31 December, 2010

Year-End, Part II

2010 will go down in history as the year we put the blinders on.

Blinders, of course, come standard with human beings. It's as if they're attached in utero, sometime around the beginning of the third trimester, just after fetal humans can open their eyes and follow a light. Donning blinders allows us, as a species, to invoke "pretendsies", to make things didn't happen. It's childish behaviour, but hey! we're by and large a childish species.

One of the things we made didn't happen was the oil spill in the Gulf. Remember that? The media screamed of nothing else for a couple of months. The initial rate of spillage doubled, trebled, then quadrupled. Eventually the well was killed. Gotta love the terminology there: the bad guy's dead! Everything's fine!
...except not really. Up to 75% of the spill remains in the Gulf environment. The U.S. government has been very precise in its terms, leading the chief scientist for Defenders of Wildlife to say "Terms such as 'dispersed,' 'dissolved' and 'residual' do not mean gone. That's comparable to saying the sugar dissolved in my coffee is no longer there because I can't see it. By [NOAA] Director Lubchenco's own acknowledgment, the oil which is out of sight is not benign. Whether buried under beaches or settling on the ocean floor, residues from the spill will remain toxic for decades."

What else dispersed and dissolved in 2010? The recession...at least if you believe the Wall Street Pollyannas, whose stock markets have largely recovered to pre-2008 levels. Strangely, unemployment levels remain high, particularly in the U.S. Cynics would suggest these two situations are somehow related. I'm not cynical. Naw, not me.

Blinders. Nothing else explains why Stephen Harper maintains his popularity, even as Barack Obama struggles to keep his; why sexual assault is suddenly legal, but only in airports; or why there remain folks who feel the best way to cure the world of its dependence on cheap credit is...to offer lots more cheap credit.

Or riddle me this. We've been told ever since 9/11 to look out for suspicious behaviour, and to shout out when we see it. Yeah. Worked out pretty well for Pte. Bradley Manning, didn't it?

I'm not going to make predictions for 2011--I'm no visionary, and my crystal ball is on the fritz. I will say this. There's comfort in blinders: I can certainly understand and appreciate their ubiquity. I, however, am getting new glasses...

Happy New Year, one and all.

29 December, 2010

Year-End, Part I

To say that personally, 2010 was a good year for us would be to understate things a tad. When this year dawned, my wife was stuck in a thankless job, hated by her boss for no reason she was ever made privy to. Fast-forward twelve months and she finds herself working in a much more convivial atmosphere. A place where she is appreciated. A place where a "fun day" is scheduled every month, complete with games and prizes.
At Hallowe'en, there was a contest to produce the grossest gourmet set-piece. The previous year's winner was a kitty litter cake. Eva went all-out on this contest, producing two dishes. The first was an ear fashioned out of clay, complete with long painted ear hairs. The judges had to take marshmallow "Q-Tips" and dip them in the ear, coating them in caramel "wax" (complete with Skor-bit chunks)...and that wasn't the worst of it. The other dish, the one that had me ready to puke my guts, was this inspired monstrosity:



Pita "baby wipes" were provided...

Needless to say, Eva won. The judges almost refused to sample her dishes.

It's not all fun and games there: less than six months after hire, Eva is the go-to person on an exceptionally large project. I'm intensely proud of her...and not at all surprised. Ten years of marriage to this remarkable woman has made it very difficult to feel surprised at her achievements.

Ten years of marriage. We celebrated our tenth anniversary in grand style, at Disney's Old Key West Resort. That was only ten weeks ago...hard to believe. We booked the trip in February, thus ensuring each month between then and October would take a year to pass. Oddly, the weeks since seem to have taken just as long.
Disney was far and away the best trip of my life (not that there have been many). I'd dearly love to go back--there's enough to see and do on Disney property to keep two adults busy for at least a month--but then again, there's a whole world out there, and I'd like to see a lot of it.

Eva's anniversary present was a white sapphire ring...

...and mine was this Mac Mini. I think she's at least as happy with her gift as I am with mine, which is to say: very.

The lid on our home was replaced, and we sprouted a deck. We had been batting around the notion of moving--this house was chosen to suit a life we weren't meant to live--but that deck has forestalled things, adding a whole dimension to the place.

