30 December, 2011

The Wider World, 2011-2012

Looking out on the globe from the cocoon that is Canada, 2011 was a tumultuous, tempestuous and possibly pivotal year. Depending on your point of view, the Occupy movement that took hold in late summer marked either a great and powerful upsurge of the long trodden-upon, or else a colossal public nuisance-slash-waste of time. Methinks the monied class considers those one and the same: 2012 may be the year in which they learn the difference.

But I wouldn't put my money on that.

As I have been writing periodically since 2008,  there is a tremendous amount of energy being exerted to attempt to convince the world at large that there is nothing wrong here, all is well, and if it isn't, it soon will be, so please everyone, go back to sleep while we finish the job of raping your retirement correcting the economy. Anyone squawking too loud--such as, for instance, those who took it upon themselves to clutter up a few city parks--is mercilessly mocked and told to "get a job". (And never you mind that more Occupiers than Tea Party members actually have jobs. That sort of talk will brand you a socialist, un-American traitor and a practitioner of the dreaded "class warfare" to boot. There's something acutely Freudian about accusing somebody of class warfare as you man the catapults yourself.

I can confidently predict that "Occupy" will not fizzle out, though it might be driven underground for a time. What form it takes next is impossible to determine...but the paranoiac in me is convinced the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012is a pre-emptive strike. This bill allows for the indefinite detainment of American citizens, without trial, in military prisons: all that is necessary is that they be called terrorists. The definition of 'terrorist' these days is increasingly slippery. (Is that paranoia? or heightened awareness?)

2011 was a year of ironies on a global scale. As the U.S., that bastion of freedom, slipped ever closer to the precipice of tyranny, several tyrannies in the Middle East took some tentative steps towards freedom. The so-called 'Arab Spring' may be fleeting...but I doubt it. Once people get a taste of freedom, they usually find they like it enough to cook up some more for themselves.
Those of you convinced the Internet is mostly for porn, consider the role that Twitter played in the emancipation of Egypt. Of course, the Internet is merely a tool, but what a powerful tool it can be.

Famous people I've never met die every year. This was the first year that I felt grief over it--and twice. Jack Layton, the leader of the federal NDP, died on August 22, two days after composing a letter that reduced me to a gibbering idiot for a couple of days. The final paragraph of that letter resonates still:

"My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world."


Steve Jobs died a little over a month later, depriving the world of one of its bigger brains. His final utterance is, in its cryptic way, just as inspirational as Layton's carefully considered last instructions. One wonders what he was seeing--I can only I have a similar reaction on my way out the door.

I don't plan on going out that door in 2012, least of all in some Mayan mishap. The idea that next winter solstice will be doomsday has been debunked almost as many times as it has been put forward, most notably, to my mind, by NASA and John Michael Greer, the Archdruid you can find in my sidebar.

No, the world will not end in 2012, but the world as we know it might be sliding towards an ending. Neale Donald Walsch, another of my founts of inspiration, terms it "The Storm Before The Calm". We'll determine what form that storm takes. And we'll determine what the calm looks like afterwards, too. It could be the calm of utter desolation or the calm of idyllic bliss; what's key to understand is that this is not something that is happening to us, it's something we are choosing. There are consequences to every action--Newton knew that nearly three hundred years ago. Science today is inching ever closer to confirming the interconnectedness of all things, which only means that consequences can spread out like ripples in a pond. It behooves us all to remember this, and to live accordingly.

---------

Closer to home, I'm going to be an uncle this year! Alex Hopf is on her way. We were never able to have children of our own--which still pains us on occasion, and even joyous impending births do bring that pain to the fore--and so our way of dealing with that pain is to give baby Alex some of the love we've been holding in reserve all these years. To put it in simpler terms: we're not completely sure what Alex stands for yet, but we know we'll be standing for her every step of the way.

I continue to grow in my new job, and life around here is looking up. It's the only way to look, folks. 2012 is just another step along the way. I look forward to taking it with all of you.







29 December, 2011

525,600 Minutes


Explanation for blog title here

There’s no way, simply no way, that 2011 could have lived up to 2010, one of the best years of my life. It probably wasn’t fair to think it could even come close.
And I suppose I should be grateful that 2011 didn’t quite follow the crappy pattern previously set up by other years ending in one. Let’s see. In 1981 I got glasses and moved to London, where I discovered that London kids had a thing for guys in glasses. The “thing” was a burning desire to rearrange the geography of those kids' faces. The previous year I had been arguably the most popular kid in my third grade class. 1981 was a shock, a rude one.
1991 was my first year in university, and it brought its own rude shocks. I’m still amazed people are willing to pay thousands of dollars (the price has roughly tripled since I went) to have professors read textbooks to them--and they have to buy the textbooks too. That was the year I began to fall out of love with the classroom. It was also the year I piddled away a veritable fortune on nothing in particular. Endless meals out and arcade games seem like fun at the time. Soul-crushing is more like it, but chalk that one up under ‘lessons learned’. While you're at it, chalk up the astonishingly long time it took me to learn that lesson as its own lesson. 
In 2001 I was still freshly married, and so THAT was all right, but still. We were living in an apartment about six steps down from where we are now and maybe a step and a half up from squalor. Before my job with Price Chopper came along in May, I was a hollowed-out shell of a 7-Eleven employee. My mind was slowing turning to Slurpee. It’s  a good thing I had a loving wife to come home to, else you’d have found me in the papers, under "Gone Postal".
 Oh, and let’s not forget 9/11, which affected me not at all except to inflict on the last four months of that year a species of free-floating dread I hope never to feel the like of again. 
Twenty-eleven was neither a particularly good year nor a particularly bad one around here. Which is to say, it had its moments, good and bad. It was certainly eventful. My store transformed around me, pretty much doubling in size; I absolutely loved the new look but positively hated the new feel. That feeling started just after we opened, when I got my first cheque as a FreshCo employee and found it missing twenty hours at time and a half. When I confronted the store owner about this, he said, quote, "you were free to go home after forty-four hours."
I don't mind working for free--God knows I've done enough of it--but that was a bit much. At the same time I was shuffled out of dairy and into frozen--after training a brand new employee to replace me. That hurt more than the missing pay.  I couldn't figure it out. Ken, we trust you enough to take this new guy and teach him everything you know, but not enough to just, uh, do everything you know.

It occurred to me that I was no longer appreciated--if I ever had been since the previous owner left. Which made my leaving inevitable: all I needed was an opportunity.

That arrived towards the end of August...and I don't regret taking it one little bit. My only wish is that I could have taken about thirty people with me. Not that there's anything wrong with the people here: actually, I'm starting to kinda sorta make friends. But man, I miss so many people so very much.

Personally, my biggest revelation this year is trifling to anyone who isn't me, and it can be expressed in four words:

POP CULTURE DOESN'T SUCK

This realization burst on me with the force of a supernova around about the time I started to consider the annual year-in-review blog entry. It was reinforced when I saw what the critics picked for best albums/movies/TV shows of 2011 and spent about a day musing did I lose my taste? Did I gain some taste?
I still don't know the answer to that question, and furthermore, I don't care. Herewith are my top  cultural experiences of the year, most of which appear on somebody's top ten, which has got to be a first.

BEST ALBUMS

1) FLEET FOXES, HELPLESSNESS BLUES

There is half of one track on this album that is practically unlistenable-the argument in "The Shrine / An Argument". Every other song is simply sublime. Close-knit harmonies and thought-provoking lyrics mesh in ways that leave a listener (this listener, at least) nearly breathless. The title track is a case in point:


2) ADELE, 21 

This appears on pretty much every top ten list I've seen, usually at number one. And I had never even heard of it until I saw the first of those top ten lists and thought I should check this out. Depressing to realize this woman was born when I was in high school. What a voice. Just in case you have been living under some other rock than the one I've apparently been under all year, get a load of this:


3) MARIANAS TRENCH, EVER AFTER

Okay, this one isn't quite as critically acclaimed. It should be.  Josh Ramsay has a Broadway-calibre voice and here he and his band simply soar on it. Astoundingly catchy hooks. Listen to this and I guarantee you'll be humming it later:


Special note: I discovered MUMFORD AND SONS this year: if their album Sigh No More had actually been released this year, I would have rated it number one. As of this writing, it's the tenth-most downloaded album of all time, which proves that pop culture hasn't sucked for longer than I'd thought. Maybe it never did...?

BEST PLAY: THE BOOK OF MORMON

Nine Tonys, including Best Musical. The top-selling Broadway album in forty years. Once again I find myself in an echo chamber, joining the chorus that goes something like "holy fuck this musical's good."
The profanity is intentional: the libretto is raunchy. What elevates it out of the gutter and into the clouds is, paradoxically, what's under all the muck on the surface. This show has a heart of gold. 

