28 July, 2010

Short, Not Sweet

Couple of politi-points today, both of which are depressing, I'm sorry to say.

1) John Tory, the man who ran for mayor of Toronto and lost, then ran for Premier of Ontario and lost again, is now being told to get his ass into the Toronto mayoralty race because a poll says he'd win.

I'm not sure who comes off worse, here. The other candidates, in that somebody without a place in the election or any sort of platform would handily beat them all? Or the voters in Toronto, for being willing to vote for somebody without the benefit of a place or platform?

I gotta admit, I'm hopin' for Rob Ford, if only to watch four years of endless histrionics. Here's a guy who once had the unmitigated gall to spend $4.32 of his allotted $53,000 office budget one year...and apologize for it, on account of having spent $4.32 less than that the previous three years combined. Put a man like that in charge of the circus that is Toronto council and watch the fur fly.

2) The IGNORANCE and RANK STUPIDITY of our Federal Government knows no bounds. Stockwell Day, yesterday:

“Do you think it is right that you can threaten your neighbour with jail time if she doesn’t tell you if she has mental issues or not?” he wrote. “Or who does what chores in the house? Or whether she is a Jew or not? Don't you find that one even a little bit chilling?”

What I find chilling is that anybody, let alone somebody in the government, would impugn Statistics Canada in this disgusting manner. No wonder Munir Sheik quit. I would have, too. Sadly, that resignation meant nothing to Harper and his crowd of mouth-breathing hicks. Indeed, it probably emboldened them: after all, there's little doubt the public face of StatsCan has been weakened.

Sigh. To think I once considered joining the Conservatives. I'm more likely to join the Liberals at this point, Ignatieff notwithstanding.

26 July, 2010

Harper's Hidden Agenda, REVEALED!

"You won't recognize Canada when I get through with it."
--Stephen Harper, as quoted in an old Liberal attack ad


Remember, way, way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth with Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper was up for election the first time? Remember the fearmongering employed by first the Chretien, then the Martin Liberals...which worked the first time and would have worked again had the Libs not been engaged in a wee bit of scandal-mongering themselves. We were told over and over and over again that Harper had a "hidden agenda": give him power, and he'd use it to destroy the country.
This line of reasoning really bothered me, at the time. It seemed so...American. Characterize your political adversary as a monster, just because you don't agree on matters of policy? Pathetic.

Pity they were right: Harper really did, and does, mean to destroy the country. As thoroughly as possible. But don't worry, Canadians: what he destroys, he can rebuild.

Michael Valpy, in today's Globe and Mail, quotes Tom Flanagan--the man who largely facilitated our PM's rise to power--as saying

If you control the government, you choose judges, appoint the senior civil service, fund or de-fund advocacy groups, and do many other things that gradually influence the climate of opinion".

That's Harper's agenda in six words: gradually influence the climate of opinion. Winning elections is only a means to that end.

This is startling...almost revolutionary. Conventional cynical wisdom suggests politicians are only in it to gain and cling to power. In Harper's case, that's not true. His goals are more far-reaching. He means to turn the country Conservative.
Check the polls: he's done a masterful job of doing it. Oh, he's had plenty of help, primarily from one Michael Ignatieff, the Opposition Leader who is neither. But despite--dare I say because of?--all the screaming in the media after every fresh outrage, Harper's managed to maintain his popularity. Do we want to be a Conservative country? Have I misread Canadian values all these years?

I'd laugh, if this were at all funny: Valpy also quotes Preston Manning as saying that conservatives are "against the ideology of 'social engineering'". Really? What else would you call gradually influenc[ing] the climate of opinion"?

23 July, 2010

"Caught In The Crowd"

I love iTunes.
My best friend has shown me three times now how to use the torrents, and he looks at me askance because I let his instructions trickle in one ear and torrent out the other.
I'm not absolutely averse to piracy. I joyfully accepted a copy of "The Terrible Teague Bunch" by Gary Jennings from this same friend even though I know he got that from a torrent. I know this, and accepted it, because he couldn't very well have got the novel any other way without incurring considerable expense...it's been out of print for decades. So torrents have their uses.
But the vast majority of my music comes through iTunes. I don't think 99 cents is too much to pay, if I like the song.
Every week iTunes selects one track by an up-and-coming artist and gives it away. I've dutifully previewed each track for the last year and a half and doo-doo-fully refused to download it. There's a whole hell of a lot of so-called "music" out there that's not worth the nothing I'd have to pay for it.