At my work, things are chugging along. We finally have a date for renovations that have been put off no fewer than five times already...hopefully this date will stick. I have to say I am not looking forward to the renovation process one bit: I've heard entirely too many horror stories from too many people who have already gone through it. Hopefully I come out the other side relatively unscathed.

For me, one of the biggest highlights of this past year was the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, the place where Canada both grew up as a sporting nation and got a chance to engage in totally uncharacteristic braggadocio. The remarkable national sense of bonding those Games achieved
lingers still.

Song of the Year: Wavin' Flag, K'naan. Although the original was recorded two years ago, in 2010 this song was everywhere. It was used as a rallying cry after the Haiti earthquake; a considerably lightened version was chosen to be the anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa (the omnipresent vuvuzelas at which threatened to drown K'naan, and the rest of the world, out).

Book of the Year: Luftslottet som sprängdes ("The Castle In The Air That Blew Up")--otherwise known as The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, by Julian Assange. Okay, well, it might as well have been. Stieg Larsson's third Lisbeth Salander novel dominated bestseller lists: its protagonist, were she real, would undoubtedly be working right now, behind the scenes, for WikiLeaks.

Which is the perfect segue into the next post, coming Friday, about the world in 2010. That, sadly, isn't near as rosy a picture...

27 December, 2010

The Hollow Days

The Aztec solar calendar had eighteen months of twenty days each, plus five nemontemi--"hollow days" --at year's end. The nemontemi were nameless, unlucky days on which nothing of consequence was done or attempted. Rituals both ceremonial and quotidian were suspended. Fasting and abstinence were strongly encouraged. Children unlucky enough to be born in the hollow days were often killed outright: better that, it was thought, then let them live a life clearly cursed.
I've often thought of the week between Christmas and New Year's as the modern nemontemi. The luck or lack of it notwithstanding, there's no denying these are hollow, useless days. Many people take the week off work, to the point where offices are either shut or might as well be. And while the electronic stores are packed, in grocery, it's the slowest week of the year.

It's also far and away my favourite week. Especially in years like this one.

Boxing Day, you see, fell on a Sunday this year. Which means I am not only getting paid for a day off, I also get a day off in lieu. The upshot this year is two consecutive weekends off, one of which is three days long. AND I still get my customary Wednesday off! I like my job, but let's face it, not working beats working any day of the week.

This is the week in which we wrap the old year in a big ball, pausing every now and again to examine some aspect, troubling or triumphant...and then we drop the ball off a tall building in New York City. The new year springs forth from the dying cocoon of the old, bringing with it new possibilities and perils.
Until that moment, everything seems to be in stasis. This is an introspective week, a week for deep thoughts. Anticipation gathers, foglike, in the air, only hardening into conviction come January.

2010 has been beyond a doubt the most eventful and just plain great year of my life so far. Over the next four days I'll kick the year-ball around and examine its spots. In the meantime, happy hollow-days.

25 December, 2010

So This Is Christmas

and what have I done?

Went to to the inlaws' place for Christmas slunch today (hey, if "brunch" is between breakfast and lunch...) We helped a woman from Eva's work get to her aunt and uncle's place for Christmas, which felt good. And we listened to Stuart McLean's Christmas stories all the way...a holiday tradition that still makes me chuckle and which had our riding companion periodically in tears from laughter.
Christmas dinner--slunch--was unexpectedly amazing. Not that it's ever been bad before, but...well, I can't remember the last time I had turnip. I usually turnip my nose at it, because...like you need a reason? TURNIP! BLECH! I took some this afternoon to be polite, and...hey, not bad. Also not bad was the broccoli and cauliflower drenched in cheese sauce made predominantly of Cheez Whiz. Those are three things I generally can't stand. I sat for them today, and liked them. Go figure.
Lots of gifts given and received. I loved everything I got, but must reserve special praise for the weather station--something I've wanted for years. "Now," I said to the room at large, "my house is complete." I was only half-joking. Add a grandfather clock and I'm pretty much set.

I don't even know what it is about a weather station. This one's a nice wooden model with thermometer and barometer, and I can get a great deal more weather info off my computer dashboard or by turning the television to channel 505. But then, I can tell the time off any of the umpty dozen digital clocks we have liberally scattered hither and yon around here, and yet I'm a sucker for interesting analogue clocks, the more interesting the better.

Jim and Ally, it was great to see you both. I know you're in for a good 2011.

Family. Just part of what Christmas is all about...