Listen to this (WARNING: NOT SAFE FOR WORK, OR KIDS) and if you find yourself getting offended, pay special heed to the bridge: 



If you don't like what we say
Try living here a couple days
Watch all your friends and family die
Hasa diga eebowai!

I'm going to hold back on Best Movie, because (a) the only new release I saw this year was the final installment of Harry Potter and I'll (b) going to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on New Year's Eve. I anticipate it'll be the best movie I've seen in several years, and not just because other people seem to love it too, damn it. (I should probably add that I'm also seeing the latest Mission: Impossible flick, which again has critics raving).

BEST TV SHOW: again, this is a medium I tend to avoid like the plague. But I made an exception for  GAME OF THRONES and am I ever glad I did. I even got Eva hooked on it, which surprised me mightily and pleased me greatly. Our TV tastes, to the extent I have any, tend to diverge. But we both loved the sets, the acting, and the unpredictable plotlines. We are eagerly awaiting season two.

BEST NOVEL I read this year is from the same brain that spawned Game of Thrones: A DANCE WITH DRAGONS (George R.R. Martin). Is it perfect? No. It meanders. But the chance to spend time in Westeros is not to be missed. 

So that was my world in 2011. Tomorrow I will cover off yours, and try to hazard some guesses as to what awaits us in 2012.

EDIT--Good Lord, Dad, I didn't forget all about you! Honest, I didn't! My father had a heart attack this past year--and I can't believe that was still only this year, it seems like forever and an age ago. While terrifying at the time, it was in retrospect a good thing, in a way. A shot across his bow...and mine. He is in much better shape now, with more energy and, I suspect, a renewed appreciation for life. I'm so very glad he's still around to appreciate it...




26 December, 2011

Second Christmas

This little family has some damned weird traditions.
Perhaps the weirdest of them is our Boxing Day ritual. Christmas over the past many years has always yielded us Canadian Tire gift certificates from one place or another. Each and every Boxing Day, we've ventured out early to hit Canadian Tire as the doors open, and there we hurry to buy...

...cleaning supplies?

Yes, cleaning supplies. The week between Christmas and New Year's, this house gets as deep a clean as it ever gets, all in order that we can sit on our asses New Year's Eve without a dust lion in sight. So each Boxing Day we buy, among other things, roughly a year's worth of cleaning supplies and implements, along with whatever flotsam and jetsam the house requires at the moment--light bulbs, garbage bags, laundry sheets, what have you. While the rest of the world is rushing to upgrade their 76" TVs to 77" and buy a new cell phone to replace the perfect good cellphone they already have, we're buying stuff we need.

Now, we'll also buy some stuff we want, at Canadian Tire and elsewhere...or at least we'll look. Eva has to check the kitchen aisles for the latest in culinary whizbang gadgetry, and like as not we'll head to Chapters, because Mr. Breadbin here is what you'd call a book-slut. Today was no different: I picked up the third volume of the Void trilogy, by Peter F. Hamilton; Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs's latest, and something I swore I wouldn't buy again...a book by Dan Simmons.

What can I say? I feel I owe the guy one more. Back before he went insane and started seeing evil Muslims hiding behind every bush, he was a helluva writer. By all accounts, he still is, but he's let more and more of his politics intrude on his fiction of late. I won't set an official foot in his forum anymore, though I still occasionally drop in and lurk in the shadows, just to see where Fox News will get their next ideas from.
FLASHBACK looks to be right up my alley: a near-future dystopia. Though this one seems to have been brought about because America stopped playing World Dictator...still, it should be an interesting read. If only to see just how deep the crazy runs now.

While in line at McDonald's for a the greasy goodness of a Sausage McMuffin, I heard a customer behind me telling everyone--several times--that she'd already been to Sears, she was in line at six a.m. We've done that, except Sears was the Brick and it was freakin' COLD. We also heard the line to get into Best Buy was an hour long. We've done that too, at Future Shop. Never again will we do either of these things. Boxing Day is supposedly so-called because the wealthy used to give their servants a gift in a box on this day. Well, I'm hear to tell you this meaning has gone the way of the dodo, and that there's a sweet science to the braving of the crowds on the 26th of December. I never really liked science, sweet or otherwise, and as much as I hate people in bulk, Eva hates them more. So each year we're practically alone in Canadian Tire, and we hit Chapters before it gets too zooey, and then...home. Home to relax and be at peace.

25 December, 2011

All I Want For Christmas Is My Two...

...days off.

The holiday run-up this year was nothing short of insane. It's like that every year, of course, but this year the insanity was compounded by a new routine, a fair bit more responsibility, and customer patterns I could only guess at.
I pride myself on staying in stock on holiday-sensitive items. Nobody's perfect, of course, and I'm less perfect than many, but over the years at Price Chopper/FreshCo I'd like to think I managed it more often than not.
It's harder than it sounds. Egg nog is a case in point. The problem with egg nog is simply this: nobody buys it, nobody buys it, nobody buys it, WHAM! LET'S VACUUM UP ALL THE EGG NOG!, egg nog? why the hell would I buy that?
Seriously, after New Year's you can offer people money to buy egg nog and they'll look at you as if to say money? I doan need no steekin' money. 
Making it harder: us peons down here at store level aren't the only ones who know about this problem with egg nog. The dairies know it too, which is why they only make so much. After a certain time--you never know quite when it will be, but it's usually half past I need some...there's no egg nog to be had.
Which means I had to lay in my nog a week and a half early.
Then there's the warehouse. You can never guess what they'll run short of in any given holiday season. Traditionally it's hash browns, the sales of which triple in December...but I've seen butter go bye-bye a week before Christmas. I've seen creamed cheese unavailable. And this year it was our store brand sour cream, out of stock since early December with no firm date in sight when it might be back in stock. And so: ninety cases of name brand sour cream, better order it quick while they still have that
Tack on all the distributions (hey! Let's put yogurt on sale Christmas week, everyone bastes their turkey with yogurt!) and account for the general uptick in sales and for a little while this past Thursday morning I could not close the door to my dairy cooler. This has never happened to me.

And still I ran out of things. I ordered double what the computer said I would sell in vanilla ice cream and ran out before Christmas Eve started. We were out of our brand of butter for a few hours. (And then of course there's the aerosol whip creams, of which I have about a year's supply.

Still--not bad for a rookie in this store, if I do say so myself. And there's a good group of people here. I'm starting to feel--not quite like I belong, exactly, but that I might belong. Which is a good feeling, a merry feeling.

But boy, have I been stiff. Getting out of bed over the past week has become progressively more difficult. And so I am cherishing these two days off.

Merry Christmas to everyone. 

18 December, 2011

The Problem with Christmas

...is that it's too short.

I don't mean the season. That now makes its first appearance before Hallowe'en and, what with interminable Boxing Day sales, extends nearly into February. I don't care how much of a Christmas person you are, three months of it is clearly too much. Yet every year the carols start up earlier and earlier.

I keep hoping for new ones to supplant I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (which I hate) and Little Drummer Boy (which I hate more). Be careful what you wish for, Ken. I had somehow managed to never hear Last Christmas in its original George Michael incarnation. Maybe I did hear it and just blocked it out. That's more likely, actually, because I hated Taylor Swift's rendition the first time I heard it. on November the first of this year, and it did not improve with the subsequent repeats every ninety minutes through every work day since.

Amazing how quickly this jaunted to the top of my stick-icicles-in-my-ear list. It's right up there with Simply Having A Wonderful Christmastime (does ANYBODY actually like that dreck?) and Feed The World (Do They Know It's Christmas) (memo to Band Aid: the majority of the world doesn't celebrate Christmas, so no, even if they know, they don't give a fartridge in a pear tree.)

But Last Christmas, now, let's examine these lyrics that have been fingernailed onto my brainboard.

Last Christmas I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away


Whoa, whoa, stop right there Rudolph. You "gave away" my heart? How do you do that, exactly? And maybe I like the person you gave it to more! But no,

This year, to save me from tears
I'll give it to someone special (repeat ad Clauseum)

But, umm, I thought YOU were special last year and look what you did with my heart.

Clearly not a good judge of character, our caroller here. I suppose it's too much to ask that she SHUT UP about the mistake she made last Yule and what she plans to do this season to avenge it.  Ugh.

So yeah, the carols are getting increasingly painful. I mean, I never hear the few I actually LIKE, ones like this one



Or this one



Or how about



Instead it's Last Christmas AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN...Arrrrrrgh! Just once, just once, I dare somebody to play something like




And this never-ending soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to the stress of the season. You really should have seen my dairy cooler by the time I got everything into it last Thursday. Some of it I won't need until next Thursday, but I got it all anyway, all thirteen skids of it, and next year, to save me from tears, I'll gi--SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP

So yeah, way too long. But too damned short, too.

