30 January, 2010

So long, CBC...

So I guess I won't be visiting the CBC's website any more.
This really kind of bites, as it's one of my top nine most visited sites and it's been a very good source of blog material. But better safe than sorry. After all, if I click on that site and see something worth writing about, and then I write about it, I could conceivably be fined a million dollars.

You read that right. The CBC has partnered with iCopyright and will now require bloggers to obtain licenses if they wish to use CBC material--which is (a) primarily news in the public interest and (b) paid for by the Canadian taxpayer. To obtain such a license, you must agree to

(a) post the entire article (no excerpting)
(b) pay by the month for the privilege--just $250.00!
(c) refrain from criticizing the CBC or the author of the article

I wonder how well this will hold up in court. I'm seriously tempted to find out for myself. Because I'm absolutely disgusted and infuriated. I strongly resent my government enlisting an American organization to force me to pay (through the ass) for the ability to quote an article that I, in part, paid for in the first place. And to refrain from criticism--that's so plainly against our Constitutional right to freedom of expression that I seriously question the intelligence of whoever thought this up.

I've largely stayed away from copyright issues because I'm conflicted: I believe creators have a right to remuneration for their creations, but I also believe that information should be shared. We are several huge paradigm shifts away from paying people on the basis of their reputations--something I believe will eventually come to pass--and in the meantime, it's a conundrum.

This isn't going to solve it. Putting up roadblocks to the sharing of news and information is ridiculous and pointless.


27 January, 2010

"Question 2010"

The Edge gives its question for this year:

"HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?"

and supplies an ever-growing repository of responses from scientists, artists, and assorted Deep Thinkers. They make for fascinating reading. Even a quick cruise through the titles of the essays provides nearly endless thought-fodder: "The Plural of Anecdotes Is Not Data"; "Replacing Experience With Facsimile"; "Attention Is The Fundamental Literacy"; "Evolving A Global Brain"...

I got entangled in the Net back when Usenet newsgroups were practically the only way to experience it. Images were limited to ASCII art, unless you wanted to get a lot more technical than I wanted to get. Because of this, and because I was a voracious consumer of text before that text ever went hyper, my relationship to the Internet is vastly different than that of people half my age.
Those people, I've noticed, Twitter their time away, mindlessly connecting with pseudo-friends until they're blue in the Facebook. Popularity has always been an arbiter of truth--remember the 'cool' kids in the schoolyard: were they ever wrong?--but it's become the Ultimate Arbiter in these days of constant connectivity when anyone, anyone at all, can be famous for fifteen seconds on YouTube.
This mindset frightens those who don't embody it. Yet it has its advantages. Consider: where once information was hoarded, and the smartest person was the one who knew the most, nowadays it's much more accurate to say that most information is immediately and widely shared, and the smart people are seen to be smart precisely because they share their information.

Of course, not all--in fact, comparatively little--information is completely free of the taint of spin. Filtering information one finds on the Web through our human and thus fallible bullshit detectors takes up an ever-increasing amount of time and effort, so much so that many don't bother. There are those who view the Internet as an endless series of segregated choir lofts, wherein those who've gained admittance take turns preaching at each other while staring down their noses at the heretics below. No matter what you believe, it's trivially easy to find a community of like believers.

However, most of us have always sought out people who believe as we do. Orthodox Jewish parents don't generally try to find devout Hindus to marry their daughters; nor do ultrarational types often hook up or hang out with crystal-reading horoscope-invoking mystics. Blaming the Internet for human nature is akin to blaming cars for their reckless drivers.
But just as the Internet has made it ever so much easier to reinforce your beliefs, it's also proved a boon to those wise enough never to be too sure of themselves. Differing perspectives abound...just look at the collection of essays showcased here for a glaring example.

When I was in university, it was these differing perspectives that hooked me. Especially when I contrasted them with the single opinion usually force-fed by my professors as fact. Halfway through third year, I abandoned all pretense of attending classes, spending nearly every waking moment in one computer lab or another. So I was paying a couple of grand a year in internet connection fees masquerading as tuition fees. Was that any sillier than paying the same amount to have teacher's assistants read textbooks to me verbatim (and I was naturally expected to buy the textbooks, too, at hideously inflated prices)? I didn't think so. I still don't think so.

Differing perspectives. Those who try too hard to hold to just one, particularly if that one places value in withholding all others, will find themselves extinct as the Internet continues to evolve. Here I'm thinking of the mandarins in China, who have done (so far) a masterful job of keeping the world and its troubling notions of "democracy" and "human rights" on the other side of the Wall. While they're winning the battle right now, it's a war they're destined to lose: the lure of information is simply too strong.

