it until today.
I picked up the double issue of Macleans, our national newsmagazine (the American equivalent would be Time) and settled down for an eye-opening read on Canada vs. America. The Canadian in me doesn't even like that vs....it sounds so confrontational, doesn't it?...but that cover piece was a revelation.
For one thing, Canadians are now richer than Americans on average...by at least thirty percent. That goes so against everything we've heard for about a generation that I found it impossible to credit at first. After all, it's well known that Yanks drive bigger cars, live in bigger houses, do just about everything bigger, than we Canucks.
It all became clear when I read how Macleans determined wealth. They're going by "net wealth", as in "what you own minus what you owe." And Americans, again on average, owe more than us. A lot more. Per capita personal debt in Canada is US$23,460; in the United States, it's $40,250.
Another figure that leaped out: Canadians spend an average of 19% of their annual income on housing. In the U.S., it's 34%.
This accords with anecdotal evidence I've collected from colleagues who travel frequently to the United States as well as my closest friend who has lived there for more than a decade and is now a citizen. The culture is just plain different, they report. Most people in America think nothing of going deeper into debt, whatever the reason. It may not be something so crass as keeping up with the neighbo(u)rs; owning and consuming is deeply rooted in what it means to be American. Recall that almost the first thing out of President Bush's mouth in the wake of 9/11 was an exhortation to get out there and spend, spend, spend, "or the terrorists win". Whenever our 9/11 happens (and trust me, it will eventually), that'll likely be the last thing you hear from our sitting PM.
There are many other aspects to the Macleans piece, some of them illuminating. Contrary to extremely popular (Canadian) belief, we actually have just as much crime--in some cases more--in Canada. We have more break-and-enters per 100,000 population and significantly more arson and auto theft. But you're almost three times more likely to be murdered in America...
The article makes the point that "[t]he U.S. aggressively pursues happiness, but Canada seems to have just stumbled upon it". That perhaps explains why we're the happier nation: you can't "do" happy, you can only "be" happy.

Believe it or not, this blog entry is supposed to be in praise of America. If it sounds like I'm blowing Canada's horn, well, just consider me the little brother tagging along in Big Bro's shadow, occasionally wanting to steal a little of his limelight and say "hey, look at me!"

Because there's no doubt the limelight is on America 24/7. America invented the limelight, and a lot of other things besides. When we Canadians turn our eyes southward, we do so with envy, jealousy and all its attendant insecurities. You have the dominant global culture, so dominant that it's almost impossible to tell a random Canadian city from a random American one. It chafes us, sometimes, is all...especially because we're just as drawn to it as anyone else.

So what does America do better than Canada, besides produce television that's actually worth watching? Well, you do business much better than we do. You're much more independent and entrepreneurial. "Making money" in Canada is kind of like masturbation: everybody does it, but it's nothing you want to talk about and you wash your hands afterwards. We regard rich people the way you'd think of somebody masturbating in public.
Much as we denigrate your expansionist attempts to globalize the American Dream, there's much about that dream to admire. It has kept America on top of the planetary heap for more than a century.
As the economy disintegrates, Americans will look to themselves and each other to make do and get by. Canadians will whine for the government to do something, anything. Since it's a truism in both countries that government only exists to perpetuate itself, I suspect you'll fare better than us.
I, personally, admire your government. Not the current one, I hasten to amend: I mean your governmental system. Your Constitution is a marvel of checks and balances that has kept your politics on, more or less, an even keel through a longer and far more tumultuous history than we've had to deal with. Your President, Congress and Supreme Court all have power, but not too much of it; you're deeply uneasy whenever one or the other branch of government threatens to grow too big for its britches. Up here, we've had a low-grade war going on for years between our executive, legislative and judicial branches. Our tree's not in danger of coming down, but I for one could do without some of the hot air coming out of Ottawa.

And I admire the American spirit. You are a nation of individuals that pull together for the common cause of being American. We're a nation of collectivists pulling in every direction under the sun and still, somehow, cohering as Canadians. I do think you could learn from our approach to the world...but I also wish more Canadians understood that we have much to learn from you, as well.

Happy Fourth to my American friends, even if it comes on the Fifth.

04 July, 2008

Some...More...Enough

So, what to write about today?
I could write about Dr. Henry Morgantaler being named to the Order of Canada...except that anything that could possibly be written about this has been written seventeen times. I've seen everything from "the man is a hero" to "the man is the biggest serial murderer in world history". That covers a lot of ground and I don't think there's anything I can add.
I could certainly do another (thousand) Peak Oil entries. An attack on Iran looks increasingly imminent. Should that come to pass, you'll see oil jump to $200/bbl almost instantly. Fuel would likely be rationed; widespread shortages would ensue. And I know it's hard to think about this at the beginning of July, but winter's coming. We've already heard that natural gas bills will increase by as much as 45%. (Aside: we were laughed at when we bought this house because it has electric baseboard heating. We weren't even supposed to see this place because, supposedly, houses with electric heat are impossible to sell. Well, who's laughing now?)
I wanted to write an iPod shuffle entry, wherein I'd pick say five songs on my 'Pod and detail what they meant to me. Still might do that, even though I know most people would be bored to tears by such a column.

I'm not indecisive. Am I?

Solution: go redditing.

Hmm. Bunch of Peak Oil articles, a few Obama pieces--I'll get back to him closer to November--ah, here's something. Apparently the Piraha tribe of northwestern Brazil have a language without numbers. They don't even have a word for "one". The language does have terms corresponding to "some", "more", and "enough"...but that's it.

"Hey", I said to my wife, "here's a language without numbers. How alien is that? I can't even imagine a cohesive society functioning without at least a concept of "one", "two", and "many".

Eva has this neat facility for turning my thinking on its head. "What do you need numbers for in the jungle?"
"To count things! How many cuguars have we hunted? How much food do we need? How many weird pale devil-people have you seen hereabouts lately?"
"Some, more, and enough", she said.

A lightbulb went on. In the absence of anything requiring math, what do you need numbers for? And how liberating would it be to live without them? My mind kept grasping at situations where us "civilized" folk would invoke numbers--how much, exactly, is 'enough' of something? But who cares about specific numbers? Any dispute along that line boils down to more versus enough. And, incidentally, a truly civilized society would have an intuitive grasp of enough, and people wouldn't accumulate more for the sake of more; such disputes would probably be exceedingly rare.
Without numbers, time becomes a much more fluid construct. There's now, and then there's some-more-enough later. That, too, is a liberating concept. Again, I'm drawn to the opening of The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980) This was probably the first 'adult' movie I ever saw, and certainly one that made a deep and lasting impression on me. (Note: the San do count, but, as this clip shows, they are beholden to neither numbers nor time.)



There are days...more and more days, actually--when I'd like to go and live in such a place, with such a tribe...