Merry Christmas, one and all.

19 December, 2010

Pre-Christmas Cheer

It's like this every year. Christmas is less than a week away and it sure don't feel like it.

"Peace on Earth"--not at the grocery store, there isn't. "Hell on Earth" is a closer approximation.

It used to be busier. Hard to convince myself of that, but numbers don't lie: five years ago, before everybody and his hairdresser started selling groceries on the side, it was considerably busier than it is now. Customer attitude seems to deteriorate every year, though, and that's what really puts the stress into your day.

It didn't help that they put Turtles on the front page. Nestle Turtles, the 200g size, for $1.97. We booked fourteen skids. For reasons never explained--probably because they're inexplicable--we got one. One skid.
We could have sold all fourteen skids on Friday, the day the ad broke. You can imagine how long one skid lasted. And is there any more forthcoming? We're trying, but frankly, I doubt it.

This--surprise, surprise--was not welcome news for many customers. At one location in our fair city, a gentleman expressed his displeasure by kicking the front door of the store off its track. Nobody has threatened that kind of reaction in our store. So far.

As a person on the receiving end of vitriol, you're really torn when things like this happen. Part of commiserates as best you can. It's always good practice to agree with an IRAAC--an Irate, Rude And Angry Customer--as a disarming tactic. "Yes, I understand how frustrating this is for you." Believe me, I do. "Yes, I understand you came here specifically to buy 48 boxes of Turtles." By now we could have sold 48,000 of the damn things, buddy, so you tell me who's really more upset they're not here. "I agree, this is completely unacceptable." Somebody should lose their job over this, you're right. Nobody here, though...we ordered them, after all.

And part of you--a part you keep locked up, if you know what's good for you--is all the while thinking things like they're fucking chocolates, buddy. You're acting like they're crisp new $1000 bills. Get a life.

"I'd really like to help you out. Which way did you come in?"

"You never have anything I need!" Proclaimed by someone who invariably has half a cart full of groceries. My standard response to this--I've used it several times--is to smile sweetly and exceedingly politely offer to return all the items in their cart. "You know, since you don't need them." One of these days somebody's going to kick my door off its track, but it's worth it just to watch the sputter.

Work life could be worse. I could work in the produce department. Yesterday, we received 800 cases of produce we didn't order and don't have room for. This happens, from time to time: the warehouse is overloaded with product that the stores aren't buying (on account of their customers aren't buying it) and so, periodically, it's time to pass the buck "encourage supplemental sales opportunities". Good thing we have a hollow shell of a building next door, or we'd be putting bins of produce in the parking lot.

Pardon the vent, but this last week has been gruelling. I'm sore all over, with cuts on each finger of my right hand. The time has come--after nearly a decade--to start wearing gloves at work, like a normal person. I rarely do, because I find I can't grip anything with them on. My hands are used to temperature extremes...a Ken-shower is typically about 50C (122F) and my frozen bunkers are -27C (-16F) and I'm comfortable in both (especially the shower, mind you). My co-workers look at me like I'm some kind of freak, but really, gloves are yet another thing I'd continually be misplacing, like my box-cutter, my pen, and damn near anything else I can possibly misplace.
No matter, though. What with all the cardboard boxes I continually root around in, I get nasty paper cuts, often right around the nail. It'd probably be worth pudgy, unfeeling fingers and a case of the dropsies if I could just stop cutting myself already.

Outside of work, it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Last weekend, we met my dad and Heather, and aunt Dawna and Barry, for lunch. Our Christmas get-togethers are always too short, this one very much so, but it was wonderful to see everyone. My boss held a gathering at his home that night...a perfectly lovely affair, with excellent catered food and warm hospitality. And we've spent some time with two sets of friends, in whose company I really do feel I can relax.

Eva is the primary shopper in this house, a fact for which I am eternally grateful. My Christmas shopping skills are negligible. I go out with the best of intentions, only to find...well, nothing, really. The stuff I really want to buy is either out of stock or waaaay out of my budget. And by that I don't mean "this person's only getting a gift worth $10 because, hey, I'm cheap and besides, I don't really like him anyway." I mean "damnit, that's the perfect gift and he's worth the $500 it costs....let me check the money tree...argh, no fruit yet."