And this drives home my core beliefs, Internet-shaped, about the interconnectedness of all things. These connections are made tangible every second of every minute of every hour of every day. It's only a matter of time before they envelop the world. Ultimately, this will happen for the good of us all.

On a more personal note, the Internet has me definitely more scatterbrained than I used to be. I still read books printed on dead trees, but my consumption of same has dwindled dramatically (from at least one a week in 1995 to closer to one a month now). I've noticed that stories, even good ones, rarely hold my interest the way they used to, so I read in increments of ten or twenty-five pages and then put the book aside for a day.
Google and Wikipedia have become my go-to sources for answers on nearly any question. I don't like to think I use these tools the way kids in math class use their calculators...but I probably do, at least sometimes. It can be so easy to think you're thinking when you're really just regurgitating.

Still, after twenty years online, the attraction of information gauged in zettabytes, out there free for the searching, is beyond intoxicating to me. The Internet has driven home not how much I know, but how much I don't.


24 January, 2010

Mousebound

October can't get here fast enough.

Eva and I have been planning to go to Disney World for our tenth anniversary since...well, since before our first anniversary. Eva's never been; I haven't been since 1984, which means I really haven't been, either.

When I went with my dad twenty six years ago, EPCOT had barely opened and nothing else existed (besides the Magic Kingdom, of course). In any event, Disney was just one of the things we did on that trip and even then it was a real stretch to see the Magic Kingdom in a day. Now, there are four parks in the complex, six if you count Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. Disney World is twice the size of Manhattan Island and it'd take a full week to see everything we want to see.

A week we shall have. What a week we shall have.

This may be not just the best vacation we ever have, but the best we ever could have, thanks to all the planning that must go into it.
I'd better explain that.
When we drove to Florida two years ago, I resolved to make the drive down part of the vacation. In truth, planning the drive down became part of the vacation, for me. We bought a copy of Dave Hunter's excellent travel guide Along I-75 and by the time we embarked I had that sucker memorized. It turned me from an awful navigator ("uh, I think we should have turned back there") into a damned good one ("you want to get into the left lane soon"). Better, it gave me a grounding in what to expect over the trip down...for a guy who values stability as highly as I do, that can't be understated. Novelty's all fine and good, but I like to have something to relate it to, even if it's only words on a page. The book made a point of suggesting we stay at a Jameson Inn, and we appreciated that suggestion so much we stayed at two and plan to hit a third this time.


Again, we plan to drive down, this time taking a more scenic route that also shaves a couple of hours off the drive time. We'll be hitting parts of nine states on the way down...may I digress for a moment?
My wife collects shot glasses for all the places she's been. On that previous trip, she had accumulated glasses for seven states: Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. We had them in a paper bag on the floor of the backseat of the car...that is, until yours truly spiffed up the car just before the border. Let's get rid of all this detritus, I thought as I scooped up coffee cups, burger wrappers and some paper bag or other and deposited it all into a Michigan garbage can. When we discovered the missing shot glasses back home, I briefly resided in the marital doghouse. This trip will give Eva a chance to replenish her stock...and love, I promise not to throw them out this time, okay?

The drive down is only part of the planning, because you don't do Disney on impulse. You just don't.

We have a copy of The Unauthorized Guide to Walt Disney World for Grown Ups. From Google Books' rendition of the larger Unathorized Guide To Disney World:

"One of our all time favorite letters came from a man in Chapel Hill, North Carolina:

'Your book reads like the operations plan for an amphibious landing. Go here, do this, proceed to Step 15. You must think that everyone is a hyperactive, Type-A theme-park commando. What happened to the satisfaction of self-discovery or the joy of spontaneity? Next you'll be telling us when to empty our bladders.'

As it happens, Unofficial Guide researchers are a pretty existential crew. We are big on self-discovery if the activity is walking in the woods or watching birds. Some of us are able to improvise jazz, and others can whip up a mean pot of chili without a recipe. When it comes to Walt Disney World, however, all of us agree that you need either a good plan or a frontal lobotomy. The operational definition of self-discovery and spontaneity at Walt Disney World is the "pleasure" of heat exhaustion and the "joy" of standing in line."