But this week...




I don't mind admitting I cried the first time I heard Kate Miller-Heidke sing this. I've probably listened to it twenty times since Tuesday and I still get chills.
You may as well call me James: I was bullied and ostracized through a goodly chunk of my elementary and secondary education. I've been tossed into lockers, kicked in the jewels, and subjected to seemingly endless verbal taunts that were somehow worse. You remember that saying, "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?" Probably the most vicious lie adults ever tell children, that one. It rang doubly untrue to a kid like me, who lived his life (when he wasn't having his face re-arranged) buried in a bottomless pit of...words. The books I devoured as a child and pre-teen served as an escape hatch to a world where I wasn't a "spaz", a "quad", a "geek" or a "nerd". I had no friends? The hell I didn't! I was good friends with Frank and Joe Hardy, Meg and Charles Wallace and Cal, and a bunch more besides! Later, there was Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and Jem and Scout and Boo Radley, and Gene and Finny, and about two hundred other people who were no less real just because they were made out of words.

But none of this combined with Miller-Heidke's sweet and wistful vocal to produce tears on my face. You see, I was a bully myself.

Oh, not in the same way and at the same time, of course. Victims can never be bullies simultaneously: they'd have no credibility. But in my lifetime, I've hurt people, some of them probably worse than any schoolyard Hun ever hurt me. Words were my weapons of choice and necessity, and I occasionally derived a great pleasure in wielding them so as to inflict maximum damage.

And some of the people I've hurt had thought they could call me 'friend'.

A guy who lived on the outside of every inside there ever was would make a point of treating other people properly, right? No. There is instead a terrible urge to dole out some of what you've been taking. It can even manifest itself years later, once you've gone "inside" and--ha--"grown up". If somebody, even unwittingly, makes you feel like a child again...a poor, pitiful, picked-on child...you can lash out. You can elevate a little dig into a major ambuscade. And the little kid who still lives inside you will caper with glee and shout "see how it feels?"

I think I've outgrown all this now, at the unforgivable age of 38. I think. I really try to let empathy affect everything I say and do. But it's way too late for the folks I've let down. Empathy is rarely accepted after the fact.

That didn't stop Kate, though, and it won't stop me from echoing her words:

If I could go back, do it again
I'd be someone you could call friend
Please, please believe I'm sorry...



18 July, 2010

Taking Leave of Our Census

Last year my wife got me a subscription to The Globe and Mail, which bills itself as "Canada's National Newspaper". After a couple of weeks of this, I was well and truly pissed off...at myself, for not having thought to secure a subscription twenty or even ten years ago. It's a great paper, in that I can kill half an hour or 45 minutes even with a comparatively paltry weekday edition. The Saturday paper is a veritable goldmine nearly every week. Their only flaw is a common one: no Sunday edition.
Eva and I quickly evolved a routine built around the back page of the Life section. Known as "Facts And Arguments", it's practically built for shower reading. As in, I read it to her during her morning ablutions. She could probably read it in the shower herself--she reads books in there all the time, and how is a family secret I'm forbidden to divulge--but I enjoy reading aloud to her.
Facts and Arguments runs Monday to Friday. It's comprised of "The Essay", which runs towards the personal and is often laugh-out-loud funny and just as often a tear-inducing sobfest. On the right of the page runs an obituary called "Lives Lived" that celebrates the celebrity of the common man and woman. And at the bottom we have "Social Studies", a collection of quick notes on any topic at all, although they usually have something to do with science in its broadest definition.

This past week, a snippet from Social Studies got me to musing on our current Conservative government--which still refers to itself as "New" in selected publications, even though it has long since gone stale, for me, at least:

“Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information,” Joe Keohane writes for The Boston Globe. “It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”

If it's human nature to reinforce one's prejudices in the face of contrary facts, that's yet another proof in a long line of 'em that I ain't human.

Stephen Harper, regrettably, is all too human. In fact, he takes this tendency and elevates it to a philosophy: Facts? We doan need no steekin' facts. "Facts", you see, are the eminent domain of egghead academics who undoubtedly visit Starbucks and therefore exist apart from Stephen Harper's Tim Horton's reality. The more prominent the egghead, the greater the Conservative urge to dismiss him or her as "elitist".

