30 August, 2008

Outbreak

Listeriosis. I'd never heard of it until last week, and when I did first hear the word, I thought it was a disease you got from drinking too much mouthwash.
I know better now, believe me.
There are three classes of food recall. Class III recalls are--well, they're not really "voluntary", no recall is, but they're not terrifically concerning. (Which is not to suggest they're ignored.) These recalls are quite common: we usually see at least one a week. In a typical Class III, something got into a batch of--let's say ice cream, that's the last one I had--and spoiled the flavour. It's a QA thing: the company requests we pull the product, not because it poses any kind of health issue, but because somebody might bring it home, have a wee taste and go bleccccchhh.
Class II recalls are actually fairly common as well--about one a month, give or take. Typically the culprit here is nuts: some nuts got into a batch of something that's not supposed to contain nuts. In this day and age when it seems like every tenth person can smell a nut and keel over dead, when you get a Class II, you hustle ass.
When you see a Class I--and you don't see them too often, thank God--you drop what you're doing, page everybody who isn't actually dealing with a customer and instruct them to drop what they're doing--and you pull the product immediately. You scour the store for product that may have been displaced. You look EVERYWHERE. And when you gather all that product up and get it the hell off the sales floor, do you throw it out? No you do not, even though our Dumpster is inaccessible unless you want to crawl through a compactor. You put the product in a sealed box and mark it POISON on every side and you store it well away from anything and everything. A rep from whatever company's been afflicted with the Class I comes and takes the stuff away.

This
Maple Leaf Foods recall is the biggest Class I I've ever seen. And the damn thing keeps growing. It seems like every day there's another twenty things to scour the store for. (You'd like to think you won't find tainted deli meat behind the cereal, but customers seem to delight in surprising us that way.)

Ten people dead so far.

On the news a couple of days ago, they mentioned a convenience store owner who was reassuring his customers they had nothing to fear in his store: "We don't sell any Maple Leaf products," he said. "We only sell Schneider's."
Now I don't expect the average customer to know that Maple Leaf bought JMS Schneider five years ago--but I'd demand a store manager know that sort of thing. Mind you, it's not an easy thing to keep track of. You'd be surprised how few companies are responsible for the myriad of brand names on grocery store shelves. And often it's beastly hard to determine who actually manufactures your store brand. It's not usually stated on the label.

And it should be. A lot of things should be on the label that aren't.

I really feel a great deal of pity for Maple Leaf Foods. After that one, colossal mis-step, they've done everything, and I mean everything, right. Most companies don't: they either dodge responsibility or accept it grudgingly, and their chief concern remains the bottom line. Not so Maple Leaf. They found two contaminated products and recalled 220. They put 180 people on phone lines to respond to consumer concerns. They immediately retained a third party company to determine what went wrong. Their plant is still closed.

The lawsuits are going to kill them. Negligence hasn't yet been determined, but the lawsuits are going to kill them.

Our federal government is at least
partly culpable here. That the Conservatives would want America to adopt a more lenient inspection regime is questionable at best. That this news should break in the middle of a listeriosis outbreak is rather damning, to say the least. I think Stephen Harper would be wise to rethink the election call he seems to be about to make.

29 August, 2008

Back in Barack

Well, didn't he just nail that one?'

Here's the speech in its entirety. (WARNING: This runs 45:08. DO NOT HIT PLAY IF YOU'RE ON DIAL-UP.)




Here's a transcript, courtesy The New York Times, for those with less-than-blisteringly fast connections.

Highly impressed with this one. Obama finally coupled his soaring rhetoric with some solid policy. We begin to get the picture of what "Change" actually means. A ten year commitment to wean America off foreign oil. The closing of corporate tax loopholes. A nationalized health-care system.
More: a paradigm shift away from corporations and towards individuals. I was particularly moved by Barack's insistence that he will not attack McCain the person--indeed, 'we owe him our gratitude and respect'--only his policies. Just that one statement alone goes a long way towards reinforcing my belief that Barack Obama is a decent man and worthy of anyone's vote.

I hope he gets the majority of votes in November. I really do.