For one thing, Disney requires (or at least strongly encourages) advance dining reservations for each night of your stay. You can (and are, in some cases, strongly encouraged t0) book these six months in advance. When this was first explained to me, I thought I had to know, six months ahead, what I planned to eat every night. Not quite. There is a good reason for their insistence on reservations so far in advance, though: an average of seventeen million people--more than half the population of Canada--visit Disney World each year. There is a phenomenal demand for some of the dining establishments, to the point where you're told you better get your reservation in within the first five minutes on the first day you're eligible, or you'll be out of luck.
It rapidly dawns on us that if we're going to make dinner reservations for a specific eatery each night, it only makes sense to plan to be in the same park that day. Before long, we've got a full itinerary. We won't go so far as to script our every step ("first we'll hit this ride, then that show" and so on)...but then again, we'll have at least a fair idea of what to do first and what to leave until later if we want to minimize time in line. What with Eva's sun aversion--she can and does get sunburns on rainy days--that seems only prudent.
We've decided to stay at the Old Key West Resort:



for several reasons, some of which are the exact reasons other people would shy away.
  • first and foremost, we wanted that "Old Key West" experience. I would love to have seen Key West thirty or forty years ago, before Duvall Street deteriorated into block upon block of kitschy tourist bric-a-brac.
  • We wanted a place somewhat removed from the parks, while still on the property. Several people complained (mildly) about the distance between OKW and some of the parks. I can appreciate that after twelve hours of walking, you want to be in your hotel room now. But Eva and I have a very similar capacity for sensory overload and a shared appreciation for rest and relaxation in our own space, away from the crowds. Indeed, on one day out of the week we're down there, we don't plan to leave our hotel's grounds much if at all.
  • Many people have praised the Old Key West for the size of its suites. We like that "home away from home" feel, which in our case includes
  • a Jacuzzi (to cure sore muscles) and
  • a full kitchen (because our dining plan doesn't cover everything, and in any event, endless meals out can get tiring.
We've settled on our restaurants of choice, including the one where we're having our actual anniversary dinner. That was probably the hardest thing to figure out--most of the high end Disney places are too 'frou-frou' for our palates. For all I know, I might love roasted squirrel testicles in a white froth, with a side of goat's anus tartare. I don't want to know. In the end, we picked Le Cellier in the Canadian Pavilion at EPCOT--and that was after some convincing. "What the hell do we want to travel all the way to see our own country for?" said my darling wife. I've promised to get her in and out of Canada in just enough time for one steak dinner.

I just can't wait for this trip. As with any big thing like this, I'm a wee bit obsessed about it. I've Google mapped everything, using the nifty satellite view to get a look at our route from overhead, all the way down. There are videos on YouTube for everything we plan on doing and seeing. It's just a hoot.

We now return to...damnitall, not even February yet...

20 January, 2010

American Political Intrusion

Really, all of us should have seen this coming. The cycle goes like this:

1) Collectively inflate a human being into a God;
2) Crucify him.

Barack Obama was inaugurated one year ago today, having won an election as the Great Black Hope (And Change). The day before the inaugural, it was widely speculated Mr. Obama would saunter across the Potomac before waving his magisterial finger and transmuting the river to wine. Or something like that. Those of a more rational bent recognized the man was simply human, with considerable gifts to be sure, but no godlike powers.
Nevertheless, as his core issue in the first year of office, he seized on a task worthy of a god: convincing his fellow Americans of the benefits of a national health care system.
Most Canadians, comfortably enamoured of their own health care system (which is routinely vilified in the U.S.) look upon the current American system and despair. They view the rallies to preserve that system ("Get Your Government Hands Off My Medicare!") as proof of widespread American insanity.
This Canadian has trouble even trying to understand the typical American antipathy towards government. I mean, what is government for, anyway? And why do so many people vote for it, then hold rallies trying to keep it as far away as possible from their own lives?
The Wall Street Journal suggests that in electing Mr. Obama, Americans changed parties, not ideologies. The country is still what the WSJ calls a "center to center-right" nation; they only elected Obama out of disgust at Bush Jr., which had spread even to solid Republicans. (Myself, I'd suggest the word 'center' has little business in a sentence describing American politics...)
Now, one year on, the GOP has turned a blue state Brown. Nobody's suggesting that this represents a shift in the ideology of Massachusetts, that brown is but one step on the way to red. Rather, the fight over Ted Kennedy's former seat is widely viewed as a referendum on Obamacare...and Obama lost. Badly.
The Republicans have vowed to shoot down Obamacare, and short of some very dirty Democrat tricks, they now have the numbers to do it. What boggles this outsider's mind is that it should have ever come to this.

The Obamacare bill is a nightmare. It's been surgically altered so thoroughly that it bears almost no resemblance to the President's original vision...or to anything sane. Indeed, it's quite possibly worse than the status quo, if that's possible. Bay Staters and Americans at large were and are right to be highly skeptical.
That said, the bill is only as grotesque as it is because so many corporations and special interest groups have lobbied their asses off to get it that way. "Sure, we'll accept a government-run health care system, as long as the government doesn't actually run it and there's still every opportunity to make money off people's ill health." Coming at this from the opposite side of the incredibly deep chasm that is the Canada/U.S. border, I note that the American reaction to the prospect of government-run health care perfectly mirrors the Canadian reaction of privately-run health care: horror and disgust. How two peoples separated by only an invisible line can be so completely and diametrically opposed, I have no idea.