We met my Dad and stepmom in Barrie today for lunch. This is the second year we've done this. It's not ideal by any stretch--ideal would be a week or so--but this year in particular it had to serve. I'm not off again until Christmas Day.
Joining Dad and Hez this year was my stepbrother Robbie (the life of every party ever) and, surprise, stepsister Brea. Both of them we don't see near enough of. We missed my aunt Dawna and her partner Barry this time, sadly. But it was so nice to see the people we did, even if for so short a time.

I almost cried from one of the presents my dad got me. I mean, they were all nice, but this one--a collage of photos of him and I with a message, all in a lovely frame.  Dad, I wish we could have got you the gift you deserve, but they don't make things that special on this planet.

Two 'Christmases' to go, both of which will zoom by too quickly. It really is about family and friends, and I'm blessed to have the family and friends I have. We love you all and wish we had about a carolling season's worth of time to spend with you.


11 December, 2011

School Daze, Part II

On what date did what bomber drop the first nuclear bomb used in warfare where?

So help me, I actually had that question on a history test once. I raided a near eidetic memory for the dry facts (August 6, 1945, Enola Gay, Hiroshima), wishing there was room to note that the bomber had been named after its commander's mother and that Hiroshima had deliberately been left completely alone by American forces so as to measure how much damage one nuclear weapon would actually cause.

Personally, I find those parenthetical remarks more interesting than dusty dates. I would have been more interested still if we had had an in-class debate, pretending it was six months before mission date.  Should we drop the bombs, yea or nay? I would have been extremely interested to hear the Japanese side of the story. Why were they fighting in the first place?
That information was never given to me; I was left to scavenge for it on my own time.  I would have been flabbergasted to learn that the Japanese were considering surrender before Little Boy was dropped.

I'm still learning things about August 6-9, 1945. Just yesterday I learned about a man who survived both bombings. There were an estimated 165 "double survivors"; one of them was actually telling his co-workers what to do in case they saw a blinding blue flash when there was a blinding blue flash.

To me, education has several purposes. Socialization, the most important of them, is best accomplished by encouraging empathy, and empathy is best encouraged by providing numerous opportunities for students to get into other people's heads. The best books will do that, but so will movies, plays, debates--even written assignments wherein you're asked to take up a contrary position.
Who, what, where, when--all of marginal importance, surely. It is absolutely critical to know that Hiroshima was devastated on August 6th, 1945? Or is it sufficient to know that its payload and that dropped three days later effectively ended the Second World War? I think "how" and especially "why" are much more relevant questions, almost always, and sadly, they're the ones most often ignored in the media. Why does a serial killer do what he does? You can say "because he's crazy", and of course that's true...but he doesn't think he's crazy. How do we determine who's crazy? Is it morally right to arrest psychopaths before they commit a crime?
My favourite classes were the few that considered these sorts of questions. I think most students remember those classes far more than they do the dry and boring facts they were force-fed.

Okay, so...empathy as a core curriculum value. What else? Well, what values are we looking to instil into students? I'd suggest honesty is a good one. So is accountability. Healthy skepticism is always welcome (unless you're the kind of parent who wants to raise carbon copies of yourself).
How do you get those values into little heads? Model them. Model them by your actions; model them in the curriculum. Show some consequences of dishonesty. But also encourage critical thought. When is it okay to lie? When is it necessary? What would happen to the world if we had easy access to a 100% reliable lie detector?
Accountability--for the last several years, there has been no punishment meted out for students who turn their assignments in late. I'm told for many years now, children have been told to spell words the way they sound, rather than the way they're actually spelled. This strikes me as utterly bizarre. I was among the last generation that learned to read using phonics, which undoubtedly is one good reason I was spelling at college level in grade five. Back in that ancient day, if you spelled something wrong, it was corrected. If you repeatedly spelled many things wrong, you'd fail your grade and be kept back a year...something else that doesn't seem to happen any more.
My problem was procrastination. Like many kids, I was lazy, and unless I was really interested in a project, more often than not I'd slapdash it together at the last minute. Until fifth grade.
My grade five teacher was Mr. Sackville. I don't remember what the project he assigned was, though I think it had something to do with computers.  As usual, I'd left it to the last minute. Beyond the last minute, actually: I didn't even start it until after it was due, and I turned it in four days late. I will never forget how it came back to me: 96% at the top, in that red ink teachers always used. "A+." "GREAT JOB!!!!" I distinctly remember, count 'em, four exclamation marks. Below that... -15% x 4 days late = 36%. And that was circled.
That hit me where I lived. I never turned in another project so much as a minute late ever again.

I wasn't taught skepticism, healthy or otherwise, until university. I had one prof named Lewinsky--he taught literary criticism, or LitCrit as we called it (as opposed to ClitLit, which was Feminist English). Anyway, we covered a different school of literary criticism every week, and every week he would come to class every week a completely different person. For the feminist perspective, he came in drag. Every week, he'd dismiss the philosophy he'd argued the previous week as a pile of crap. That class was tremendously liberating, and I wish I'd had others like it before.

You'll notice I haven't covered what many people think is the only reason for schooling: to prepare students for the work world. That's because I just don't think it's all that important. I believe that apprenticeships should begin--for many jobs, not just the trades--towards the end of what is currently high school. By that point, in my system, students would be as literate and numerate as they'll ever get, and hopefully, through inhabiting the heads of people in many different professions and being exposed to many different ways of seeing the world, the vast majority of them will have found something that interests them. I'd set aside an entire year for students to try out various careers. Those who show an interest and aptitude for one would then enter specialized training that might last six weeks or six years.

While keeping the core values in the curriculum as much as possible, I'd suggest there are many things schools should be teaching that they don't bother with at present. Here are a few.


  • Home economics. Yes, I believe everyone should have a solid grounding in nutrition. They should also know at least the basics of cooking, sewing, and--important, this--budgeting. Also parenting. That last should actually be its own required course.
  • A greatly expanded civics program, covering your rights as a citizen, how to protest effectively, what to do (and what not to do) if you are accused of a crime--and (again with the healthy skepticism) how to parse political bullshit. I'd actually call that last segment exactly that: How To Parse Political Bullshit". That'd get the kids' attention.
  • Life Skills. Currently this is a program for kids with special needs. I think it's a great name for a catch-all course that covers things you'd learn in Scouts and Guides. How to tie knots. How to navigate. Emergency preparedness. Comprehensive first aid. And so on.
  • Avocational School. Everybody should have at least one semester in which their interests are probed and cultivated. For instance, I have been composing music since I was four years old, but even now I have no idea what to do with that particular skill. I know someone who cross-stitches well enough to live off it, but she doesn't. Some kids might grow up to be professional athletes. Whatever course they're interested in, they should learn its channels and its shoals beforehand. 
What would school in your world look like?






10 December, 2011

School Daze, Part I

Catelli over at Not Quite Unhinged has presented an excellent argument for education reform, to wit, that most of the stuff we force kids to learn is pointless. Particularly most of the math. Like him, I was told that the math I was learning would be critical to my success in later life.

Unlike him, I struggled with math. Hated it, actually. Didn't like the hard sciences, either, because "hard" means math. Somehow, I internalized that: hard is math, math is hard.

It didn't help much, in my case, that I spent grade seven and eight in a "gifted' program. If I described this program to your average public school student, she wouldn't believe me, and if she did, she'd beg to be let in. No homework. No supervision. Very little work of any kind, actually. The teacher read books to us, almost like story time in kindergarten except these books where things like George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman. Other than that, we were left pretty much to ourselves.
This was fine for my fellow 'gifties', who were tossing off calculus. My gifts lay in another direction--since grade two, if not before, I had revelled in playing with words, bending them to my will. You can't bend numbers: they're stiff sons-of-bitches.
So I missed any kind of structured math instruction for those two years. It turned an average-at-best math student into a horror. I had to work my ass off in grade twelve to get a 65% average, which was fifteen points lower than ANY course average I maintained in high school without much effort at all.

It's funny, you know. I used to be the most unyielding black and white person you could possibly imagine. There was a right way of doing things, and--never mind the wrong way--there weren't any other ways. Contrast that to me, now: there are increasingly few hard truths I hold to and I'm willing to at least listen to yours, no matter how outlandish it might seem to be. I figure people have a reason for believing what they believe, and I reserve contempt only for those who haven't examined their thoughts and simply believe whatever they believe because it says so in some book, or because that's what Daddy said.
You'd think a person like my black-and-white younger self would appreciate a subject as black and white as mathematics. What can I say? Adult Ken has a root someplace, and like as not it's in that dawning realization that words open windows while numbers, in my experience anyway, only slam doors.
Math always struck me as a top-down system: teacher teaches, you learn. Or not. In EVERY other subject, I could supplement whatever was being taught with outside reading so as to impress the teacher. But math was just this dead set of numbers. I look at the word "number" and all I see is a word meaning "more numb". Aptly named little buggers.

