27 July, 2013

This Is Not About Hockey

...although the necessary background I'm going to give is very much about hockey, I hope the non-hockey fans can get through it for the sake of what comes after.

NECESSARY BACKGROUND (hockey hockey hockey -- sorry)

This blog entry concerns two people who happen to be professional hockey players. Their names are Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak, and they work for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Most would say they play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but I'd like to draw attention to the fact that this is their profession.)

As NHL hockey players, they are among the most talented practitioners of their trade in the world. Phil Kessel is in the upper echelon of even that rarefied company. Over the last three seasons, there have been all of three people among 700-plus NHL hockey players who have more points than Phil Kessel. 

Tyler Bozak is Kessel's  line mate, for reasons many Leaf fans fail to comprehend. He is nowhere near as talented as Phil...in fact, statistically he is inferior to every other player at his position (known in hockey vernacular as 1C, or first line center) in the league. He's even statistically inferior to about a third of the 2Cs.  But he is and remains Toronto's 1C, 
Tyler Bozak's biggest drawback is Phil Kessel. His line mate is so much better than he is...and Tyler knows it...so his first instinct is ALWAYS to pass the puck to Phil. He could be facing an open net and he'd pass to Phil instead of shooting. The damnedest thing is that Bozak, while certainly not on Kessel's level, is not a terrible hockey player by any means. He has exhibited an ability to score goals one on one (in "shootouts") with the goaltender, using nifty moves you wish you'd see more of in game situations. But in game situations, Phil is riding shotgun, and he gets to fire the shotgun. 

The line itself produces in spite of Bozak, largely because Phil Kessel is just that good. But many, perhaps most, Leaf fans do not like Tyler Bozak in the IC role and think he'd be better suited to a career as a 3C. 

Now, Bozak's work contract came up for review this year, and Toronto management saw fit not just to retain his services, but to give him a hefty raise. He is now not just playing on a line he statistically does not belong on, but being paid quite a bit more than he probably deserves, relative to other players at his level.  This has enraged a sizeable portion of the fan base.

It perturbed me a little, I'll admit. I try to keep an even keel about the Toronto Maple Leafs, inasmuch as a hockey fan (some would say fanatic) can. It occurred to me that there just might be some stuff going on behind the scenes, because

MAIN BODY OF POST (which is NOT about hockey)

Tyler and Phil are best friends.

Really good friends, as in, despite the fact they make what can reasonably be defined as a metric shit-tonne of money between them, they live together. They're practically inseparable not just at work, but outside of work as well.
This close friendship has led me to speculate that perhaps, just perhaps, Kessel might leave some money on the table when it comes time to negotiate his next contract.  He might do this for two reasons. One, because he genuinely loves working with his best friend; two, because that best friend makes a little more than he maybe should, perhaps Phil will choose to make a little less than he probably should...for the sake of the team. 

I have advanced this theory online in several places, and each time I do it I get flamed to a crisp. The overwhelming consensus is that if this is Phil's mindset at all, he's a child. C'mon, I'm told. Get real. This guy makes millions of dollars. You think friends matter when you make that much coin?

Yeah, I do.

It always comes down to the money, doesn't it? Hockey players are millionaires many times over, ergo they are no longer human. Unlike every other employer in Canada, theirs has made no effort whatsoever to minimize injuries in the workplace. And the injuries associated with their line of work are not just severe, often, but also distressingly common. But so what, they're rich. 
It's not enough that hockey players hardly see their families during the season. We also insist they and their families be uprooted every few years, Maybe the wives are understanding (not always, though)...but the kids? How do you explain to an eight year old that he's got to leave all his friends and go be somewhere strange? You think it matters that Daddy makes a lot of money? I don't.
Now I'm led to believe that well, maybe hockey players are permitted friends, but those friends should cast no influence whatsoever on their professional decisions..

I disagree. Strongly.

I would accept less money in exchange for working with friends. I know quite a few people who have done just that. Money isn't everything even at peon level; when you make as much money as these hockey players do, it's even less of a thing. So you pick your environment, and working with your BFF is surely a consideration.

Actually, when you're rich, friends matter even more in some ways. Especially if those friends are rich, too. You know it's you and not your money, for one thing. For another, you know your friend understands the trials and tribulations of your life, trials and tribulations that strangers think shouldn't be an issue because $$$$$$$. 

You know, if I ever meet Phil Kessel -- or Tyler Bozak, for that matter -- I'd make a point not to talk to them about hockey at all, at least at first. I don't expect people to be terribly interested in the esoterica of the retail grocery industry and I bet fawning adulation gets really old after a while. There's more to life than work, just like there's more to work than money.