It's not terribly hard to forecast where things are going to go from here. Obama is, for all intents and purposes, a lame-duck President barely one year into his term. Barring something miraculous and unforseen, the GOP will regain clear control of at least one branch of government at the midterms, on the road to what Roland Emmerich has already shown us in last year's film: Jindal/Palin 2012.

18 January, 2010

Haiti

Do I care too little, or too much?
Hard to say. When events like the 7.0 earthquake that leveled Haiti occur, I have to admit my first few thoughts are not at all charitable. In fact, they're downright ugly.
Here we go. At least a week of nonstop 24/7 YOU ARE THERE!!! coverage. Interviews with people called "survivors", some of them before the "survivors" are actually out of danger. Constant appeals for help, because the abject poverty these people lived in before wasn't worthy of notice. These people only become deserving of our help when their hovels are crushed. Equally constant reminders of the donations of this and that celebrity. Madonna gave $250,000! Wow! Wow-wee!
It's sickening, I think. And then I think it's sickening that I think that.

But it bothers me. The whole situation and everything about it bothers me. I want to run away from it but it's taken over every newscast, endless pages of newsprint, to the point where it's drowned out every other story. This is, of course, perfectly understandable--it was a natural disaster, after all. Yet Haiti was a man-made disaster for a great many years before that natural disaster struck, and be honest, how often did the thought of Haiti ever cross you mind? I know it was never in mine. I was too busy living my humdrum little life in my humdrum little house that would fit six or seven Haitian families in it.
Everyone's giving. There's a veritable orgy of giving going on, which is heartwarming and all that. Less heartwarming are the people (again, mostly celebrities) that feel the need to broadcast that they're giving and exactly how much they're giving. And I'm not sure what message Madonna the billionaire is trying to convey with her chump change donation, are you?

What's happening in Haiti now? It's descending even further into despair and madness. Riots. Looting. Random gunfire. Tens, hundreds of millions of dollars raised and how much of it is getting through to the people on the ground? And if we (the collective "we", out here in the non-earthquake- shattered world) raised another hundred million dollars by next week, would that get through?

Oh, it's depressing, this Haiti business. It throws our comparative affluence into sharp, sharp relief. Here we are, struggling to climb out of what's referred to as the worst recession since the '30s (and make no mistake, the walls are going to get mighty slippery this year)...and yet we've raised untold sums of money to help people so much worse off than we are. It speaks well of us that we've done this, but it speaks ill of us that it took an earthquake...



Truer Words Were Never Spoken

“’Avatar’ asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the Earth. And if you have to go four and a half light years to another, made-up planet to appreciate this miracle of the world that we have right here, well, you know what, that’s the wonder of cinema right there, that’s the magic"
--James Cameron, at last night's Golden Globes, where he was named Best Director and his film Best Drama

17 January, 2010

Simple Pleasures

I'm a man of simple pleasures: easily amused, easily satisfied. I believe there are a lot of people out there who take the simple things for granted, who no longer notice the little things that elevate the run-of-the-mill day into something joyful. Things like
  • the realization, upon popping awake far too early, that there is still sleep to be slept
  • the first taste of (heavily adulterated) coffee in the morning
  • a long, leisurely hot shower
  • a trip through a newspaper, magazine or blogroll, whereby I learn things and feel connected to the world
  • the comforting feeling of jogging pants on days when I'm not leaving the house. Whoever said jeans were comfortable never donned joggers
  • that first step outside, in most kinds of weather. Cold can feel crisp and clean; warmth like a gentle caress; even rain can feel refreshing.
  • a friendly smile and word of greeting from a colleague
  • the knowledge that, whatever comes up in the course of my workday, I'm competent enough to deal with it
  • Quitting time!
  • The bus ride home, so long as I have a book to immerse myself in
  • The bike ride home, weather permitting, which has too many benefits to list
  • A car trip anywhere. When you don't drive, your appreciation of a car can't be understated
  • The greeting from the Tux and the Peach when they haven't seen me all day. It can be a little trying with the Tux, but they're both so damn happy to see me it's impossible not to smile
  • The taste of just about anything my wife cooks. Her meatloaf is particularly enjoyable
  • The prospect of a hockey game ahead on TV, one which the Leafs might, just might, win
  • The shot of adrenaline I get when the Leafs actually do win
  • The sensation of slipping under freshly laundered sheets and sliding into slumber
My wife told me yesterday she thought there weren't enough "big joys" in my life. Or in hers, for that matter. I disagree: she herself is a big joy, for one thing. For another, our pets spread joy everywhere they go. For a third,, there are an awful lot of little joys that add up. I try to pack as many of those into each day as possible. And so, while I'm rarely smiling so hard my jaw's cracking, I'm almost always content. Even when I'm not, the mere prospect of any one of those little joys approaching is usually enough to take the edge off my discontent.