But I was told it would all come clear later. Notwithstanding my inclination to run away from equations wherever they pop up, to be honest, I haven't seen any. My wife has--she works with numbers all the time, and if you told her high school self she'd be enjoying that, she'd have slapped you silly. But see, she gets to use a calculator. I'm told kids get to use calculators all the way back in grade three, now, which is probably why so few cashiers can figure out how much change to give you without some idiot display telling them. I doubt anything Eva learned past third grade is of any use to her now. I can say with certainty that this is true for me. As far as academics go, I can't think of a single thing I learned in school that (a) I use today and (b) I couldn't have learned, more easily, some other way.

I still remember grade thirteen history and the panic attack I got before that class got going. I'd found out that it was going to start in the year 1200 or something like that and work forward from there. I knew NOTHING about the year 1200. Nothing at all. I was practically hyperventilating, and my mom looked at me and said, "Isn't that the whole idea of school? To learn?"
"No," I said, as if  that had never occurred to me. "The point of school is to show what you've learned."

Although I liked school (aside from math and the one science course I took), I did all my best learning outside the classroom, where I wasn't straight-jacketed into "read this, then read that, then answer these questions". I was willing to be, in Catelli's terms, a storage tank--for a while, at least; it got more than a little tedious in university, when I realized professors were filling me up with their opinions and expecting me to digest them and excrete them as facts later. But I refused to be just a tank. I was forever searching for connections, looking at the hows and whys of things. Maybe that's why I did so well in my OAC year, when my classes all seemed to feed into each other: the stuff I'd take in history would pop up again in world issues and again in music class of all places. Even then, though, it only inspired me to spread my mind-net further afield.

If the academics in school aren't valuable to me now, what was and is?

The first thing that comes to mind when I ask myself this question is a project in grade ten geography. We split up into "firms" of four or five students and were tasked with laying down a power line from point A to point C on a very large and detailed map. As I recall it, the power line had to go through B, but beyond that we were free to plot any course we could justify. Of course, there were issues: many of them. Costs varied...it would be $x across a flat field, $2x over a ridge, $4x over a river, $8x underground, and so on. There were environmentally sensitive areas: we could go through them, but doing so meant extra costs and an extra "impact assessment" step I don't remember any of us taking.  B was a city, and we had to plot the line through it in such as way as to minimize disruption. In the end, we had to draw up and present our proposals to the teacher, who judged them on various criteria. It took up five full periods, and it was the most fun I've ever had in a classroom. That project was my first real exposure to different ways of thinking and the idea that there could be more than one solution to an actual, real-world problem. I flash back on that project quite often.

School is the place for socialization, both structured--think sports, but also things like band, a class play,    and the yearbook committee--and unstructured. I wasn't much at the unstructured stuff for the longest time: absent a common goal like a musical piece to be learned or an opposing soccer team to obliterate, I didn't know how to connect with people. But that's something I eventually learned, and I'm not sure I could have learned it in any other setting. It's a big thing, socialization, probably the biggest thing we social animals ever learn, and so school does have a purpose. Pity about the endless layers of crap on top, though. Double the pity since there is so much school could teach that it doesn't bother with. That's tomorrow's subject.


27 November, 2011

Multiple Marriage?

"There is no place for the State in the bedrooms of the nation...What's done in private between adults does not concern the Criminal Code"--Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, December 21, 1967

Unless there are more than two of them?

Trudeau here was referring to the decriminalization of homosexuality, but his words also, to my mind, defend some--perhaps many--polygamists.

I love to watch sacred cows being tipped. Tabitha Southey does it with aplomb here, utterly demolishing the case against multiple marriage.

Full disclosure: I flirted with polyamory in my younger years and held it as an ideal for many more. I've since come to the realization that I am not capable of existing in a polyamorous relationship--as loving as I am, I don't seem to be able to balance multiple loves in my life. But just because I'm happily committed to monogamy doesn't mean I have lost sight of those who aren't.

I once corresponded at some length with a woman from Michigan who was "married" to two men at the same time. She had her name legally changed such that one partner's surname became her middle name and the other's her surname. The three lived a life that was indistinguishable from a typical couple's life but for the extra adult member of the family. I lost touch with her almost twenty years ago, but Google informs me that relationship was still going strong in 2004 when one partner passed away.
Not that longevity should have much to do with it: after all, Hollywood is replete with marriages that are no less legally valid for the days, weeks or months that they last.

The question about polygamy, as the B.C. Supreme Court notes, boils down to "harm; more specifically, Parliament's reasoned apprehension of harm arising out of the practice of polygamy. This includes harm to women, to children, to society and to the institution of monogamous marriage."

There is little doubt that some polygamous relationships are harmful towards women and children, though I would argue--as Wente does--that they pose no harm whatsoever to monogamous marriage. (I made and continue to make the same argument as regards same-sex marriage: if Adam and Steve next door get married and that affects your marriage in any way, you've got problems no marriage counsellor can solve.)  The polygamous relationships I'm thinking of--the harmful ones--tend to have a religious element to them, in which the husband considers it his divine right to take some number of wives that is greater than one. It should be noted that some of the heroes of the Old Testament racked up astonishing numbers of wives and nobody batted an eyelash. Moses himself had two wives. That's if he existed: most Bible scholars I have read believe him to be a concatenation of several individuals. Regardless, Aaron and Miriam criticized their brother Moses for taking a second wife and the Lord punished Miriam with a skin disease for the criticism (Numbers 12: 1-15). David had eight named wives and countless unnamed ones as well. Moving forward, polygamy was prevalent in New Testament times as well and, contrary to popular belief, Jesus never said a thing about it one way or the other. Paul, in one place--1 Corinthians 7:27-28d--explicitly states that polygamy is not a sin.

Okay, so that's morality two thousand and more years ago. I'd like to think we've evolved somewhat since then...women aren't property anymore, for one thing. What does my morality meter register, considering polygamy?

"What's done in private between adults does not concern the Criminal Code." Trudeau was right, as fr as I'm concerned, but that "between adults" is critical. It implies consent--moreover, consent freely given. Where it exists, there is no harm and thus no issue. Where it doesn't, we have a problem.

The B.C. Supreme Court has attempted to skate around this by decreeing that a formal multiple marriage, be it civil or religious in nature, will remain illegal, even as informal co-habitation arrangements between like minded groups are acceptable. On the surface, it's a fair compromise, since the cultists who practise polygamy usually seem to require some sort of ceremony to "legitimize" it, while many polyamorous types aren't that into the whole institution of marriage.

But many is not all. The same could be said for gay people, many of whom have no desire whatsoever to be married. For those in both communities who do, however, it's a slap in the face.

Not all polygamous relationships consist of of bunch of women kneeling to one man. My net-friend with the two husbands entered into her relationships freely and lived happily that way for many years. She specifically mentions that her name anagrams to "I live a darn nice life".

And there are more people out there like her. I'm not suggesting your street is full of them, but there are likely more than you'd suspect. Again, just like gays.

Consent freely given can, of course, be a bugger of a thing to prove in a court of law. Where it can be established, I see no reason why group marriage should be illegal. Do you?

20 November, 2011

I am a bigot


So I'm stumbling around the Internet, the way you do when it's a day ending in -y in laundry month and there are only a thousand or so other things you should be doing. What to my wandering eye should appear but this piece of tripe concerning Manifest Destiny. I didn't cringe quite as much as I had earlier with that UC-Davis video, but close. People have to see this, I thought, and immediately posted it to my Facebook wall, captioned "This may be the scariest thing I've ever read in my life."


I didn't bother to check Reddit.com's take on this article: I knew what it would be. Snide and dismissive, just as I was. Christian site, what did you expect? No, instead I sauntered around Christwire.org a while longer, gibbering. What to make of a headline like "Scientists Develop Gay Repellant Powder?" I know what *I* made of it: let's see now, does this redeem science in the eyes of Christianity, or not? Or how about "Is Your Teenaged Daughter Throwing a Twilight Vampire Babies Pregnancy Pact Party?" Yeah, the night after I throw my Harry Potter Dark Arts Party.

After posting another link to my Wall--and noting the immediate disgusted reaction of a close friend of mine who happens to be a devout Christian, I decided to get off that site before it could contaminate me any further. I went to check it out on Wikipedia, only to discover what Reddit had known all along, and what I should have guessed: I'd been trolled.