To sleep, perchance to count a bunch of crap

Sorry to my readers for that unscheduled blog break. I never intend to go a week without posting, but sometimes I can't help it. No energy, no time.
We had an inventory at work this past week.
The fresh departments (produce, meat, and bakery/deli) have these every month, and they have to count every last item and input it all into the computer besides. They look at me with envy because the grocery department only has semiannual inventories and I don't even have to count the stock out on the sales floor, only the stuff in my cooler and freezer.
Only that. No problem, eh?
I usually work afternoons the day before the inventory. The dairy cooler only takes an hour or so to count, but the freezer's another story. That freezer has been the bane of my existence for more than seven years. Try as I might, I just can't get it organized, let alone keep it that way. Product migrates in there and has a hell of a time migrating back out. Despite repeated exhortations, somehow quarter- and half-cases of this and that end up scattered hither and yon. And despite my constant bitching about its tiny size, my freezer's actually pretty big.
Adding to the mayhem, I used to have most of the prices in my department memorized. No longer, especially since they seem to change almost weekly.
AND...working afternoons was out of the question this time. The store has been so slow we've had to cut labour back to almost a skeleton crew. There would have been nobody to man the department in the morning...and I had orders to write. Not only that, they'd only been able to spare a man for three hours or so to get the freezer organized ahead of time. He'd done a wonderful job, as far as he'd gotten...which wasn't very far.

So I went in Tuesday morning, worked until noon, and then came back in at eight that night and worked clear through until 6:30 in the morning. Eva bought me a couple of energy drinks. One of them (Rockstar) tasted like carbonated cough syrup; the other (Sobe, I think) tasted like orange-grapefruit-vomit...so bad I was forced to chug it. But they did the job.

It shouldn't have taken that long. But in the midst of counting, I find boatloads of product that can go out to the shelf, and when else am I going to get the time to work it? I'd pile everything from a shelf onto a U-boat, drag it out, work it, and then get the prices of whatever's left, mark the boxes and return to the freezer. Times thirteen. Well, not quite. After six of these excursions, I realized I was going to be here until Last Trump if I didn't cease and desist with all this stocking bullshit and simply GET THE FREEZER COUNTED. Scribble scribble scribble goat's anus tartare 1 kg size run run run ah yes, that was $6.99 a box run run run 12 x $6.99 moving on...

I finished up with the freezer at quarter of six and wrote my warehouse order for the next day's delivery. By this time the grocery manager was back in. He'd worked from eight a.m. to ten p.m. the day before...by no means was I the only animal functioning on no sleep.

Although I'm riding a bike to and from work now, I bussed it tonight. It's a good thing, too, because the thought of getting up that goddamn hill on Lexington is making my legs quiver and I don't even have to do it. I've got my iPod 'Energy Shuffle' playlist blasting--somewhere between Kid Rock's Bawitdaba and Rob Zombie's Dragula, I manage to find the strength to get to the bus stop.
The bus ain't comin'.
For half an hour I sit twiddling my thumbs, exhausted, trying desperately not to fall asleep. Mirage-busses come and go. Swear to God, the destination sign on one of them said ZZZZZZZZZ.

I flash back to grade seven, waiting for a school bus that likewise never came. That time I had a book--iPods weren't even a gleam in Jobs' eye yet--but...well, ask anyone, I can get pretty engrossed in a book. I was engrossed in this one. Engrossed enough that I eventually looked up and noticed there was nobody waiting at the stop with me anymore.
To this day I maintain that aliens silently abducted everyone around me. It's the only explanation that makes any sense. Surely the bus couldn't have come and gone without me? Wouldn't somebody have tapped--hell, punched--me on the shoulder? Wouldn't the bus driver have honked or something? But no, here I am all alone, just me and my book. My parents were some pissed that day, let me tell you. And they never miss a chance to jokingly remind me of just how absentminded I can get.

Heart's midway through Barracuda as a Grand River Transit bus finally lurches into view. I stumble on and sit down, musing about how I could have been home by now, Lexington hill or no. The bus travels about a hundred feet, and then a hellacious grinding noise startles me awake and we shudder to a stop. The lights go out.
Home's looking further and further away.
The driver curses a blue streak under her breath, concludes with something like shitfire and save matches and starts the bus up again. A noise like a chainsaw ripping through a wood-knot, then the engine mumbles contentedly until the operator hits the gas pedal.
grind grind grind zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzuuuuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrpppp darkness silence
Maybe I'll just sleep here.
A longer interval, punctuated by the driver querying her radio for instructions, and then that awful chainsaw noise again (do they always sound like that when they start? Is this bus going to 'splode? Will I go to sleep forever and ever and ever?) and then the engine's all contented again and everything's fine and off we go.
We reach Conestoga Mall without incident and I transfer to an iXpress bus. The iXpress service is relatively new to our city and I love it to pieces. There's a stop about five minutes from my front door, and the bus will reach that stop in six minutes after it leaves this mall.
Unless the engine quits.
Which it does, without any warning or fanfare.
You're kidding, right? Please tell me you're kidding.
This time, the driver's able to get things going again without difficulty. I finally make it home a little after eight, having endured a trip that took three times longer than normal. I could have walked home by now. And wouldn't you know it? I'm too tired to sleep.