It's the little things that make a life...

13 January, 2010

Intelligence

“Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much...the wheel, New York, wars and so on...while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man...for precisely the same reason.”
Douglas Adams, THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY

This is one of those quotes that cycles through my head over and over, never quite leaving my mind.
We humans think we're so special. We believe we're at the pinnacle of evolution. With exceptions only we are allowed to set--pets, for example--we believe that animals are mindless instinct machines without sentience, reason or imagination. This disdain extends even unto other classes of humans...Neanderthals, say, still widely dismissed as halfwits, despite having brains larger than ours. There is fairly conclusive evidence that our Neanderthal cousins had language. They used makeup and crafted jewelery, showing symbolic thought just like our own species. It may well be that they were actually smarter than us, but less aggressive.

That almost seems like a contradiction in terms, doesn't it? Smarter...and less aggressive? From the Mixed Martial Arts ring to the boardrooms of the Fortune 500, aggression in one form or another is a prized human trait. Suggest the opposite--that you should, oh, I don't know, turn the other cheek--and you're apt to be nailed to a cross, or something.

To be sure, we share this aggressive tendency with much of the animal kingdom...it's what makes a predator a predator, and we're the biggest predators going. But even the aggression we prize so much is dismissed as mindless when it's an animal exhibiting it.

I find that odd. Well, in truth, I don't...I've seen far too many humans walking around with God-complexes to imagine our species has anything other than a collective God-complex...but I'm distinctly at odds with most of my fellow humans when it comes to recognizing animal intelligence.

Simply put, I believe that many animals are intelligent, and that some of them have human-level intelligence, possibly (probably) even greater than human-level intelligence. Research into this is ongoing, but it keeps turning up startling new bits of information I've long accepted. The above mentioned dolphins, for example, are "cultural" animals with a strong sense of self and the ability to think about the future. This is treated as news, for some reason: anybody who's observed dolphins for any length of time could have told you this.

So now all of a sudden there's a movement to treat dolphins as "non-human persons". We've granted them near-human intelligence--which is okay, because we're doing the granting. But consider: these creatures have senses--echolocation, what looks for all the world like rudimentary telepathy--that humans lack. If we change our measurement of smarts a wee bit, might we not--possibly--come to the conclusion that dolphins are, in fact, even smarter?
Okay, so that's dolphins. We've long recognized that for mere animals, they're pretty brainy. Let's look at something a with a lot less mental star power: a bee.
I never realized how intelligent bees actually are. They have an incredibly well-developed sense of time and distance; they have a sophisticated "language" based on 'dancing' that is highly mathematical. They can find their way through mazes. They somehow have developed a honeycomb structure which our mathematics proves is the most efficient way to pack liquid into a volume of space.
Wikipedia, created by humans, is quick to note that none of these behaviours are indicative of individual intelligence. Perhaps not; but then bees (like many species of insect) are collective: a hive is much smarter than an individual bee, in the same way that a human society is considerably smarter than a single human. (It sure would be nice if more humans understood that.)
Or..take crows. They "make tools, play tricks on each other and caw among kin in a dialect all their own." Does that sound mindless to you? Because it doesn't to me.

Ant cities look very much like human cities, with recycling plants, air exchangers, sewers, and expressways. Ants go to war like humans do--they even have race wars, the reds versus the blacks. Mindless aggression? Certainly not: they make war to gain territory or food resources. They even farm food!
Here's a thought: there are an estimated quadrillion ants living on this planet. There are less than seven billion humans. Now you tell me, which is the dominant species on Earth? Us or them?

Humans may be pretty smart, but given the number of societies we've had that have gone poof! over the millennia, we're also demonstrably really, really stupid. Most of our stupidity can be chalked up, in fact, to this notion that we are the latest and greatest things on the planet, that intelligence is a strictly human trait, and that I'm better than you. In our rush to be separate and thus "better", we routinely ignore the interconnectedness of all living things. Some of our best teachers have been telling us this truth for a great many centuries. Most of the time, we don't take the message all that well. Some of us laugh. Some of us lash out.

Intelligence is universal. Even within human beings, there are many forms of intelligence, which is why I.Q. tests are largely discredited now. I believe--strike that, I know--that animals are intelligent too.

If we want to keep our place as the swingin' dicks of all creation, it might be a good idea to stop acting like the swingin' dicks of all creation. We are not alone.