Christwire.org is a satirical site. Neither of the posts I so gleefully put up were real.  Mr. Critical Thinker here unthinkingly, uncritically shared his discovery, all too eager to play pin-the-stupid-on-the-Christian. Would I have done this with any other supposed class of idiocy? I think not.

What does that say about me? I could protest that I am merely a victim of Poe's Law, that being "it's impossible to create a parody of extremism that somebody won't mistake for the real article." I could do this, yes, and bring up things like this, which is real, or this, which is also real. But the truth is,  this isn't the first time I've paid lip service to the truth that the vast majority of Christians think this stuff is loony...while hurrying to say "look! Look what the Christians are up to now!"

So help me, I was relieved  to see that friend of mine was revolted. Despite having known her for almost a quarter century and counting her amongst my best friends, I wasn't completely sure she would be. On some level I'm forever afraid that moderate Christianity is going to spill over into lunacy, simply because to me, the idea of--say--a devil is lunacy. Christians tend to believe in a devil, ergo Christianity is nuts.

In short, I am a bigot. I am that thing I am forever mocking. That hurts to admit. I am forever quoting Neale Donald Walsch: "Mine is not a better way, mine is merely another way"...and I'm not only lying to myself, I'm also insulting anyone else who may think exactly the same thing but believe differently than I do.

I'm not going to do an about-face and embrace Christianity for myself. I've read the Bible and done a ton of exegesis and I just can't. Nor am I going to stop bringing the excesses of Christianity to attention. I have too many gay friends and relatives to let hate speech go unchallenged, and I have heard far too much hate speech from the mouths of self-defined Christians. HOWEVER, I will stop believing, and wanting to believe, that the excesses are the norm.

Please forgive me.

Welcome To The New Reality



Words failed me the first time I watched this. It's so casual, so nonchalant, as if pepper-spraying peaceful protesters is all part of a police officer's daily routine. I got the sense, watching, that they would have been happier using their guns, and those kids should consider themselves lucky they didn't.

Surely this is a one-off, an aberration.

Nope..

You have the right of free assembly. You have the right of free speech. Just bear in mind that if you choose to exercise these rights, you could well be attacked with noxious chemicals...or worse. But by all means, go ahead and enjoy your rights, because we really enjoy the chance to use our toys.

This reminds me of nothing so much as the doctrine of free will: "Sure," says God, "you can do whatever the heck you want. But if you sin, I can throw you in hell to burn for all eternity. By the way, I love you."

How free is your will when the wrong choice will result in eternal damnation? How free is a populace when exercising one's constitutionally-guaranteed "rights" can get you attacked?

Some time ago, I wrote a post about the rise of American fascism. Watching that disgusting display at UC-Davis immediately made me think of point three on the three point scale of encroaching tyranny:


3. Is a rapid political mobilization threatening to escape the control of traditional elites, to the point where they would be tempted to look for tough helpers in order to stay in charge?

What do you think?

16 November, 2011

The World Has Lost Its Balls

CAUTION: HAT TIPPING AHEAD. WATCH YOUR STEP. DANGER OF CONTACT WITH HAT. POTENTIAL FOR THE MOMENTARY SENSATION OF SHADOW.

A tip of the hat to Catelli for bringing this to my attention.  "This" is utter, rank stupidity, the kind of story you'd more likely expect to find in the Onion.

Balls have been banned at Errol Beatty Public School, on account of "a few serious incidents" Unless it's a Nerf ball or a sponge ball, it's not permitted on the playground. We're told the parents' council at the school supports this.

Well, of course they do. These are probably the same parents who demand their progeny get A grades just for showing up at school each day. Heaven forfend their little darlings might be hit by a ball.

Let me give you a little rundown of various and sundry incidents that (I swear)  I experienced during my public school career, I won't even mention the kissing tag. Oops, I just did.

  • Our school grounds sloped off fairly steeply along their western flank. During winter, that slope featured five or six iced 'runs', carefully crafted. The small kids would slide down on their butts; the braver and bigger of us would careen down standing up. Sometimes we'd go arse over tip. Blood could and did make its appearance. Fairly regularly, actually.
  • The same school sported a little brick wall in an alcove, purpose unknown. It was about three feet high and eighteen inches wide and the purpose we used it for in grade three was "balance beam fights". I was actually really good at these: even back then, my hands were by far the strongest parts of me. I'd walk up to my opponent, get a grip on his shoulders, and wrench until he'd slip off down and to the right. I was winner and grand champeen in my grade until one day one of the grade sixes decided to try his hand. There was no nicety to his fighting style: he simply strode up to me and kicked me in the nuts. I went down as if...as if I'd been kicked in the nuts. (Sorry, similes fail me here: if you're a man, you understand.)
  • That was not the first time I was kicked there, either. I suffered that indignity several times between grades two and six. Talk about playing with balls...on one memorable occasion they weren't kicked but squeezed. If you haven't experienced that...it's worse.
  • Our whole class, pretty much, got into a colossal snowball fight one February. These days, you can be suspended for throwing a snowball, even if it doesn't hit anyone. Back then...the teachers played too.
  • Does anybody remember murderball? Otherwise known as 'dodgeball', the express purpose of this game is to hit somebody with a ball, and of course avoid being hit yourself. To hit the shifty and agile--or just to hit that jerk who got you with the spitball last week--it was necessary to peg that ball with as much force as you could muster. We played this in phys. ed. many, many times...under teacher supervision, but occasionally the teacher would participate. 

  • I could go on, but I hope you get the point. When I was growing up, kids did things on the playground that could get them seriously hurt if they were unlucky. With a few glaring exceptions, they almost never were. One kid at Cub camp fell off the first rung of a treehouse ladder, landed badly, and thereafter lived life in a wheelchair. And I'd rather not dwell on the incident in grade five when my classmate's head whammed a metal playground support.
    But by and large, we got through childhood with nothing worse than cuts and scrapes and bumps and bruises. You have to understand: I was a sheltered kid. I didn't take part in most of the more adventurous activities. For instance, I've never climbed a tree. I've never climbed a tree because I knew that as a matter of course I would fall out of the tree and break something, possibly my neck. 
    But play with balls? I remember playing road hockey with my cousin Terri on the streets of Parry Sound. We were using an Indian rubber ball. Don't play hockey with an Indian rubber ball. I played goal, and I sustained a gouge in my knee that really had to be seen to be believed. (That was what finally crystallized left and right in my head: my left knee was the one I hurt.)  
    Were the adults in my life concerned when I came home with blood pouring down my face? Of course they were. But I don't think it crossed the mind of many parents back then to cushion their little darlings from every knock. You hurt yourself, you picked yourself up and moved on, and maybe did whatever it was you'd been doing a little more carefully next time. That was it. 
    The powers that be at Errol Beatty Public School should be ashamed of themselves. I'll leave the last word to Konstantina Alexiou, a Grade 8 student: "Next they'll say you can't run because kids fall or you can't wear (shoe) laces because kids trip,”

13 November, 2011

If you don't have anything nice to say...

Check out the comments on this CBC story about the 'upscaling' of Tim Horton's.

Very few of them are at all positive. You would think, based on these comments, that Tim Horton's, far from being the most profitable quick service chain in the country, is instead about to go bankrupt.

As usual, there is no moderation in the negativity, either. Only a tiny minority of the comments say something to the effect of "if you don't like it, don't shop there". Over and over the coffee is referred to as 'swill' and the food as 'crap'. One-off horrible customer service stories are upvoted as if they are universal Tim Horton's policy.

Full disclosure: I like Tim Horton's. I love their coffee, which I can't quite recreate at home no matter what I do. I love their hot chocolate, which is far and away the best on the market. And their breakfast sandwiches are phenomenal. Yes, their donuts are not baked fresh anymore and of course the quality has suffered because of that; but for me Tim's has never been about the donuts.
Tim Horton's, like just about everywhere else, used to allow smoking in designated areas of their restaurants, as if you could somehow contain the effluvium from twenty cigarettes. Their Timbits had one flavour back then, as far as I was concerned: nicotine. By the time I had another donut from Tim Horton's, they had abolished smoking and gone to prefab pastry. Let me tell you, a pre-made donut free of yellow death tastes considerably better than a fresh donut that's been steeped in tar.

Is Tim Horton's perfect? Hell, no. There's actually a hefty lawsuit going on right now about those pre-made donuts. Seems they're actually more expensive to the franchisees than they were initially told. Down at store level, before Timmy's tries to upscale its decor, they might consider adding tills. The lineups can get ridiculous. And not that this will ever happen, but I'd have a whole lot of respect for the place if they got rid of their drive-throughs. It's not exactly health food they serve, but do you have to poison the environment when you buy it?