25 July, 2013

How Far Would You Go For Your Pets?

is the question posed by the Globe and Mail on Facebook today. Among many heartwarming replies, I found this:


Dogs are way overrated and many owners are obsessed with them in an unhealthy way. I often have the feeling that the people who are turning to dogs and pets do so because they have failed in the "human world." Sort out your issues instead of fleeing from them and trying to compensate with animals. Humans may be flawed but they are also the sources of the greatest joys in this world. An animal may be cute, but it never develops after a certain point, it never matures, your relationship with it will never surpass a very basic interaction. Also, even the most faithful dog will forget you in 2 weeks if you are away (e.g. if you are in a hospital for some time) and he gets his food from someone else. They are instinctual little opportunists, nothing more.
--"Daniel Gyovai"

Well, that's one opinion. Here's mine in response:

Speak for yourself, Daniel. You can't *make* a human love you unconditionally--in point of fact, most humans have no idea what that even means. Whereas for dogs, unconditional love is the default setting. As for dogs 'forgetting you'...sorry, but you are one hundred percent dead wrong there. Check YouTube for any number of videos of pets reunited with their humans after six months or a year.

There's so much more I could write here. I am a loving pet owner and I don't think it's because I have "failed in the human world". I know many other loving pet owners and few, if any of them have failed in the human world either. (I guess I should have asked for clarification from Daniel as to what constitutes 'human world failure' in his eyes. No kids? No lifemare? No friends? I've got no kids, true, not for lack of trying. Other than that I think Eva and I are doing this human world thing pretty well.)

Oh, if you ask either of us to be as candid as possible, we'll likely tell you we do prefer animals to (many) people. That's because so much of what people, speaking generally of course, are up to holds no interest for us. I'm not into drama for drama's sake. Office politics bore me into the ground. I'm not interested in being hurt, taken advantage of, strung along, taken for granted, or being given the 'frenemy' treatment...all of which humans have done to me through the years, and none of which any animal has ever even attempted.
I believe in a world of 'power with, not power over', a world where life is not a competition and where there need not be a loser for every winner. The world as it is tends to let me down. My friends don't do that...and neither does my family, which includes my pets.

How far would we go for our pets? Tux just had dental surgery last month. Cost us over a grand. Didn't bat an eye. And Tux, truth be told, isn't the favourite around here.

Eva says she will never get another male dog, on account of just how strongly this one imprinted on her. Of course we love the Tux, but he loves Mommy just a little too much. Meanwhile, the Georgia-Peach is Daddy's dog, mostly because (I think) it's Daddy that throws her Georgia-ball. She will cuddle up to the Mommy when she's scared, but her usual sleeping position is glommed to the Daddy and she listens more closely to whatever Daddy asks her to do. But she is adorable in everyone's eyes: I'm pretty sure everyone who meets our Peach falls in love with her.

And then there's the B.B.-cat, who will likely not be around overmuch longer. She's had a full, full span of years, arriving in Eva's life long before I did. She, too, is part of the family, as was her companion Streak. Cats give you a different sort of love. different from the kind dogs dole out. But they love you, all the same, and as far as I'm concerned, my house is not my home without at least one cat in it. In fact, once B.B's gone, we'll likely be getting two kittens for the Tux and Peach to play with.

Pets enrich a home. I would never suggest to you parents that they're better than kids (though they sure cost a damn sight less). But they're our kids and we love them very much.

By George, I've had enough.

I was going to keep quiet about this. I have monarchist friends, and a wife who follows the Royal Family closely, and it's not as if I bear any member of that family ill will at all. (We all have our eccentricities...so what if a man speaks to plants, has his toothpaste squeezed on to the brush for him, and thinks homeopathy is the bee's knees?)

But I can't keep quiet any more. It's front page news again today, little prince Nameless has been christened George Alexander Louis and isn't he just the most adorable little wee thing? He's been on the front page of the world's newspapers since he was inside his mother and he's still there now and for the love of all that's sacred, are we going to get a front-page account of his every milestone? "Future King George Says First Word". (Don't laugh, there's a thriving betting trade on what that word will be, just as there has been about his gender, his weight, and his name.)

I love what Charlie Stross, the Scottish republican sf author, has to say about this:

"Amiable couple distantly descended from red-handed mass-murdering hereditary dictator who invaded nation in 1066 succeed in repeating a process that every last one of their ancestors managed to accomplish (i.e. producing a child). News media feeding frenzy ensues ..."


What puzzles me most about the people gushing over the little kinglet is that almost to a person, these people stand for equality of opportunity. They'll tell you, as is only reasonable, that people should accede to high positions on merit alone, that stature is a product of performance, and that there are no second-class citizens. But little Georgie is in line for a throne not because of anything he, or even any of his relatives. have done. He just is, that's the way it works and don't you commoners forget it.