06 January, 2010

Not So Smart

If you believe the guy who sold us this house, we weren't supposed to even look at it. Its inclusion in the list of houses we toured was "an oversight" for which he was "very sorry".

The regret and dismay sounded sincere, but then much of that experience seemed sincere at the time. It was only in hindsight that we realized we'd been played, a little. Since we were happy with the outcome of the game--this was the only house of the four in the list that felt like 'home' to both of us--we didn't complain. I wouldn't recommend the agent we had to any first-time homebuyer, though. It wasn't that he did anything wrong, exactly...but he didn't do enough right. We were treated cordially, but we never quite lost the impression that we were small fry, just a little amuse-bouche on the way to the million-dollar sale across town.

And we "weren't supposed to" see this house, this house that ended up being home. Despite it being first on the list--and any psychology student will tell you the first (and last) items in any list stick in the mind--the agent seemed upset that his secretary had included it in our package. And why?

Because it had (and has) electric heat.

Electric heat is right up there with swinging corpses in the attic and rats in the walls for attractiveness to the home-buying public, it seems. You've got two choices: freeze to death or go bankrupt. And so this place was significantly below market value (which, I gotta admit, was the first thing that drew my eye). We went through four houses, and predictably enough liked this one most. Well, to be fair, Eva liked one down the street a tad better, on account of it being a bungalow...but I outright hated that place because of its claustrophobic floor plan. This house was a welcome compromise...but for that electric heat.
We came back to look at it again, this time with some sort of comb. I can't say it was a fine-tooth comb on my end: I learned a lot touring a whole whack of houses in my teens with my parents, but not enough for fine teeth. But a comb nevertheless. Eva's dad has built houses from scratch, so she knows more than I do, and she's got powers of observation several orders of magnitude above mine.
The then-current residents of the house had prepared for us. They'd staged this place as well as could be expected, and having evidently been told the electric heat was giving us pause, had produced a year's worth of utility bills. We were quite surprised at how low the electricity bills actually were. At least, I was. Eva had noticed that every personal appliance in the house--everything that prospective buyers presumably wouldn't touch--was unplugged.
The home inspection yielded a damn good reason for that. We were told that the wiring in this place was so substandard that plugging too many things in at once could very easily cause a fire. Of course, fire prevention had the added benefit of lower utility bills.

We had an electrician here the day we moved in, bringing everything up to code, and we've since replaced the cheesecloth windows with the most energy-efficient models we could find. That, and the fact we like it cool in our house, offsets the considerably more...electrified lifestyle we live, as compared to the previous owners. (As far as we could see, they had one TV, and Eva's laptop screen is bigger.)

Now as it turns out, we do pay more for electricity that our FAG neighbours. (FAG: forced air gas, of course. What did you think I meant?) But not a lot more: about twenty or thirty bucks a month, averaged out over the year. Certainly not worth the estimated twelve thousand bucks it would cost to duct this house. And electric heat has some advantages, one big one being the ability to control the heat in each room.

But things are going to get all kinds of interesting in the coming months. Last week, a woman from Waterloo North Hydro was here for about a minute installing a smart meter.
Oh, joy.
This is one of those initiatives that looks great on the surface, and only starts smelling bad if you think about it. It looks great because you can find out how much juice you're using at any given time and you're given what looks like control over your bill.

But this control is almost entirely illusory, unless you're willing to take the draconian steps the previous owners did here, and unplug absolutely everything you're not using. Even then...well, I'll get to that.

We're encouraged to move our electricity use to off-peak hours. Now I don't know about you, but I'm asleep during off-peak hours. And I for one refuse to get up at 1:00 a.m. to do my laundry, cook the next day's supper, and watch TV or surf the Internet.

If you run through the list of electricity hogs on the linked website, you'll note some glaring omissions. They don't mention refrigerators or chest freezers, for example. What are you supposed to do with those, anyway? Unplug 'em during the day and only plug them in at night? I don't think so. Even assuming food safety--a shaky assumption--any savings you'd glean would be pissed away nightly bringing the unit back down to temp. The same goes for our water cooler and to some degree the electric heating.

Air conditioning is on the list, along with the asinine recommendation to keep it pegged at 25 degrees Celsius (77F). At that temperature, you might as well not even have an air conditioner. I apologize to any econazis out there: I'll pay whatever rate you set to ensure myself a decent night's sleep, but don't expect me to be happy about your jacking the price of my decent night's sleep through the roof. (Yes, as noted above, I sleep during off-peak hours. But the room has to get down to something liveable for me to get to sleep...and that's where all the energy use comes in. Maintaining a temperature isn't difficult. Getting to it can be.