But upscaling is something that's going on industry-wide. McDonald's was the first to move on this, and Tim's is just playing catch-up. It's dangerous to ignore your competitors' innovations. Occasionally they'll flop, but can you really afford to take the risk?

If you hate Tim Horton's--and I know some readers of this blog that do--that's your prerogative. And of course you're free to bitch on any online forum you like about how tasteless their food is and how you wouldn't drink their coffee with a gun to your head. But do bear in mind that you're slagging the most popular quick-service chain in the country. There are millions of people who adore the place and are no less Canadian for doing so (and nor are you for despising it).

The same hatred exists in other areas. Music, for one. There's this group called Nickelback that, according to the intelligentsia, is the music industry equivalent of Tim Horton's: pre-fab rock with no musical redeeming quality whatsoever. Nickelback, like Tim's, is Canadian. And also like Tim's, they are insanely popular. They have sold almost as many albums as Tim's has cups of coffee. The people who hate Nickelback (and they are legion) never seem to account for this beyond mutteringly, darkly, that anything popular sucks by definition.
Punch in "why do people hate Nickelback" and one of the answers you'll get is "because they keep making songs that sound the same, and they play them over and over until they get stuck in your head." Call me naive, but I believe that makes their music pretty good. Isn't that what musicians aspire to? Writing a song that gets stuck in millions of heads and won't get out?

Pardon me, it's coffee time.

12 November, 2011

Greece Is The Word

So Greece is bankrupt for the seventh time in the past two hundred years.
This brings Ronald Wright's aphorism to mind yet again--"each time history repeats itself, the price goes up." This time, the price is immense. The first downpayment is Greek membership in the Eurozone. They remain in the union, for now, but in name only. Further casualties are certain...probably in the literal sense of lives lost. History shows that Europe does not remain merely unstable for long before going off like old nitroglycerin.

In hindsight, one wonders what those who moulded the European Union could possibly have been thinking. I'd imagine they let idealism run roughshod over reality. Wouldn't it be nice, they thought, if we could unite continental Europe into a land free of nationalism? Laudable goal, politically. Financially, however...
Putting aside the cultural differences between northern and southern European nations, removing the ability for a country to manage its own economy is never a very good idea. Greece, of course, compounded things by by not just cooking its books, but positively charring them, in a successful (at first) effort to deceive the overseers that all was and would be well.

Well, all is not well. This has been driven home with all the force of a blow from Zeus' hammer. The nerve of Papandreou! To think he could actually threaten to take the latest bailout package to the hoi polloi in a referendum, as if Greece had invented democracy or something! Merckel and Sarkozy set the record straight. Greece was a member in questionable standing of the European Union, it was told, and it would remain so as long as it did what it was told, without question or hesitation. Any misstep, such as, oh, I don't know, involving the citizenry...well, the punishment would be mythical and immediate.

So much for a union of equals.

To be clear, yes, Greece brought this calamity on itself through fiscal mismanagement so extreme it qualifies as an art form. That said, nobody deserves what's about to befall the commoners in that benighted country. Wages are being cut by up to 60% as taxes and levies rise. If you check your Revolutionary Cookbook--call it The Joy Of Anarchy--you'll find those two ingredients are the binding agents in any dish of civil unrest you can imagine.

There have already been riots. As things progress, you can expect more. If we're lucky, they won't spread and engulf the whole of Europe.

Do you feel lucky, punk?


06 November, 2011

Possibilities

There's a very interesting article in this month's issue of Wired. There usually is, of course--Wired is one of a very few publications I tend to read cover to cover--but this one is above and beyond. It concerns the future of music, now that Facebook is teaming up with Spotify to dethrone iTunes.
The beleaguered record industry hasn't even fully accepted iTunes yet. Imagine the conniption when 'buying' music becomes entirely obsolete.
That's what the union of Facebook and Spotify will evertually accomplish. You won't "own" music anymore: it will reside in the amorphous, world-spanning "cloud", ready to rain down on you, or your friends, with a single mouse-click. When you're done listening, back to the cloud it goes.
 How, exactly, money will be made from this model of instant access to everything remains to be seen. Currently, Spotify (which, like almost everything really valuable on the Internet, is not yet available in Canada), "charges" you a few minutes of ads per hour of listening, with ad-free listening available at $5 a month and the ability to listen offline costing an additional $10/month.

The way kids are today, I can all too easily imagine the offline option disappearing. You mean, listen to music...OFF THE INTERNET? Why would I ever go offline? That's like cutting out my eyes!


Anyway, Facebook and Spotify are in the process of converging, which is a big reason why Facebook's user interface changed yet again a few months back. Soon, you'll be able to see exactly what your friends are listening to (and eventually watching).  It's all about sharing, which is Facebook's core value, much to the dismay of privacy commissioners and other old fogies who think like them.

"You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it", said the CEO of Sun Microsystems in that ancient year of 1999. And many have,  to the point where it seems the first instinct after anything happens is to tweet it, or take a picture of it and post it on your Wall. Events have occurred in my own life over the past few years that I have had to resist the impulse to share. I still have (at least) one foot in the era where the default setting was 'private'. The new paradigm requires a complete redefinition of self that I am not quite up to.

This article really did get me thinking, though, because in it I can see the barest glimpse of a possible future. It remains to be seen how money can be made off a business model that grants instant access to any desired piece of musical product, especially since consumers have shown a marked aversion to subscription options. The only way I can see this working is if we're willing to redefine "money".

And we just may be.

Consider the Huffington Post. Many people (most of them considerably younger than I) line up for the chance to write for them. When I first discovered this site, I considered writing for them as well. Something with the reach of HuffPo must pay handsomely.

Nope. In fact, they don't pay AT ALL, not in any currency you can hold in your hand. They pay in exposure. The mind recoils. Exposure won't pay the bills. Exposure is something you can die from! And yet here are people willing and eager to get their name out there gratis, paid, for the time being, in nothing but fickle fame.

Another example: Rome, Sweet Rome.
Reddit.com is the only site I frequent more often than Facebook. It is my chief source for news and entertainment both. Reddit itself uses a reputational-based currency ("upvotes") to "reward" contributions of interesting and informative material and commentary. Anyway, a few months back, someone asked the Reddit community (which numbers in the millions, and includes people from every conceivable profession and walk of life), "could a single regiment of the U.S. Marines take out the Roman Empire?"  An anonymous user was intrigued by this question, and threw together a piece of flash fiction. Fellow Redditors were so impressed they demanded a fleshing out. And now that anonymous contributor has himself a movie deal.

That's reputational currency morphing into actual dollars. Let's go one step further and leave dollars out of the equation entirely.

Such a system is only possible in a fully integrated world where everyone's actions are at the very least traceable...better yet, instantly visible. That may sound ridiculous, but in fact we're not near as far away from such as system as you might like to believe. The average person in Britain passes over three hundred cameras in the course of his or her daily routine, and those are just cameras placed by the state.  Imagine how many cellphone cameras there are. Better yet, imagine a few iterations of Moore's Law down the line, when effectively unlimited processing power is essentially free. Today's blogs become true lifelogs. Big Brother is not some faceless governmental entity: he's...everyone. All of us are under surveillance; all of us are doing the surveilling.
You could actually eliminate money. You could be credited for your good deeds...and debited for your bad ones. A full scoping out of such an economy is well beyond the scope of this Breadbin...mostly because it's up to us how it's shaped, and what constitutes good or evil deeds, and what level of remuneration is applicable for each. That could well be decided by group up-vote or down-vote. Certain crimes like rape or murder would have a set negative value. (The way I envision this is that anyone would be born with, say, a thousand credits; a crime like murder would automatically net you, say, ten thousand negative credits, and anyone with a negative reputational value would be sent to prison.
You'd still need a court system to present an alleged criminal's side of the story, but evidence itself would rarely be in dispute.

All this from sharing music, Ken? Well, yes. The creators of music would also be paid in reputational credits. You could even scale this such that certain trustworthy individuals, themselves with a high credit standing, could award more credits with a kind word (though I'd be leery of allowing any one person too much negative capability). You could gain reputational credits for producing any sort of highly regarded art; heck, even menial jobs could pay in credits for a good job, and debit a poor one.  Cory Doctorow, in his novel Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, described his reputational currency ("Whuffie") like this:

"Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn't starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace. By measuring the thing that money really represented — your personal capital with your friends and neighbors — you more accurately gauged your success."

We're still several paradigm shifts from this being a desirable system to the majority of people. As usual, I find myself out ahead of the curve. I believe reputational currency is one possible solution to the disparity of wealth behind the Occupy protests. In my imagined world, there would still be rich people--probably many more rich people, actually. The difference is, in my world, all of them would have earned it...and if they were to use their riches for ill, they'd lose them in a hurry.