I still have some shopping to do, just for my love. We're only doing stockings this year, which is perfectly fine by me every year, but especially this one. What with a deck, a Disney trip, a new computer and a ring for Eva, we've had several Christmases already. Really, Christmas isn't about gifts anymore for me--either giving or receiving. It's nice to get and even nicer to give, of course, but for me, now, the best thing about Christmas is the atmosphere. The cheer. The long winter's nap after it's over.

Into the homestretch we go, faster than a skid of Turtles.


15 December, 2010

Musical obsession

It all started with Alkan.

Actually, it started with one of my occasional, peripatetic Internet crawls. The term was something like "hardest piano piece" . I'm always on the lookout for music that makes my jaw drop. Doesn't matter the instrument. I mean, you may hate the pan flute, but this is insane:




Google led me down the YouTube into a world of wonder. Mind you, the first video I viewed was a female pianist, claimed to be the world's fastest, absolutely butchering the piece she was playing...breakneck speed, yes, accuracy...not so much. One particular comment suggested anyone wanting to play something really challenging, and prestissimo, should check out Alkan's Scherzo diabolico. Well, didn't that title bear further investigation.




What impressed me wasn't just the formidable technique, but the musicality. This piece is beautiful. I'd never heard of Charles-Valentin Alkan before--to this day, few have, even though he was one of the greatest piano virtuosos of his age, with an ability that humbled his more famous friends Chopin and Liszt. Fame didn't so much elude Alkan as Alkan eluded fame. He was reclusive, particularly in his latter years, and didn't perform much. Today, his music is championed by Marc-Andre Hamelin, a pianist-slash-freak of nature who performs ivory impossibilities with an insouciance that leaves the listener honestly confused.

If you can read music, read this, and weep.



I've been playing piano since I was three. I got to Grade VI in lessons before I dropped out in free-spirited disgrace. If I had stayed in lessons for another, oh, roughly 428 years, I might have attempted a piece like this. To me, this is piano's Mount Everest.

So I bought me some Alkan off iTunes and set out to tell the few friends I have who might appreciate (ugh) piano music about Alkan and Hamelin. My best friend took that ball and ran with it. He came back a couple days later with an email saying, in effect, "you think Alkan's good? Check out Kapustin."

I have to admit, it ticked me off a little. Like, hey, my unknown composer eats your unknown composer for breakfast. I held off investigating this Kapustin upstart for almost a week out of some ridiculous species of spite. Jay emailed me a few times in that week, saying this Kapustin was the best thing since sliced or whole bread and he was going to buy a CD.
That got my attention. Jason, buy? As in, spend money on? Music? The guy torrents so much he might as well run a whitewater rafting company.

A week later, and here's the state of things. I have 989 songs on my iPod. Twenty three are composed by Charles-Valentin Alkan. Nearly 200 of them are by Nikolai Kapustin.

Kapustin is Russian, but you'd never know it from his music. The best way to describe it is jazz done in classical form: preludes and fugues, concertos, sonatas, and so on. Now, I am not a fan of jazz. I can appreciate the musicianship, and there are a few standards I like, but improvised free-flow jazz is just not my thing. I like my music with structure. I like recurring themes my mind can latch on to. Most of all, I like to visualize what I'm hearing, by studying the score. Jazz doesn't usually have scores--too restrictive.
Kapustin's 'jazz' does.

It's been a week now and I've listened to nothing but Kapustin, and the damnedest thing is I can't even tell you why. If you'd told me a month ago that I'd be jazzing out to this stuff, I'd have said you were nuts. But I find the music supremely relaxing--even the lightning quick stuff--and conducive to deep thinking. I'm amazed that he manages to capture every jazzy detail in meticulous notation.
This happened to be the first piece of his I heard, also performed by Marc-Andre Hamelin:



Hamelin takes this too fast, in my opinion. The musicality is almost lost. It works better about four metronome ticks slower. The more I listen to Hamelin, the more I'm in total awe of his technique, but I also think he occasionally speeds things up just because he can.

Perhaps most surprising? I'm now officially a pirate.

I'd happily buy this music...if I could. Most of it is available one of three ways: off YouTube via one of the video-to-mp3 sites; off a torrent; or by going to Russia and travelling back in time twenty years or so. The vast majority of Kapustin's work, especially his orchestral work, has not been released outside the Soviet Union. Like Alkan before him, the man shuns fame.