Inventories bite.

22 August, 2008

"They're in the process of owning food. All food."

"You have to be genetically modified to resist toxic chemicals if you're going to have a hope of survival around here"



"You have to watch this film", Eva said to me the other day. "I've sent you a link. It's almost two hours long, and within ten minutes you'll be engrossed. I'm not saying you have to blog about it...but I bet you'll want to."
Damn woman knows how to hit every button I have.

I carry a huge dose of skepticism into any of these documentaries. I'm acutely aware that many of them are heavily laden with propaganda and spin, that facts are often ignored or distorted. Still, as I get older I'm becoming a little more paranoid, a little more open to the possibility that some conspiracy theories may have a kernel, or more than a kernel, of truth to them.

I opened up the email message and noted the title of this film, which runs 108 minutes. "The World According To Monsanto: A Documentary Americans Won't Ever See". It was originally aired in France. Okay: it's been on television somewhere. That doesn't make it gospel truth, by any means, but it does nudge the credibility-meter a point to the right, at least in my estimation, ahead of something that's only been distributed over the Net. And, hey, cool, it's a National Film Board of Canada co-production. If you're Canadian, you've seen NFB stuff in school. They have a lot of cred.

Interestingly, the link to the actual video led nowhere.

I Googled the title. The first three sites I was directed to didn't have the video either, but I noticed a lot of chatter about how it had been "pulled" from YouTube and various other places. Curiouser and curiouser. I noted it was still available in various other places all over the Net...then further noted that most of those places were either tinhat-Elvis-is-alive-the-aliens-are-among-us sites or places too small for the average Netizen--the kind of person who equates big reach with Big Truth--to put much stock in.
That only made me more interested in watching this film and judging it for myself. And it also gave the video some extra credence: obviously somebody doesn't want to me to watch this. I wonder why?

Now I know.

The fourth link worked. As of this writing it still does...though if it doesn't work by the time you read this, I wouldn't be overly surprised. If that's the case for you, please go out and Google it. If you don't have time to watch almost two hours of video, or if you're on dial-up, here's a review.

Google features prominently in this documentary, so you can follow along with every link. And the stuff contained herein is explosive. It actually re-arranged my head in startling and disturbing ways.

Disturbing because I've always considered myself not a corporate shill, but not reflexively anti-corporation, either. In Canada that makes me a rarity and something of a lunatic: the prevailing attitude in this country is that Government Rules, or ought to, and that profit is a baaaaaaad word. This mindset has been rattled before (Bre-X, Enron, Nortel)...but in the course of 108 minutes, this expose about Monsanto pretty much demolished it.

Monsanto. I'd never heard of them before, and I'm willing to bet most people haven't either...but I think you've heard of their products: PCBs. Agent Orange. Aspartame. Round-Up".
That's just the tip of the iceberg, though. In addition to being a chemical company, Monsanto is the world's largest manufacturer of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). I'm late to the GMO party--chalk it up to my naivete and general belief that Science Is A Good Thing. If you can splice something into a tomato to make it drought-resistant (and if that something doesn't kill people or animals)...why wouldn't you?

It's precisely benefits like this that make GMOs such a two-sided coin. If you go to Monsanto's website you'll find each benefit lovingly described. You'll also get a sense of just how massive this company is. They've insinuated themselves just about everywhere...and, at least in the States, you're not likely to know about it, because it's against the law to label genetically modified organisms as such. That's the end result of a neat bit of two-step perpetrated by Monsanto and the U.S. government, detailed in the video.

Did I say "Monsanto and the U.S. government"? It's getting pretty hard to distinguish the two.

It was this section of the video that disturbed me more than any other. Even the notion that Monsanto is striving to control the world's food supply, while chilling, didn't faze me too much, because surely governments would stop that kind of nonsense before it started? Oh, Ken, you are sooooooooo gullible.

Here's a company to whom "ethics" means "whatever serves our bottom line". They'll seek to advance themselves by any means necessary...and I'd argue their reach is already far too wide.

Now it goes without saying that not every corporation is this Machiavellian. But Monsanto is the goal that other corporations aspire to: total market share, governments in your pocket, profits that are damn near unlimited.

It's got me well on my way to embracing socialism.

20 August, 2008

Does This Happen To Anyone Else?