Harper is out to make "elitist" a Bad, Bad Word in Canadian politics. This is, of course, the very strategy that American Republicans used to phenomenal effect during the reign of Bush the Younger. Especially the first four years. John Kerry was so blatantly a member of the elite that he was unelectable before the '06 campaign even began.
Michael Ignatieff strikes me as very much a Canadian John Kerry. Too smart for the room; less charisma than a slice of toast. Harper has no doubt grasped the similarity as well. Our Prime Minister is a lot of things; "stupid" isn't one of them.

Although I fell out of love with the classroom before it could equip me with even the lowest form of egghead credential, I maintain a profound respect for those whom Harper would contemptuously brand as elitist. That's not meant as a slight towards anyone: I know several people who left formal education much, much earlier than I did, and I count two of them as among the smartest folks I know. But the outright vilification of smart people and their facts really bothers me.

This attitude, of course, what's behind the recent government decision to make the long-form census voluntary. Previously, all Canadians received a short-form census (in 2006, it consisted of just eight questions) and one in five got the long form as well--53 questions in 2006. Census completion was required by law; penalties for non-completion involved fines and (at least theoretical) jail time...and completion.
Complaints about this were few and far between. The privacy commissioner cited three complaints over almost fifteen years. Inconvenient fact: ignore it. Assume that every Conservative voter does a slow burn every time the government requires him to submit information. Make the long-form census voluntary, but to compensate, send it out to one in three instead of one in five. Any statistician will tell you why that's not a viable course of action...using inconvenient facts that will only be ignored. Trust me: when Harper's blind to entreaties from both the business and faith communities, his mind is made up.

And why? What makes the census such a juicy target for Conservatives? Contrary to Minister Clement's blatherings, it has nothing to do with issues of privacy. It has everything to do with suppression of information.
They can't just kill the long-form census. That would provoke too much outrage, and Harper is a connoisseur of outrage. He has an instinctive grasp of just how far he can push any envelope.

What information is to be suppressed? I can't say for certain. But look at the contents of the 2006 long form census (pdf) and draw your own conclusions.

I can't help but notice a bunch of questions about disabilities. Without solid information, might the government conclude it's safe to cut aid to disabled people? Hmm. Or then there's the large section on joblessness. With world economies hanging on an increasingly frayed string, can the government manipulate the data to suggest our economy is much better off than it actually is? Possible, possible.

The truth is, I have no idea why Harper's seen fit to de-legitimize the long form census. You'll never get the real reason(s) out of him, either. But for me, it all boils down to competing source of information. It's well known that Harper controls all the information coming out of the PMO. Perhaps he just resents that there's a government agency that can spew those gol-durned "facts" that are contrary to his ideology.

Damned elitists.


10 July, 2010

Recovering

Before last night, I'd been getting 3.5 to maybe 4 hours of sleep each night since Monday. I've wondered before how you people manage on next to no sleep. Now I know. I think I handled it remarkably well, all things considered...my brain didn't get any sludgier than usual until yesterday around 5 p.m. At around that time I began to shut down. By 7:45 I was in bed, and I slept (almost) all the way through until 5:15 this morning. I feel somewhat human.

It has been hellishly hot. The humidex hit 46 degrees for the first time in twenty three years. That's 114.8 Fahrenheit. (Incidentally, Blogger's spellcheck flags 'humidex' just like it flags 'colour' and 'labour'...I know better than to think you Yanks don't have humidity in your country...what do you call the reading that tells you what it actually feels like, as opposed to the base temperature?)
As I've said before, I don't care overmuch how hot it gets during the day, but I care very much how hot it stays at night. One morning--I think it was Thursday--I woke up to a humidex of 35. That's not normal. There's a reason 20C/68F is called "room" temperature...

My best friend from San Diego came to visit on Wednesday...and he complained about the heat almost as much as I did. I was surprised to learn that southern California isn't anywhere near this warm. Then again, he's right on the coast: there wouldn't be much humidity, and he'd get a nice cooling ocean breeze. No such thing here. Not even at night.

But Ken, you have an air conditioner in your bedroom!

Yep. And a ceiling fan, and two fans at the base of the bed.

WTF?