I've mostly figured out how to download/extract and import. I'm still having trouble with track names occasionally going missing or coming out totally scrambled. I'm kind of anal about having the right names for the pieces in my library. It's necessitated a lot of YouTubing.

I figure it'll be about a year before this obsession passes...


12 December, 2010

Julian Assange, Citizen of the Internet


Sarah Palin suggests that Julian Assange should be "hunted down like Osama bin Laden". I'm all in favour of this. They've done such a good job killing bin Laden, after all.

Others, a great many others, have called Julian Assange a traitor to the United States of America, forgetting that he is not a citizen of the United States of America and owes it no allegiance. The "traitor" label better fits Pfc. Bradley Manning, who actually stole his government's diplomatic cables and 'leaked' them, so to speak, to Assange. That is, of course, if you believe such actions to be traitorous. Many don't. Many, in fact, view them as heroic.

WikiLeaks is nothing less than the next evolution of society staring us in the face. Most of us have seen this evolution taking place over the past six years, if not in our personal lives, then in the lives of those younger than us. Like all evolutions, this one is disconcerting to the old guard. In this case, it's particularly frightening since it seems to be embracing a set of values that is in every way inimical to those of the previous generations--all of them.

It is, truly, world-changing, and it can be summed up in one word: TRANSPARENCY.

THE REVOLUTION WILL BE STREAMED

In February, 2005, three former PayPal employees banded together to form something called YouTube. The instant that site went online, WikiLeaks became inevitable. (You may choose to backdate the shift to the initial proliferation of the Internet, and if you do, I won't argue.)
YouTube's mission statement says its purpose is to "provide fast and easy video access and the ability to share videos frequently". The word share is prominent, and crucially important, because it promises to be the foundation of our entire culture for some time to come.

Facebook, Google and YouTube: the top three most visited sites on the Internet. One of them connects users with information...most of which ends up being shared on the other two. It's bewildering and more than a little scary to watch this "sharing" culture in action, especially since the notion of "privacy"--so integral to one's life in pre-digital culture--has been turned on its head. It has mostly been discarded entirely as more and more time and effort is invested in virtual life: so-called "real life"--it's getting hard to tell the difference--is becoming more and more transparent and open.

To a point. "Privacy" still holds sway in Internet forums, replete with comments by anonymous users who are unlikely to spew such filth if they were required to attach their real names, or indeed if those real names were easily discoverable. And even those most heavily immersed in openness online will retreat behind a curtain of 256-bit encryption if enemy entities come a-calling.

"Enemy entities" of online culture are not hard to enumerate. They are those entities which seek to curtail the prevailing Internet norms: governments and corporations. Adults, in other words, clumped together in hive-organisms that seek their own survival and profit above all else. (Charlie Stross, in one of those leaps of perspective he's famous for, says that corporate culture is proof positive that Earth has been invaded by aliens.)
There is a certain gleeful abandon with which the young have always attacked the morals and values of their elders. Here's Hesiod, from the eighth century B.C.E.:

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond
words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint."


Now, though, the younger generation is--for the first time in all human history--uniquely positioned to expose and mock the hypocrisy of the older, on a worldwide scale impervious to any countermeasure employed to maintain the status quo. (We saw this used first to defend "sharing", as every attempt to shut down Napster resulted in a hundred sites like it blossoming like a fungal bloom.) Now, of course, there are more than five hundred mirrors of WikiLeaks operating. Short of shutting down the entire Internet--which, even if it were possible, would result in civil unrest the likes of which has never been seen--there's no way to put the cat back in the bag.

"WikiLeaks is just an example; there's going to be a lot more of this to come"
--Michael Calce, a.k.a "MafiaBoy"

"For most of us, the Internet is a means to an end. But for a certain community of people, the Internet is an end in itself....they're not identifying with the U.S. or the U.K. or Sweden--they're citizens of the Internet."
--Alexandra Samuel, Director, Social and Interactive Media Center, Emily Carr University of Art and Design

See that job title? Could you imagine, say, thirty years ago, a "University of Art and Design" with a"Social and Interactive Media Center"? Media never used to be social or interactive in the slightest. It was a top-down construct defined by actors at the controls and passive consumers. But that was before the community, the new sovereign nation called Internet first expressed itself and then crafted a foreign policy...including, of course, a policy of defence.