It's midnight, or three a.m., or half past the armpit of the night. LATE, is what I mean. Or early. Certainly not any time you'd expect to have your sleep interrupted by a ringing telephone.

Yet there it is, ringing, jolting you up and out of sleep. Long distance. The call display shows...nothing beyond "Long distance". Or "Name and number unavailable". Sometimes "Private number". The first few times this happened, the display read "thunderking_96".
If you actually pick up the phone--something that rarely happens in this house--you'll hear a babbling cacophony that qualifies as a kind of aural art. Or would, if you weren't so bleary-eyed and pissed off.

The typical "message" lasts between ten and thirty seconds and has at least six discernable tracks. Three of them are answering machine outgoing messages. The other three, or six, or ten, are people yakking away about everything and nothing in particular, interspersed with every noise you hear through a telephone receiver: the buzz of a ringing phone, a quick hit of a fast busy signal, the operator imploring you to "please hang up and try your call again", and the sound of numbers on the telephone keypad being depressed. Once it sounded as if all of them were being pounded on at once. Heard dispassionately (the next morning), it can sound kind of eerie. As if "Private number" belongs to "My Name is Legion".

I've tried Googling 'thunderking_96' and various other things, to no avail. I'm beginning to think our number's being singled out for special, twice-weekly treatment. And never at any hour you'd call civilized.

When I was a kid (the 36-year-old wheezed), if the phone rang anytime much after nine at night, it meant somebody had died. We still leave our phone on at night, against that very eventuality. But thunderking_96 is starting to give me second thoughts.

I'd really love to know who's behind this. Is this happening to any of you, and if so, have you had any luck figuring out where the hell these voices of Hell are coming from?

16 August, 2008

The Machine Stops

"YouTube is where you find out what's happening. Facebook is where you fix it."
--anonymous 13-year-old girl, as reported in today's Toronto Star

If you've a little time and half a mind for an entertaining diversion, I'd urge you to read this story, by E.M. Forster. It was my first real speculative fiction experience, read sometime in high school. I've since gone back and reread it several times, and my admiration for Forster's prescience continues to grow; it's now to the point where I've begun to wonder if he had access to some kind of time travel. The world he describes in here feels eerily similar to our own...moreso with every passing year.

I fancy myself to be pretty connected to what's going on. I listen to 680 News out of Toronto almost religiously..."three, four, five times a day", just as its advertisements ask me to. I watch Global National and the News Hour most nights. I've got a weekend subscription to the Star, though that's mostly for the long meaty articles. And of course I'm online. My media folder includes the Sun (it balances out the Star), the Globe, the Post, CBC...and reddit.com, which links just about everywhere.

So I'm pretty connected to the Vast Machine. Yet every day, it seems, something goes viral on the Internet and I'm always the last person to find out about it.

Turns out I'm behind the times. Many young people get their news almost exclusively from YouTube. I'm still having trouble wrapping my head around that. YouTube? I've always thought of that site as the ultimate PVR: a global repository of music videos, funny commercials, comedy clips, and political speeches. All of this stuff was, of course, televised first. Then there's the people trying to get famous by means of Jackass-type stunts and general lawlessness (for a while there, the in thing was to beat somebody up and record it for posterity).

I find it hard to take YouTube seriously as a genuine resource for breaking news. And yet...the huge propane explosion in northwest Toronto was on YouTube before any of the local media had reported it. The same goes for all manner of news, apparently. People flocked to hear interviews in the wake of the Manitoba bus tragedy, for instance.

This represents a paradigm shift. Not all that long ago, if you were lucky enough to have a videocamera ready to catch news in the offing, the first thing you did with the footage was try to sell it. It seems people these days (a) always have a videocamera handy and (b) don't care for money. Last I looked, YouTube doesn't pay a shiny dime for footage of any kind, no matter how dramatic.

More mystifying: I've looked at the YouTube homepage and while it does show videos "being viewed right now", there's nothing anywhere that says "see? see? This is today's media frenzy." How do people nose this stuff out?

My age has shut a door on my perceptions, methinks. Or perhaps I'm just not ready to submit wholly to the Machine.


As for Facebook being the place to "fix" things...huh?


I like Facebook. Though I get the feeling now I'm using it to maybe a trillionth of its potential. I used to play Scrabulous until that got shitcanned...now I play WordScraper, which just might be better. I keep in touch with old friends and relatives, like everybody else on Facebook. I've joined little discussion groups that mimic Usenet newsgroups. And...well, that's about it. Every now and again I get invited to join a group memorializing someone or on behalf of some cause. Very rarely will I even spare these things a second glance, because I just don't see the point. But there must be a point, because every time somebody dies there's a Facebook stampede. In lieu of flowers, send status updates. I just don't get it.