We're told on that website that turning a computer and its associated peripherals on and off frequently not only saves money but also reduces wear. Huh? That directly contradicts everything I've ever heard on the matter, not to mention common sense. A computer is most active booting up...that's why it's called booting, as in "pulling itself up by its own bootstraps". If anything's going to fail, it'll probably fail on startup.

In short, we're told to conserve wherever possible, which is a laudable goal, but only so much conservation is feasible, and as for the rest of it, so solly, Cholly. Basically, this "smart meter" nonsense strikes me as an ecologically motivated cash grab and nothing else. Kind of like the Kyoto accord, in a way. We're living by and large normally for the first billing period to set a benchmark: if that benchmark is terrifying, then we'll have to make adjustments to our lifestyle. Like working night shifts and using the snowbank in our back yard for a fridge and freezer.

Not so smart.

Congratulations U.S. Juniors

Wasn't that a hockey game?
The gold medal game last night between Canada and the United States was reminiscent of firewagon hockey from the eighties...end to end rushes, constant momentum shifts, offensive heroics...and shaky goaltending. Sorry to say that Team Canada had more of the latter, but the United States is full measure for that overtime victory. It's only thanks to the increasingly commonplace miracle that is Jordan Eberle that that game even made it to OT.
Down 5-3 with three minutes to go, the Canadians threw the kitchen sink at Jack Campbell. The American 'tender had an answer for everything in that sink, until Eberle popped up out of the drain and willed a goal. Not even two minutes later, he did it again, tieing the match. This is nothing new for Eberle...he scored two goals at critical junctures in the gold-medal game last year (one with just seconds remaining), then potted the shootout winner versus Russia. Edmonton Oilers fans, you're looking at your future captain.

Eberle was by no means the only star on the Canadian roster. The only ingredient missing in this hockey melange--unlike in past years--was top-flight, clutch netminding. Both starting goalies were pulled last night, but the American replacement, Campbell, was a distinct upgrade, and (at least in that game) you couldn't say the same for Jones. Both he and Allen seemed to forget, at times, which Maple Leaf was on their jerseys. (Did I just type that out loud?)

But you really have to credit the Americans, because they played a stellar game. Every skater on that squad has multiple bruises this morning from shot blocks. Their presence in the shooting lanes directly led to a lethal transition game...they have some forwards who can flat-out fly. Neither did the Americans shy away from the rough stuff. In the end, they claimed a much-deserved gold.

Congratulations to them. And to team Canada. And to Saskatoon, which showed what a real hockey crowd looks like.

01 January, 2010

World Prospects for 2010

Go here...and extrapolate. Over two hundred attacks in the final two months of 2009 alone. Islam calls itself the "religion of peace". Orwell would have been proud.
The security restrictions arising from the foiled and failed attack on Christmas Day--which would have rained fire from the sky not terribly far from my hometown, had it succeeded--are still in place, for the nothing they're worth. True to form, we're still trying to prevent previous attacks. (And I'd love to know what good forcing passengers to remain in their seats in the hour before landing is going to accomplish.)
Luckily, our enemy is (so far) proving extraordinarily inept. They've succeeded several times since their one grand gesture in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, but their successes have been comparatively limited. Moreover, a great many of their attacks have been stopped before they could be carried out.
I can't understand why a terrorist hasn't just sauntered into an airport--never mind going anywhere near security--and detonated himself. If you're determined to suicide, it's pretty hard to stop you...Israel, which has extensive experience with suicide bombers, still only manages to prevent two in three.
Or why even bother with an airport? Why not a shopping mall, an amusement park, an office building? If al-Qaeda still had their one genius plotter, they'd undoubtedly have tried this by now. Sadly--from their perspective, of course--that "genius" was aboard one of the airliners on 9/11...which kind of shows he wasn't much of a "genius" at all and that al-Qaeda, as an organization, is spectacularly stupid.

It's about time we stopped pussyfooting around and started collectively understanding that Islam is not a religion of peace. The very word means "submission". While it is true that most Muslims understand 'submission' on a purely personal level, and discount the many overt Koranic scriptures stating otherwise, a depressingly large number take their scriptures literally. It would be nice, a nice start, if the moderates could speak up a little.

I understand why they don't, though. It's because they're Westernized enough to value their own lives. If there's anything a fundamentalist Muslim hates more than an infidel, after all, it's a moderate Muslim.

Incidentally, perhaps 2010 should be the year we stop referring to terrorists as suicide bombers. That's a Western conceit, borne of the sacrosanct idea (to us) that life is worth living. The suicide is, in truth, incidental. Oh, sure, those seventy two virgins supposedly await the martyr, but a successful martyr must take at least one infidel out with him. He therefore is properly referred to as a homicide bomber.