So this blog about Assange, by design, has nothing to do with him. He is a mere figurehead: if his name wasn't Julian Assange it might be Rachel Zimmerman or Marek Stanski. Assange's personal life and its drama exists entirely apart from his website that has disseminated hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables. He may not be a "good" man and his motives are certainly not pure. But his goodness or motivation is largely irrelevant.

I, for one, don't believe that he's guilty of rape, even by Sweden's strict definition of the word (The joke in Sweden, and it's not entirely a joke, is that you'd better get written permission for a sexual advance.) Rape is one of two crimes--the other is child molestation--which are almost universally abhorred and which are essentially unprovable. Fact of life, if you're a man: you'd best not allow yourself to be behind a closed door with a woman you don't trust or a child you don't know. Assange, if anything, is guilty of gross stupidity. But that's surely not a hanging offense.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

I don't know. But I have some ideas.

WikiLeaks and its iterations yet-to-be-born have the potential to utterly destroy our current geopolitical system of nation-states. In fact, I believe that's one of Assange's unstated ultimate goals. He won't live to see that goal, if it is a goal of his, achieved. Even with today's hyperaccelerated pace of change, I suspect none of us will. But I think we're on that road: the road that will eventually yield a one-world government, with citizens as aware as they choose to be and wrongdoing, whether personal, corporate or governmental, instantly and ruthlessly exposed.

The fight between what we have now and what we may have then is going to be fierce. There are some very powerful people who resent having their power exposed, let alone stripped. But I put my money on the 'hacktivists' and their cause. In the end, the truth will set us free and we will all be citizens of the Internet.

05 December, 2010

I Need Glasses. Again.

My eyesight's been poor since birth, but for the longest time as a kid I gave that flaw short shrift. Just hold the book closer was my motto, and it worked well enough; when school forced me to lift my head, I could always sit right up front and kid myself it was to ingratiate myself with the teacher. Well, it did have that effect. It also let me see the blackboard.
My parents had their doubts that all was well in the sight of little Kenny, but little Kenny did his damnedest to dispel them. Little Kenny did NOT want glasses, no matter how badly he might need them: he knew that glasses were a one-way ticket out of the land of popularity and into the land of Nerd.
And so little Kenny exerted considerable effort into making his eyesight appear better than it was. He was aided and abetted in this effort (at first) by the unthinking gullibility of eye-doctors. Why they would unfailingly perform their arcane vision tests by getting little Kenny to cover his bad eye first was a mystery for the ages, but one our myopic hero was happy to exploit. Presented with a vision chart, left eye covered, he would read off three or four lines and take a stab at the fifth, memorizing as he went. Then he'd cover his good eye and...
Little Kenny was not stupid: he figured somebody was suspicious. It wouldn't do to just rattle off the chart he'd memorized as if everything was hunky-dory. So he'd insert pauses for dramatic effect, purposefully "guessing" at a few of the smaller letters, even getting some of them wrong. Not too wrong, though. A C and an O look similar enough, after all.

This strategem worked faultlessly...twice.

Did little Kenny get too smug? Perhaps. Or perhaps his stepdad was perceptive enough to see right through little Kenny's unseeing ruse. One day John took little Kenny out for a ride. Several blocks away from home, he pointed out a sign and asked what it said.
Now, it wasn't as if I could read that sign. But I'd read it at some point in the past, and I could recite it no problem. So I did, figuring that'd be the end of this mad obsession people had with turning little Kenny into a Nerd.
It wasn't.
Several klicks further on, in a part of town I'd never seen before, the request to read a sign was repeated.
"John, what is this with the signs?"
"Just tell me what it says." I think he actually framed it as a reading/comprehension test. Smart man.
Blind boy.
Little Kenny was back to the eye doctor posthaste. And this time, at his parents' urging, the eye-doctor covered his right eye first...

We moved to London the same year. Either transition alone could have been overcome. If I'd stayed where I was, I would have gone to great pains to make sure everyone knew I was still Kenny, just Kenny-with-glasses. If I'd moved without getting specs, I would have simply made new friends on the strength of my personality. But no, I moved and got glasses: INSTA-GEEK!

It didn't help much that I really needed glasses. My first few pairs were of the Coke-bottle, nose-denting variety. It might have been possible to get thinner lenses, but I doubt it: at least one of my prescriptions had to be prepared in, and shipped from, Taiwan. I'm pretty sure those glasses cost upwards of $400 a pair. In early '80s dollars.