02 November, 2011

Movember...

You'd never know it from the weather outside--it's 17 and sunny right now and this could pass for a cool day in August--but we've hit November. This is the month for diseases of all sorts: it's Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month; COPD Awareness Month, Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month; American Diabetes Month (I guess Canadian Diabetes Month is December); Crohn's and Ulcerative Colitis Awareness Month; and Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

Are you aware of all these diseases? Good, your work is done for another month.

Seriously, it's always bothered me when days, weeks, or entire months are set aside to promote some vague "awareness". It's International Drum Month, too: does that mean drums are verboten at any other time of the year?
Take  Remembrance Day, the 11th of this month, by the way. It's not that I have a problem with Remembrance Day. On the contrary. I just wonder why it's only one day a year. Shouldn't we keep the spirit of Remembrance Day year-round?

The same goes for Mother's Day, or Canada Day, or National Piss-Shiver Awareness Week, or any other pseudo-occasion you can dream up. Valentine's Day? A pointless popularity contest in school (can you tell how popular I wasn't?) and it's not much better in adulthood. Really, does it have to be Valentine's Day for me to acknowledge how much I love my wife? I do it every day.

Christmas? For Christians, it certainly shouldn't be the only day of the year they think about Christ. For the rest of us, sure, the occasion is nice if you don't let it get the better of you, but again, maybe we should give gifts to people "just because".

Back to November: it's also National Novel Writing Month (because any novel worth publishing is written in thirty days!);  National Pomegranate Month (whatever); and National American Heritage Month. Feel free to ignore your American heritage at any other time.

And oh, yeah, it's Movember.

In case you've been living under a beard, Movember is a portmanteau of "mousrache" and "November", The idea here is that men, and particularly hirsute women, I guess, are supposed to shave their moustaches off at the first of the month and let them grow until December. This is supposed to somehow promote awareness of prostate cancer, by some mechanism I utterly fail to grasp. I mean, at the very least, shouldn't it be your ass-hair you don't shave this month?

And get this: you're supposed to seek out sponsorship and raise funds. I can just see it now.  "Hello, I'm Ken from down the road and I'm raising funds to combat prostate cancer. See, here's the deal. You give me money, and I don't shave." Cue the slamming of the door.

By the bye, I shaved last night. Not because it was the first of November...because I dislike chewing on my moustache.


01 November, 2011

Merry Christmas?

The Pillsbury Snowmen arrived last night. The rest of the Christmas loot arrives this evening. We're to be fully Yuletided by Thursday.

Bah humbug.

If I ran the world, it would be illegal to so much as mention Christmas until December the first. There is no need, no need whatsoever, for stores to tout their holiday sales before there's even a reasonable chance of snow on the ground. And by the way, can we not at least wait for Remembrance Day? I know soldiers died to defend democracy, but somehow I don't think they envisioned a rampant consumer orgy, do you?

Maybe we could wait until American Thanksgiving. They do. Then again, they have "Black Friday", which is impossible to explain from any sane retail perspective. Why offer your best deals at the very beginning of the season and allow all your customers to buy up your store at a loss?
Things are different up here where Santa lives. (Don't believe Santa's Canadian? He has his own postal code: H0H 0H0.) Our stores don't tend to put anything on sale just because it's Christmas. Oh, they say everything's on sale...just like they do in April or September.
Now Boxing Day, on the other hand...after Christmas, when you've got leftover inventory that's gotta go....
That's how it used to be. I know a a few people who celebrate Christmas five or fifteen days late, just to take advantage of all the blowout sales. Those sales still exist, but I'm seeing more and more retailers up here adopting the American model: big "Black Friday" sales. Never American big, mind you. Our prices make me ashamed to be Canadian, some days.
(Aside: I lit into somebody on a CBC news forum for saying "what with bread at $4 a loaf, no wonder people are poor." Four bucks a loaf? Where the hell are you shopping? Was I put in my place but good. Apparently in many places outside Ontario, four bucks a loaf is normal now. Yike. I thought $2.50 was ridiculous.)

I've actually seen Boxing Day sales extended almost into February. I don't believe the Christmas season should last three months, do you?


31 October, 2011

Random Hallowe'en Musings

I've never seen a ghost.
I've felt one, or at least the cold spot that is commonly linked to ghostly activity. That happened a quarter century ago, and you can be forgiven for thinking I imagined it; I can only assert that I didn't, and that the
sensation of sweat freezing on you in midsummer is a helluva persuader. It scared the crap out of me, I don't mind admitting.

If you haven't guessed, I believe in ghosts. I believe in ghosts on the grounds that there have been entirely too many sightings of ghostly phenomena for me not to. Even if 99.99% of these sightings are fraudulent, that still leaves a goodish number of odd events for which "ghosts" are as good an explanation as any.

I've read a great number of accounts of 'true' hauntings over the years, and one of the common denominators in most of these stories is a specific sort of death. Heart failure is unlikely to lead to a haunting, whereas if someone dies of a broken heart...that's another story.  And if death is violent, expect a spectre...at least, according to the tales.
This makes a kind of sense, within its own logical framework. If you can accept the idea of psychic energy--and perhaps you'd accept it more readily if I call it electrical impulses--you'd probably grant that sudden, violent death should leave some sort of trace. And further accepting that human will may transcend human life--which is, granted, a difficult proposition for those who think that this life is all there is to existence--it seems plausible that one could, perhaps, leave something of oneself behind.

Ghosts, if they exist, are supposed to be frightening. That cold spot aside, I can't think why. If an apparition flits into my bedroom tonight, I think I'd be more curious than scared. And if the traditional definition of ghosts is the true one, viz. a soul that has not fully 'passed on'...well, I don't know about you, but I'd find that more sad than anything.

-----

The scariest book I have ever read is undoubtedly The Shining, by Stephen King. If your only exposure to this masterwork is Kubrick's adaptation, do yourself a favour and read the novel. Kubrick's version was gutwateringly scary in spots, but he missed the emotional core of the story entirely. You'd never know it from Nicholson's portrayal, but Jack Torrance loved both his wife and his son dearly.

I would love to be a hotel caretaker for a winter. I'm not prone to the shack-wackies...even if my Internet connection went down, I'd have any number of books to escape into. But I'd bloody well hope I was as much of a psychic zero as I seem to be. I do have a fairly vivid imagination, and I'd hate to imaginate myself right into the Twilight Zone. I don't believe myself to be capable of murder under all but the most extreme conditions...but that's not a statement I'd care to test.

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I just read another Stephen King story, "1922", from the collection Full Dark, No Stars. I don't know of any other author who can so effortlessly make the horrific seem normal and the normal seem horrific.
This novella concerns one Wilfrid Leland James, a farmer with deep ties to his land. His wife, Arlette, intends to sell off the land she inherited and use the proceeds to open a shop in the city; Wilfrid enlists their teenage son Henry to put a stop to those plans...and to Arlette. (It's disturbing how inevitable King makes murder out to be, almost as if distaste at your wife's habitual "pert little head-toss" is just one more excuse to slit her throat.
James--and his son--manage to get away with the murder: the law pokes around, but only halfheartedly, buying their fiction that Arlette ran off. (At one point, the sheriff says something to the effect that if she's found, he'll drag her back by the hair to face her husband's justice. It sure was a different world in 1922.
So yes, they commit the perfect crime...except their victim won't stay dead. Madness ensues, and you'll have to read the story to see how it turns out. Suffice it to say I had an awful nightmare last night concerning rats.

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I've actually had more than my share of nightmares recently, some of them so terrible that I scrub all vestiges of them out of my head within seconds of waking up. Nightmares are strange, or at least mine are. Unlike my wife's, my dreams are almost always firmly rooted in prosaic life. They could happen, ergo, when I wake, I often think they did. I came downstairs once crying over a dead cat only to find her alive and well and twining 'tween my legs.

Happy Hallowe'en to one and all.

28 October, 2011

The B's Knees

I'm about as flexible as your average iron bar. Ask me to touch my toes, and I'll tell you to hand me a chainsaw. In all honesty, I can't reach much below my knees without cheating.
This is, as I've said before, one complication from my premature birth. I have been advised--by an actual doctor, with an actual medical degree--that while flexibility exercises would help me, they could only do so much. (Which I couldn't help but hear as why bother. Stretching is bloody well painful.)

My appalling lack of flexibility has had one, arguably, positive consequence: my knees are invincible.

I've been kneeling since at least kindergarten. Other children would sit cross-legged for story time; little Kenny would look as if he was deep in prayer. I think that was my first clue I was not like other children...they sat cross-legged so comfortably, and every time I tried to mimic them I'd want to scream.