Protest groups: am I supposed to believe that 'the powers that be' give a good goddamn that seventy thousand people have joined a Facebook group in protest? People routinely ignore real-life petitions. Is a virtual one somehow more powerful? Increasingly, young people seem to think so, but does that make it true?


We're moving inexorably towards discarding the flesh-and-blood world I live in, and I don't like it one bit. There no longer seems to be a need to hear anyone's voice: people would much rather text than talk. I made a vow a couple of years ago never to send a text message as long as I live. I wonder how long I'll be able to keep that vow. At the rate things are going, I half expect the telephone to go the way of the telegraph within my lifetime.

In a world where everyone's experience is digitally uploaded at every opportunity and shared with the world, what value experiencing anything firsthand? In a world where people turn to their computer screens for solace, comfort and connection, we're already halfway to Machine worship. I have to admit, as much as I love many aspects of the 'Net, there's a little part of me that fears both it and what I become while I'm caught in it. That little part of me would dearly love for the Machine to stop.

13 August, 2008

Olympic Report: Day 5

Are we ever in fine fail form so far this Games.

Five days. Zero medals. Canadian records galore, particularly in the pool, which is Phelping fast--but no medals.

Sigh.

I'll get back to Team Canada later. For now, some reflections on Beijing's coming-out party.


The opening ceremonies were, as far as I'm concerned, nonpareil. I simply can't imagine how you'd even go about trying to surpass them. Jaw-dropping followed brain-boggling followed awe-inspiring until I was left mesmerized, benumbed, exhilarated and drained in equal measure.
Yet I've run into people who were deeply disturbed by the spectacle.
As with anything else, you got out of those opening ceremonies what you put into them. If you admire a culture that has lasted longer than any on earth, you relished the show it put on. If the thought of 1.3 billion people bound by a communist tyranny scares the wits out of you, then 2008 drummers performing in perfect unison, each with a frozen grin on his face, exhibited an alarming militaristic subtext.
Likewise, the news that certain aspects of that opening ceremony were not as they appeared either left you unfazed or upset. Personally, the revelation that not all the fireworks were real doesn't diminish the effect for me...it may in fact enhance it. There were enough legitimate pyrotechnics to satisfy the most discerning viewer, and as linked artictle states, filming actual 'footprints' in the sky may have been impossible and was at the very least prohibitively dangerous.
More troubling is the news that the angelic singer of 'Ode To The Motherland' was not the angelic figure we all saw singing. That such a thing would be lip-synced doesn't unduly bother me--how many seven-year-olds, divine voice or no, can pull off a performance in front of a couple of billion people? But this quote from the musical director of the Games does set off warning bells:

"The reason why little Yang was not chosen to appear was because we wanted to project the right image, we were thinking about what was best for the nation," Chen said. "The reason was for the national interest. The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings, and expression.''

A cynic would suggest we in the West do this every day--when's the last time you saw an ugly celebrity? A cynic of a wholly different sort would don a thick Teutonic accent and say "zat littl grrl izz not Aryan enough."


"How sad to see
What used to be
A model of decorum and tranquility
Become (like any other sport)
A battleground for rival ideologies
To slug it out with glee"
--Tim Rice, CHESS


Indeed, things like that had been circulating through my brain long before the opening ceremonies. Every time somebody tries to tell me the Olympics shouldn't be politicized, I remind them of Berlin, 1936. Or Munich, 1972. Or Moscow, 1980. Or any other Olympics you can name. As much as we idealize pure sport and try to declare it free of the taint of politics, whenever nations come together to compete, nationalist agendas are in play with the athletes. I'm as guilty of this as the next person: there I was above, bemoaning Canada's pitiful showing at the 2008 Summer Games so far. Does an Olympian's country of origin matter? Of course not. But we make it matter. Countries behind curtains (iron, and now bamboo) seek gold not as a triumph of the individual athlete but as vindication of their political system. And they're not above cheating to achieve victory, whether by doping or by more subtle measures (like, maybe, sending in people too young to compete). I'm on the fence here: while I wouldn't put it past China to obtain all the forged identification necessary to pull this off, and coach its young charges extensively to boot, I'd also imagine that in a country as vastly populous as China, finding a few dozen 16-year-olds who look eleven isn't beyond the realm of possibility.
You have to remember that sport in China, like everything else in China, is serious. (Those who said the opening ceremonies, while visually stunning, weren't "fun" enough, kind of missed the whole point of the exercise.) The government in China will seek you out, match you to a sport its computer models predict your body type will excel in, and the rest is up to you. Whether you like the sport picked for you or not is entirely irrelevant--and it's certainly not a good idea for your parents to question the decision, not unless they enjoy forced labour.