You'd think I'd have taken better care of them. But then, you'd also think I'd have appreciated these things that let me see. Truth is, for a long time I deeply resented wearing them. I would have preferred to remain near-blind.
And so the glasses were subjected to all manner of indignities. At least two pairs were eaten by dogs. (Did you know that dogs like to eat glasses?) Other pairs bore scratches in short order, and I was forever forgetting to clean them: the dirt would accumulate almost to opacity before I'd think to give 'em a wipe. Dozens, scores of times I've been asked how can you see out of those things? Same way I could see without them. Piss-poorly. But who needs to look at the world? The world inside my head was so much more interesting.

My antipathy towards glasses melted away over time, not-so-coincidentally in lockstep with the attitude of society at large. Apparently some people choose to wear glasses nowadays. People who don't even need them. That would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. Likewise, my glasses themselves have become considerably more stylish, thanks in large part to my wife, who once ran an eyeglass store and has an eye, so to speak, for what looks good on me. My two most recent pairs have been Transitions, by Essilor--built-in sunglasses, in other words, and I swear by 'em. You would too, if you'd lived my life of where did I put those sunglasses? ah, screw it, I'll go without.

But my yearly eye tests are still a source of some stress. My eye doctor isn't: she's really nice (and pretty too, but I'm not supposed to be able to see that, I don't think). The tests themselves, though, still feel like exams I have to pass, if only because my glasses are not cheap. Repeated assurances do little to calm my nerves: a little of little Kenny persists in muttering half a grand and all you get is a little better vision? What a ripoff.


I don't like the tests, though. Any of them. Which is clearer, one or two? Or three, or four, or eleventy eight? Fer Chrissake they all look the same. They're all blurry. Some of them maybe a shade more or less blurry, but it's hard to tell in the three point eight microseconds you've got. What a pleasant surprise it would be if lens 42 suddenly brought everything into sharp clarity. Never happens.
I don't like eye drops AT ALL; I positively loathe the sun that Dr. Apfelbeck insists in placing three millimeters from my eye; and if there's a term stronger than hate for the peripheral vision test, that's the term I'd apply to it.
For those of you who have never had the experience of a peripheral vision test, all you have to do is click a little clicker when you see a flash of light. They do it one eye at a time, the other one's covered, and you're supposed to stare at a center circle--no cheating and moving your gaze--and then these lights flash. Some of them are unmistakeable, some of them are so dim you're not sure you actually saw them, and a few of them flash off in a spot you're not supposed to be able to see if you're staring at the circle in the center.

I have tunnel vision...not literally, in that I can see some things on the periphery, but a brain-induced state of tunnel vision that mimics the real disorder. Tell me to stare at a single spot and if I concentrate hard enough, that spot will be damn near all I see. Actually, "concentrate"'s probably the wrong term, because I fall into that tunnel vision state without thinking about it. I have to think about seeing things off to the side. And so this test is torturous for me. I'm required to balance my unmoving center-circle gaze against the knowledge that little dots of light are flashing all around and I need to click when I see one. The urge to look off to the left or right even a little is overpowering. Then there's those dim flashes: was that a light? I'm not sure. Do I click? Did I see that? If I click and that wasn't a light, I fail. Maybe that was a light in my so-called "blind spot" and if I click it, they'll believe I'm cheating. Or maybe I was supposed to click there and if I don't, it means I have no peripheral vision at all. Damn it, stop setting me up to fail here.

I've looked into laser surgery: I'm not a candidate. My retinas or corneas or something are too thin. It's too bad, really. As much as I'm terrified of the procedure, if I could undergo it I wouldn't have to stand for these horrid eye exams every year.

Occasional gripes aside, I'm pretty much okay with my glasses now. I kind of have to be. They're the first things on in the morning and the last things off at night. Without them, the world blurs such that I can only assume the Eva-shaped standing four feet away from me is in fact my wife. I have heard of people who have "lost" their glasses while they were on their face. It's just the sort of thing absentminded little Kenny would specialize in, were it not for the fact that it's immediately apparent whether or not Kenny's got his specs on.