The A/C's an ancient floor model that's not designed to deal with a humidex in the 40s. It took the humidity out of the room and maybe dropped the temp a degree or two, but that's it. The fans--

With the A/C on, the window is, of necessity, shut up tight...which means the Honeywell Twindow fan is out of commission. We've got three fans in the room, four if you count the A/C itself? That Twindow's worth about seven of any other fan. Assuming, of course, it's not sucking in superheated air.
I hate to sound like (ha-ha) a fanboy, but I heartily endorse this thing. We bought a cheap imitation model for the kitchen--"Hampton Bay", I think it's called--and the best I can say is it's a cheap imitation.



We've had the Honeywell for five years. It's been on minimum ten hours a day for probably 300+ days a year in each of those five years. (If the nighttime temp is between +20 and -20 (68 and about -3F), that fan's going full bore.) That's probably two decades of normal use. It was therefore not much of a shock to discover this morning that one of the fans has conked out. Hopefully, we can find the Twindow's twin tomorrow.

Eva and I have very similar climactic tastes. We'd both be right at home in Antarctica. Only twice, in my recollection, have I ever complained about the cold in our bedroom--at a rough guess, it was maybe 10 degrees each time--and not for long. I don't think I've ever heard my wife complain about the cold, inside or out, as long as I've known her. There are few better sensations than being toasty warm under a mountain of covers in a frigid bedroom.

When money permits, we'll be getting this:



Behold, the Dyson Air Multiplier, the world's first bladeless fan. I'm already a huge fan of Dyson vacuum cleaners....you pay a premium price, to be sure, but you get a premium product. Give me one of these and my trusty Twindow and I'll never frolic in a pool of my own sweat again.

03 July, 2010

Henny Heersink, October 28, 1925-June 30, 2010

"Crispy critters, then you're done", Eva's mom said as we escaped at the conclusion of an overlong, overwrought funeral service for her mother. "You won't get none of this crap. Crispy critters, then you're done."
The directness of this statement should have shocked me. It didn't. In fact, I could have sworn I'd heard Grandma Heersink's thick Dutch accent a few minutes earlier, as the preacher droned on. Just as he started repeating a verse for the fifth time, I'm positive I heard: "Youst cut the crap!"

The eulogists got that right: Hendrika Heersink spoke her mind, whatever was on it. Before our marriage, Grandma Heersink took her granddaughter aside and asked her if she had "tried [me] out". I was flabbergasted at the time; eleven years later I'm only surprised she didn't blurt that question out in my presence.

The people who unfailingly speak their minds can be divided into those who love to hear themselves talk and those who are worth listening to. Grandma Heersink was worth listening to. A child of the Depression, she had seen hardship up close and personal: like many of her generation, she was loath to waste anything if it could be restored and put to use. She was relentlessly practical, but harboured a deep and abiding sentiment if the topic turned to children, birds, or (most especially) her husband John.

John Heersink died four and a half years ago. When he did, it was widely speculated Henny would follow him within months, if not weeks. There was nothing morbid in this speculation: rather, it was a testament to the strength of the love that had sustained their marriage for sixty years. Indeed, Grandma Heersink's health began a slow and inexorable decline the day her husband passed away. Yet she soldiered on, exhibiting a strength that, along with her outspokenness, has echoed down the generations: every woman in that family is a tower of strength.
It takes strength to emigrate from Holland to Canada, as Henny did in 1958 with six young children in tow and not knowing a word of English.It takes strength to babysit toddlers into your eighties--moving, when you have to, just as fast as they do. It takes a great deal of strength at that age to live fully independently.

Grandma Heersink made Eva's wedding dress (and several others over the years). She made a cheesecake the chief ingredient of which had to be some species of magic. She would scavenge old furniture and restore it to better than new, then give it to her friends and family. What I mean to say is that Grandma Heersink lived life to the full and set a shining example to everyone she met. Even in her death, she brought people together who had been drifting apart.

Her funeral was, alas, a disappointment. It was explicitly, at times painfully Christian, which would have been fine if Henny herself was. After the service, I asked my mother-in-law if her mother had been at all religious...eliciting at least three snorts from people around us. Again I flashed back on the strident voice I'd heard midway through: "Youst cut the crap!" It's that voice I will remember. That voice that--and you can laugh if you want to--reinforces my already held belief that there is, in fact, something beyond. Now that Grandma's there, I can picture her, finally in the company of her beloved husband. Tomorrow they'll have God over for the ever-traditional Sunday supper of soup and sandwiches, and let me tell you this: God better watch what He says.