Put me down on the list of people who would have preferred these Games somewhere else on the globe. Not because China has a repressive, totalitarian regime, but because the rationale for awarding China the Games--that it would weaken that repressive, totalitarian regime somehow--is faulty.. Call the Chinese what you want: they're not dumb. They've given 300 million people a taste of the good life, while over a billion slave away in rural poverty. Do you really think those 300 million urbanities, with their new cars and their rapidly improving lifestyles, are eager to give the rural billion an equal vote? Odds are they'll actually fight to keep the system we'd like to see them give up. And China's dominant performance at their own Games is an affirmation, to Orient and Occident both: see, our system works.

While we're on the subjects of idealism, sport, and politics, here's something I'd like to see: all athletes from any country currently at war summarily disqualified. Yup, that includes Canada...and the U.S....and most of the parade of nations, actually. Most especially Russia, which actually launched an action during the Games: does the Olympic Truce mean nothing?
Yes, I recognize that this is undue and harsh punishment for athletes, who usually have nothing to do with their governments. However, I do think the threat of the public shaming of disqualification would serve to rein conflict in a tad, at least during the Games. As discussed above, the athletes will tell you they're representing their countries...as far as most governments are concerned, if an athlete represents a country and a government represents a country, then an athlete represents a government. Logical fallacy, that, but who ever said governments were smart?


Back to reality...

Our national team is putting forth a valiant effort--as I said above, several Canadian records have been smashed--but we're not podiuming. (In English, any noun can be verbed.) There really is little sense in heaping the burden of national disappointment on athletes who are already disappointed in themselves (and if you think they're not, ask yourself who goes to the Olympics gunning for that 26th spot?) Still, it's hard to keep a cheery face when little Kazakhstan is blowing Canada out of the water.
While I do support our athletes, and wish like hell the government would too (or is athletics just like culture, Mr. Harper?), I wonder if, given the lacklustre state of our Olympic program and at least until it improves, we should consider sending fewer athletes to the Games. A contingent of three hundred plus gives Canada a strong showing in the parade, but is the parade really where the strong showing's desired?

More to come.

11 August, 2008

Next on the chopping block: left-wing blogs.

Aren't people supposed to get more conservative as they age? If so, why am I finding myself going increasingly liberal?
I expected an election last fall. This fall, I'm demanding one. Harper has gone stale.
Well, truth be told, Harper always was stale. But now he's going toxic.
It was, in the end, a small thing that turned me against the Conservatives: small on the surface, but oh so telling. On Friday, it was announced that the PromArt program would be killed by spring, saving a piddling $4.7 million.
PromArt is a federal grants program under the aegis of Foreign Affairs. Its purpose is--was--to promote Canadian culture abroad.
Now I'll grant you, I'd question some of the grants that have gone out. I'm not sure, for example, how a band called "Holy Fuck" promotes Canadian culture here or anywhere. But rather than put some simple restrictions in place--in order to be deemed eligible for funding, profanity and gross indecency must be entirely absent--Harper instead chose to kill the entire program.
It was actually acknowledged that part of the reason was ideological: the Tories simply don't share the political views of some of the grant recipients. So, plus a few points for honesty and candour, but minus a few hundred for forgetting more people voted against you last time out than for you.
It's one thing for a minority government to act as if it has a majority. That's a sound political tactic, particularly when you have a Leader of the Opposition (such as, oh, I don't know, Stephane Dion, maybe) who has no balls and no spine. It's entirely something else to forget you're the government of an entire country, not just those few who voted for you. Indeed, when you have a minority, you really ought to be trying like hell to appeal to those who didn't vote for you.
The subtext here--pshaw, arts? nobody'll miss it anyway--rubs me entirely the wrong way. Visual art, music, literature--people have had these things for as long as there have been people. (Literature need not be written down, you know.) I honestly believe that the arts are part of what makes us people. And they certainly can "promote Canadian values and interests" abroad--the same way the Olympic opening ceremonies--for which, incidentally, the English language lacks an adjective sufficiently superlative--promoted China to the world. It's just a little cut...$4.7 million is quite literally pocket change to the Canadian government. That they would deprive touring artists of even pocket change says volumes. Volumes I don't want to read.

07 August, 2008

People for the Emotional Trivializing of Atrocity

Way to go, PETA. Way to convert people to your cause.