For much of my life, I assumed I would eventually go blind. I had plenty of time to come to terms with that, but it turns out that barring some unforeseeable trauma, I'll remain a seeing person. My vision's been doing odd things (or at least odd to me) over the past decade: sometimes getting a little worse in one eye, sometimes getting a little better in the other, something I had long thought impossible. Every change of any magnitude necessitates another pair of glasses. I'd really love it if a pair could last longer than two years, but that doesn't seem to be in the cards...

02 December, 2010

WikiLeaks (II): Whirling Dervish

Damn, posted too soon. Should have done my research. Better yet, let others do it for me.

Everybody, especially those who agreed with my last post, please go here and read this.

Don't have time to delve deeply right now--have to go to work--but if I'm skimming this stuff correctly, it turns out Assange knows perfectly well what he's doing, and any collateral damage, while regrettable, is necessary to the higher end he's seeking: the elimination of the lobbyist groups (he refers to them as 'conspiracies', not in the tin hat sense but in the conspiracy-to-commit-crimes sense) that really own governments.
It's a worthy and admirable goal...if it works. But by gar, I hope Assange has at least ten doubles walking around and about thirty safe houses. He's angered a great many very powerful people.

(Love how Mike Huckabee is calling for his arrest on charges of treason. As Charlie Stross notes, "by definition it's not treason if he's not an American citizen and isn't acting within the USA."

01 December, 2010

WikiLeaks

As with most completely polarizing issues nowadays, I don't know what to think when it comes to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
Reddit, populated as it is with youthful idealists who believe they're highly intelligent, is about ready to canonize the man. Meanwhile, Tom Flanagan, who used to be chief adviser to our PM, is openly calling for Assange's assassination...that's "cannon-ization" of a whole other sort.

Look, we'd all love to live in a world where government practiced openness and accountability, and hey-can't-we-all-just-get-along mated with power-with-not-power-over to produce utopia.

I don't do drugs, myself.

Calling what Assange does "journalism" is kind of like calling global thermonuclear war a "skirmish". WikiLeaks is a data dump, pure and simple. As with any dump, combing through this is apt to net you some overlooked treasure...not to mention a few diseases.

Oh, some of the stuff is trivial and obvious. For instance, the revelation that Canadian TV is replete with anti-American stereotypes that confirm this country's "inferiority complex". (Psst: wanna hear a secret? That inferiority complex often masquerades as a superiority complex. Quite convincingly, too.)
That class of revelation is hardly likely to provoke confrontation. But how about the confirmation of Iran's involvement in Iraq? How about the nitty-gritty on American espionage procedures? And who knows what's next down the leaky pipe.

SOME OF THIS SHIT SHOULD STAY SECRET.

Not all of it. Perhaps not even most of it. But some of it should stay secret. To thrust everything out into the open endangers lives, and not just the lives of those trying to keep the secrets. The world is not Facebook. Privacy and confidentiality are important.

Perspective

"So I was sitting there in the bar and this guy comes up to me and he said 'My life stinks'. And I saw his gold credit card, and I saw the way he was looking at people across the room, and I looked at his face, and you know, what a good looking face. And I said 'Dude, your perspective on life sucks.'"
--Mika, "Blame It On The Girls" (introduction)

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

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favoured and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good Morning!" and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich, yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine -- we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread,
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet in his head.
--"Richard Cory", Edward Arlington Robinson (published 1897)

Who's right?

Is Mika right, suggesting that outward appearance should mirror internal reality? Or can the suicide of Robinson's Richard Cory possibly be justified?

Since the day many years ago when a close friend referred to himself as Richard Cory (and scared the crap out of me), I have been inclined to take Robinson's perspective over Mika's. That friend is (thankfully) still among the living, and still living what most people would consider a charmed life. I know better. His life stinks, and I wouldn't wish I was in his place for anything.

We're often admonished to "count our blessings", and most of us have at least a few we can enumerate. Richard Cory amassed more than his fair share. But it's worth noting that for some people, the accumulation of "blessings" on one scale (usually, but not always, the material) is an attempt to balance a deficit on another scale...an attempt, more often than not, doomed to fail. You can lack for nothing and yet keenly feel a hole in your life where--for example--a loving companion should be: the ensuing despair can be all-consuming if you let it.

I've said often that "pain is mandatory, suffering is optional", and it's true. But that doesn't mean suffering should be dismissed. This is particularly true for those like my friend Richard Cory, whose suffering is even more strongly felt because society says that people in his position are clearly above suffering....