(And what's the deal with 72 virgins, anyway? Even if you're of the mindset that a virgin is eminently desirable...what do you do on the 73rd night of eternity?)

I truly hope this is the year we rout out the Islamic fundamentalists. Only when we do this will the world know some semblance of peace.


AVATAR

See this movie.

I could end right here and be happy with this blog post. I won't, though.

When I first heard AVATAR was coming out--almost a year ago, I think--I must confess my first thought was "Meh". Then I heard it was in 3-D, that was going to usher in a whole new era of 3-D movies and 3-D television and 3-D Internet...and I groaned aloud.
Those who know me know my eyes are pooched. Those who know me well know just how pooched they are. It's not just poor vision, which can be and is largely corrected with glasses; it's poor vision coupled with a lazy left eye coupled with something that has flummoxed opthamologists. I have some kind of weird condition whereby I look at things mostly through one eye or the other depending on their distance from my face. Rarely do I actually see equally through both eyes. You can actually observe the switch if you take, say, a pencil and gradually bring it towards my eyes.
The upshot of this is that anything that forces me to look through both eyes at once--a microscope, a telescope, 3-D glasses--is pretty much useless. Images won't resolve; in the case of the latter, everything not only blurs but takes on a red or green hue. I have thus avoided 3-D movies like the plague, through at least one evolution of 3-D glasses.

As I heard more and more about this movie, my interest was piqued, at first almost in spite of itself. Gradually I took more and more notice of AVATAR-related stuff. A friend of work went to see the movie soon after it was released and came back raving about it. I read a bunch of reviews pro and con, noticed most of the con came from right-wing blowhards, and that was the final tipping point. Anything that pisses off that subset of people is worth seeing, by definition.

Eva and I went to see it today. Part of me is still seeing it now...part of me will still be seeing AVATAR for a while yet, I think. The visual effects--and never mind the 3-D--are nothing short of gobsmacking. I had no trouble whatever with the 3-D glasses provided. Not even a headache, which some people had complained of. Actually, I was beyond impressed with how "gimmicky" the 3-D wasn't. It lent depth to the visuals in a completely appropriate way, never once seeming to escape the screen "just because it could".

I'll deal with the criticisms first by saying yes, this film was directed by James Cameron. This means a few things are, in fact true. One, the acting is pedestrian at best. (Titanic won 11 Oscars, not one of them for acting; none of the leads were even nominated.) Two, the narrative arc is quite predictable. (You knew, going in, that the R.M.S. Titanic was going to sink, right?) And three, there is a political agenda at work here, one Cameron shares with most of Hollywood and the reason the fundycostals detest Hollywood so much: religion is bad, spiritualism is good; Earthlings, standing in here for Americans, are rapacious, greedy, shortsighted and narrowminded, only interested in "power over", not "power with".
As it so happens, I agree wholeheartedly with the prevailing wisdom out of Hollywood (which, by the bye, is ancient, compared with the modern maxim that "greed, for lack of a better word, is good"). I can only hope that with enough repetition, that wisdom might catch on. Is Cameron preachy? Oh, you bet: his expeditionary force commander is a Cheney-esque caricature, completely over the top, only interested in subjugating or murdering. It'd be laughable if there hadn't been such creatures as Cheney and Rumsfeld and Bush, oh my. That unholy triumvirate would look right at home strutting around Pandora.

Minor quibble: the Na'vi are way too humanoid to be credible aliens. I would have been even more impressed with Cameron if he had stopped to think for a second: most of the critters on this planet don't resemble us at all, so why would a sentient alien?
My mind kept trying to yammer up things like this and the sheer power of Pandora's landscapes subdued it utterly. So, eventually, did the narrative, which for all its predictability is undeniably powerful. There are fewer clunkers in the script than in previous Cameron blockbusters (again, Titanic: Jack Dawson, on finding out the ship has struck an iceberg, turns to Rose and says, and I quote, "this is bad".) And the acting performances, while not standing out, are at least believable and compelling within the context of the story.
The environment on Pandora come alive in a way I'd suggest has never been equaled in cinema. Some shots rival anything my head can come up with, and I've got to say I have a powerful imagination. But what makes AVATAR such a treat is that Cameron doesn't just feed you endless scenery: he invents a people living in total harmony with their exotic environment, and gives them a culture, a mythology. Scads of backstory are hinted at between mesmerizing action scenes.
There are very few dead spots in this movie. The 162 minutes go by in an eyeblink, or at least they did for me. I was, in fact, sorely disappointed when the film ended and left me back in my own body.

Two sequels are planned, and I look forward to both. Eagerly.