That People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals would even consider running an ad in a Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, newspaper with this copy:








...absolutely enrages me.

And while the newspaper (rightly) rejected the ad, PETA remains unapologetic. Basically, they're accusing anyone who has a problem with that ad of gross insensitivity towards animals.

Fuck 'em, I say. I say PETA has a gross insensitivity towards humans.

Gee, why weren't these people out in force on September 12, 2001 with a lovely photo of roast pigs, hooves lovingly entwined, falling from the inferno of the World Trade Center? As a follow up to this ad, were they going to go to Tim McLean's family's door right around suppertime and, if meat was on the menu, tell them they might as well be eating their son?

Infuriated doesn't even begin to describe it.

I care about animals. My wife cares deeply about animals. And her dad's a part-time butcher, so she's not ignorant in the slightest about what happens to the animals that end up on your table.

For me, it's a fairly simple equation: given a choice between saving a non-human animal and saving a human, I'll opt to save the human every time. With an ache in my heart, admittedly...but what can I say? I'm human.

For Eva, it's a bit more complicated and would probably depend on just what human she had to save. Call her cold-blooded if you will, but I did say she cares deeply about animals. Particularly simian animals. Does she eat meat...things "with a face?" Yep. How does she square that? The same way aboriginal cultures do. She'll go so far as to say a silent grace before partaking of her steak, not to any god, but to the spirit of the animal. She would never kill an animal unless she had no other choice.

She's a survivalist, and as such knows animals inside and out. She can trap, kill and skin just about anything; she can take apart a stomach to obtain what used to be called 'catgut', which she can then use for stitches. She knows many uses for internal organs. She can make leather and fashion a myriad of useful things out of bone. I guess what I'm trying to say is that she is conscious of her place in the world, and of an animal's place, and by and large she sees herself as equal.

I'm not sure PETA thinks that way. Actually, I'm pretty certain they feel that animals are vastly superior to human beings. Since they themselves are human, they have to put themselves on some sort of pedestal.

Last I looked, animals ate other animals, and they don't take particular care to kill them humanely, first. (The word humane was once used interchangeably with human.) Moreover, the plants PETA insists we eat instead are analogous to animals: they have blood (sap/pollen), a central nervous system after a fashion; and at least some form of intelligence. Check this study out, detailing how plants 'hear' and respond to melody. So: are you a vegetarian because you love animals, or because you hate plants?

I usually applaud provocative advertising. Belittling a tragic murder, right where it happened? Sorry, that's unforgivable.

03 August, 2008

Death On A Bus

I didn't want to write about this. Quite frankly, it turns my stomach.

But it's one of those stories that gets into your head. It sits there, quietly tumescent, causing you to consider things you've never thought before--should bus terminals have metal detectors? how, precisely, do you spot the madman before he goes mad?--and before you know it, the story's up and stampeding around with a hunting knife, hacking and whacking. To forestall that moment, I think I'd better vent some of the story-pressure.

The bare facts: Tim McLean, 22, was stabbed, beheaded, and partially cannibalized on a Greyhound bus en route to Winnipeg from Edmonton, allegedly by 40-year-old Vince Weiguang Li. All reports I've read suggest this was an unprovoked attack by a stranger.

The suspect does not have a criminal record.

Reading the coverage of this tragedy, amidst all the horror, one point fairly leapt out at me: Tim McLean was, by all accounts, asleep when the attack began. His murderer never said a word.

It's hard enough to come to terms with random vicious killings. When they're completely unprovoked, and the killer is so calm about it, that somehow makes it even worse. I doubt I'll ever look at a stranger sitting next to me the same way again.

I've rode the big grey dog on many occasions into my late twenties. They're not happy places, busses. Basically, they're mobile bus terminals. Ever been in a bus terminal? Sorrow and stigma commingle and produce an odour you can almost smell: the sickly-sweet miasma of misery. You learn real quick to pay attention on busses, especially if you're notoriously absent-minded and you look like easy pickings. My mother used to worry about me every time I took a bus. Even as a kid, I figured out that real people don't ride busses. Real people drive where they have to go, or fly; the bus is for disposable people too poor to do either. And wherever there are disposable people, there are other people willing to dispose of them.

Of course, no one is disposable. Tim McLean was anything but. Accounts make him out to have been a free spirit: no fixed address, but not homeless in the conventional sense; he had a multitude of friends he would stay with for a week or three months at a stretch. Everybody loved him. He'd never been in a fight in his life. If you could describe him in one word, happy would be a good choice.