A career stocking shelves has only toughened my knees further. Supremely athletic people I know stare at me in total awe as I slam down to my knees and proceed to knee-walk across the concrete. I can still hear Craig...his voice has been echoing in my head for a year now. "G-baby*," he said, "doesn't that hurt?
"Doesn't what hurt?"
"If I tried to do what you just did, my knee would fall off."
"Didn't feel it."
"Wow".

*in case you're wondering, "G-baby" derives from "Kenny G." At first I loathed the nickname...after a time I grew to accept it, then like it.

 Anyway, there are massive calluses on both my knees. Or at least there were.

Last weekend we had an inventory, my first in my new store. To my relief, the procedures are exactly the same here as they were there. In fact, I was able to show them a shortcut I had developed three inventories ago. So that was okay.
On the other hand, it was still an inventory, and inventories suck. An inventory is the only time you'll find someone in the walk-in freezer for more than a minute or two. In fact, I have found over the years that no matter how much or how little stock I've got on hand, it takes between four and five hours to count the freezer, compared to never more than 90 minutes to count a dairy cooler.
The same holds true in this new location.

I actually thought this was going to be a walk in the park, before I started. For reasons I'd rather not get into, I have quite a lot of stock on hand, but relatively few skus. That's a recipe for an easy count. Except I had forgotten about all the part-cases.
I used to have one ironclad rule in dairy and frozen: if a full case won't fit on the shelf, don't stock any of it. Transgressors got the Death Glare for a first offense, There was never a second.

Here, people have no choice but to stock half, third and quarter cases. This store is very small, and yet has almost as many products...so each item's only got one facing on the shelf, for the most part, which in turn means whole cases almost never fit up.

Part cases are a bitch to count.

Worse, the layout of this freezer is such that there is a lot of stock on the bottom shelves, which are quite deep. So I was down on my knees on a concrete floor for several minutes at a time. A COLD concrete floor. In fact, there are shards of ice in places.

Long story short, I got some kind of frostbite on both knees, which morphed into blisters, which popped...taking my calluses with them. My knees are now raw and EXTREMELY sensitive.

Eva tells me eventually those calluses will grow back, but it;s going to "hurt like hell" in the meantime. She's right about that last part, at least.

22 October, 2011

Early Morning Thoughts

My apologies for the lack of so much as a crumb in the Breadbin over the past twelve days. There has not been very much of late I can, or want to, write about. Out in the wider world, I sense we're in a period of calm before the fit hits the shan in earnest: I won't speculate just when the feces will commence to spattering, but I don't believe the relative levelheadedness of the Occupy movement will last much longer. Nor, for that matter, do I think that the jitterbugging stock markets (two hundred points down one day, a hundred and sixty up the next) presages anything worth contemplating. I hope I'm wrong on both counts, and concede my predictive track record suggests I probably am--but if so, I'm afraid I have more questions than answers.  At what point, pray tell, does the money being frantically scribbled on to the collective balance sheets of several European nations actually disappear from whatever balance sheet whence it came? And what happens when people get to noticing it's gone?

Andrew Coyne has a terrific article in this week's Macleans--not yet available electronically, unfortunately, or you could bet I'd link it up--to the effect that the Occupy Wall Street folks have it all wrong: the rich aren't the problem. He cites some stats to show that while the income gap between rich and poor is indeed widening, it's really only the richest of the uber-rich responsible. The mere elite, let alone the well-to-do, are not suffering, by any means, but neither are they gaining at the expense of anyone else, Moreover, where once and not long ago the typical billionaire got richer by means of capital, the bulk of executive compensation nowadays turns out to be salary. And why should we care, asks Coyne, if a few people are obscenely rich? If shareholders of a private company vote to pay their CEO some lavish sum out of their own pockets, how is that a crime?

Just when you think Coyne is going to conclude his essay with an appeal to come join him in Galt's Gulch, he shocks you with the following:

",,,while there's little we can do about inequality at the top, there's quite a lot we can do about inequality at the bottom: mostly by giving the poor more money."

I must confess I did a spit-take, reading that. Coyne is not known for being a raving socialist, and most conservatives in my acquaintance positively grit their teeth at the notion of "giving" poor people anything. Yet there is much merit in the idea of a legislated minimum standard of living. Coyne again:

"The National Council of Welfare has just released a report estimating the cost of lifting every Canadian out of poverty in 2007 at $12 billion...about what you'd get from another two percentage points on the HST. Alas, that calls upon us to show compassion, rather than resentment; to give, rather than to take. Which may explain why there has been so much talk about the rich this past week, and so little talk about the poor."

Wow...

It's twenty to four in the morning, and I find at this point I don't have anything more coherent to say than "wow". So I'll vacate the premises, with a note that I won't likely return until Tuesday evening earliest. Work has been rather demanding of late. I've no doubt I made the right decision changing employers, but the vicissitudes of retail remain the same. 

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I'll leave you with some music I've just discovered. About two months ago, I first learned of a group called Dream Theater and have listened to little else since. I've just found out about an instrumental offshoot called Liquid Tension Experiment, and have experienced wave after wave of musical frisson listening to their soundscapes and jams.  Feel the love:




10 October, 2011

Occupying Forces

I found this floating around the Net and grabbed it:

click to embiggen

The people behind this poster think they get it. They think that the people in this poster are clueless and naive and every bit as greedy as the Wall Street banksters are made out to be. After all, the corporations these rabble-rousers are rabbling and rousing against furnish every least comfort they've ever known.

For example, many of those folks in that poster own some sort of iDevice, developed in large part by the late Steve Jobs. Jobs was a one-percenter: his net worth at his death was something on the order of $8.7 billion. Do the protesters hate Jobs and Apple? Likely not. They gleefully use their Apple product without a thought as to the effort and money that went into it. They don't hate Apple: supposedly, they hate "corporations". Well, Apple is a corporation. Not just that, it's the richest corporation on the planet.

The people behind this poster do not get it. The people in this poster do: contrary to popular misconception, they're not protesting against "corporations". The movement is called "Occupy Wall Street", not "Occupy Cupertino and Redmond".

Corporations contribute something tangible to the world. Some of them do so by nefarious means--Monsanto immediately springs to mind--but even Monsanto has invented the occasional useful product in its relentless pursuit of profit at all costs.
The American economy used to be based entirely on this sort of thing. It was run by makers: people who harvested or manufactured or otherwise produced items of worth, which were then sold to their neighbours; gradually, the definition of 'neighbour' expanded until it included first countrymen, then other citizens of the planet. Some of these makers got a ways beyond themselves and were often characterized as 'takers': the great 'robber barons', some of whose names are still around today.
Of course, today, America's economy is somewhat...different. It's the most consumerist, arguably the most materialistic, society on earth, but it mostly consumes material they had no hand in making. Many corporations have abandoned the U.S. in whole or in part, choosing instead to do business somewhere without all those pesky environmental regulations and even peskier unions demanding "exorbitant" wages for workers--in other words, the kinds of wages that workers used to have in the 1950s and 60s: a time when one factory income was sufficient to feed, clothe and house a family of four or five.

"Every time history repeats itself," says Ronald Wright, "the price goes up." Last year, the richest one percent of households took a larger percentage of total income than at any time since 1928.

And what have they done to earn such largesse?

Well, some of them have done great works, and more than a few have maintained some kind of social conscience. Bill Gates has given away unimaginable sums of money and created charitable foundations whose contribution to the world might eventually rival the personal computer's.

Others, however, have managed banks and hedge funds, devising ever-more ingenious methods to play chess with ordinary people as pieces. It got to the point in the United States where vast numbers of people had no idea who ultimately owned their mortgage...those debt obligations had been sliced, diced, and tranched so many times as to render them hopelessly toxic. Those Wall Street banksters bent countless securities regulations until they broke, and then simply re-arranged the pieces until they had an environment more to their liking. When found out--the 2008 financial crisis could have been dubbed The Great Finding-Out--they simply shrugged their shoulders as if to say what choice did we have? ...and then demanded that the U.S. government bail them out. And this was accepted. Not one person has served so much as a day in jail for the countless lives that have been ruined.

THIS is what Occupy Wall Street is about. The primary focus of anger is not at corporations or even, necessarily, their overly-compensated CEOs. It's rather directed at the people who have gained for themselves huge amounts of money while doing nothing of value. You can call these people Takers or you can call them Fakers, but they are not Makers, except in their own minds.

 Only a few people are truly against corporations; most people realize those corporations are where all the jobs come from. Most of the protesters recognize that the system is out of balance: that the government is hopelessly in thrall to corporations that no longer have the interests of ordinary Americans in mind. Not anti-corporation: anti-corporatist. There's a big difference.