The suspect doesn't sound much different, on the surface. His boss reports he was "a nice guy" who did "a good job". There was nothing to suggest he'd go off like a bomb, carve a stranger up, decapitate him, and then hold the head up to police and taunt them with it.
There are certain tropes in stories such as this. Often you can look at a photo of the suspect and convince yourself you see evil looking back at you; even more often, it seems, the neighbours knew nothing, suspected nothing, and thought the psycho next door was a nice, normal family man. What scares me is the thought that maybe he was. Maybe he was a nice, normal family man until one day he just turned into a monster. To dwell on that thought too long is to go slightly mad yourself.

One thing we're likely never to hear is the why of this. Of course, there can be no good reason for a man to die needlessly, but the murderer had what he felt was a perfectly valid reason to kill him, and I for one would like to know what it was. Something besides "because I'm crazy, booga-booga-booga!", I mean. The logic of the murderer, while seriously twisted by objective standards, is usually internally consistent. Knowing how killers think can prevent future killings.

If there's one scientific advance/discovery I most long for, it's the revelation that the impulse to murder is genetic in nature. That's one piece of in utero gene therapy I'd wholeheartedly support.

R.I.P. Tim McLean
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01 August, 2008

Pinch, punch, first day of the month.

August already?

A gathering of mental morsels:

I'm currently reading LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION, by Sam Harris. It cost me two bucks to get from my book club, and when it arrived yesterday I immediately saw why: it's less a book than a pamphlet. 91 pages of fairly large print.
Still, it's an interesting read, so far. The very first point Harris makes, before he really gets started in his demolition of fundycostalism: it's passing strange that Christians, whose faith is (according to them) predicated on love and forgiveness, can be so "deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism."
I suspect most of the people who should read this, won't. And if they do, they'll ignore it, trash it, or burn it for heresy.
The missive could perhaps have been worded better. There are little pinpricks scattered liberally throughout, seemingly designed to alienate the very audience the letter's addressing: God is repeatedly referred to as a "myth" or a "fairy tale", for instance. Probably not the best tack to take if your aim is to convice someone you're right. Better, perhaps, to ever-so-gently nudge them into thinking about where they might be wrong. Guide, not goad. Even then, it's an uphill battle: many people won't even consider an opposing viewpoint, least of all on something as personal as religion. But when more than half of Americans believe the Earth was created "about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue", you have to wonder about that glue and who might be sniffing it.
The need for a critical examination of theism and atheism is great. If there are any atheists in public office in the United States, they've managed to fake religious conviction so well as to fool the majority of their constituents. If you were to substitute any other minority for 'atheists'--if, for instance, women were tacitly prohibited from political positions, or Blacks, or gays--it would be an outrage. Yet few in America seem to care that atheists may as well forget about running for office. No matter your religious belief or lack thereof, you should see the injustice in that. And it should make you ask: what are they so afraid of?

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Switching gears:
Finally, a "Do Not Call" list is coming to Canada. Effective October 1, you can sign up online or by phone and never again have to interrupt your dinner for a sales pitch.
Uh, not quite.
The list of exemptions is lengthy. Charities can still call you, as can newspapers, polling firms, political organizations or candidates, market research companies, and anyone you've done business with in the past year and a half.
Hello? *slams down phone* So, in other words, everybody who calls me now, will still call me then. How much money's being wasted administering this sham?
And let's say some telemarketer who isn't on that list (are there any?) gives me a call. I then have two weeks to file a complaint with the CRTC, in which I will have to provide the telemarketer's name and number. Good luck with that. Most telemarketers show up on my Call Display as 000-000-0000, or some such. And if doorknockers can misrepresent themselves (on more than one occasion, we've had Ontario Power and Energy people claiming they're from Waterloo North Hydro), what's to stop telemarketers?

I'd rather see a DO call list. By default, you can't be bothered unless you've expressed your wish to be bothered. But then, I'm against anything requiring action to opt out of, except for one thing: organ donation. Presumed consent in that case just makes sense.

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Why is it you have to go searching through the interwebs to find things that should be front-page news EVERYWHERE?
Reading between the lines of this article, goodbye oil and hello solar in unlimited and trivially cheap quantities. Things like this give me hope for the future....

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Hyperinflation--Zimbabwe's living it. Wanna feel rich for a second? Imagine holding this in your hand. Then realize that note will buy you a bus fare.
People have been musing about hyperinflation hitting the United States for at least thirty years. It hasn't happened yet, and although the U.S. dollar hit rock bottom early this year and started to dig, I don't think it will. Still, can you imagine having trillions of dollars in your bank account but being unable to afford to drive to work?