To be fair, his parents have made a real and concerted effort to be as common as their royalty permits. They do their own shopping, for instance. They<a href="http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2232618/On-64th-birthday-Prince-Charles-dispels-myths-him.html"> don't have 161.1 people on staff
to serve their every whim (one really does wonder what unlucky sod is considered by Prince Charles to be a tenth of a person...) They're adored largely for that common touch. But they are royals, as is their son, and don't you real commoners ever forget it.
Yes, I get that Canada is a constitutional monarchy. Yes, yes, tradition and all that.  Can't we at least have our own class of royalty? We've been independent of Britain for some time now. That's if we need these people at all. So far as I can see or tell, their sole function in society is to stand on ceremony. I can do that at a fraction of the cost. Oh, wait, I can't....I don't have the right bloodline for it. If it's any consolation...none of you do either.

I wish little George all the best growing up...but can he please stay off the front page of the newspaper?


23 July, 2013

You Oughta Be In Pictures...

...No, I oughtn't.

Yet another way I am technologically challenged: I do not own, nor do I feel the need to own, a camera.

I know and love people who take copious (and professional quality) pictures. I understand the inclination to document life in photographic form as it passes, and I don't begrudge the urge in others. It's simply not one I share.

 I don't take pictures well and I certainly don't appear in them well. On both sides of the camera I am acutely conscious of the 'staginess' of the moment. When taking a picture, I feel the overwhelming impatience of my subject; where it doesn't exist I feel compelled to create it. And when I'm the subject...impatience really isn't the right word. Dread would be a better one. What I am going to look like in this shot? Psychotic, mentally challenged, or just plain goofy?
The latter is the best I can hope for. I have what I'd like to think of as a decent amount of (very hard-won) self-esteem, but I know my weaknesses. I am quite simply not photogenic. Hideously misshapen teeth that in all but the rarest of unguarded instances prevent my inner smile from becoming a full-fledged grin; eyes that tend to point everywhere except where I'm supposed to be looking, despite my best efforts; and a face that could sink a thousand ships, that's me.

Folks, I am not saying this to get sympathy, or indeed any emotion at all out of my readers. I'm okay with this knowledge. It doesn't bother me most of the time. I have a wealth of gifts: empathy (probably a little too  much of that), a real desire to change the world for the better, and a modicum of intelligence. A few other talents that don't bear mentioning. I have the love of a perfectly lovely woman who, despite the hyperobservance I just detailed, is thankfully blind whenever she looks at me. All of these things make my life a joy, and so I can discount that you're never going to see me on the cover of Playgirl unless its publishers decide to drive it out of business as quickly as possible.

I'd just as soon move through the world un-photographed, physically unremembered. It's the love I leave in my wake that's important, or at least I think so. But occasionally photographs must be posed for, and in those instances my face tries to run away and hide. Being as it's stuck to my head, which is immobile except for an unfortunate and often unnoticed (by me) tilt, it's impossible for that face of mine to really go anywhere. It doesn't stop it from trying, creating (again, completely unconscious) expressions ranging from "I-think-I-just-shit-my-pants" to "I-believe-I-feel-about-twenty-cockroaches-scuttling-through-my-hair".  Such expressions do not pair well with a command to 'smile!'.

What brought all this to mind? This. According to this article, ten percent of all the photos that have ever been taken were taken in the past year. I find that incredible and more than a little disturbing.
"[Photos] are our memories of holidays and parties, of people and places"....well, not mine. My MEMORY is my memory of all these things and many more, and when it becomes unreliable I have an unbroken quarter-century of writing to fall back on. A picture may paint a thousand words, but in writing out and reading back those words I don't just see, I re-live, in a world of four dimensions and more than five senses.  

And, of course, there's the so-common-it's expected sharing of those pictures. That's the first thing people do now when they take a picture: they share it. I get it--have I not quoted Spider Robinson often enough, saying shared joy is increased?--but at the same time I confess it mystifies me a little.

Time was, if you took a picture of something truly important and memorable in more than just a personal way, you'd try to sell it to a newspaper for money, and you would then take the money and exchange it for the usual...food, shelter, what have you. Now, if you take a picture of something truly important and memorable--like, say, a disaster unfolding--it's on social media before the click of the fake shutter has died away. You haven't sold your picture, you've given it away, and you get nothing for it. Doesn't seem right to me. Then again, since it's more than likely others got something close to the same shot (after all, everybody has a camera now), your picture's probably worthless anyway.

I remember watching the opening and closing ceremonies of the London Olympics on television. I have never in my life seen so many photos being taken--the effect was like a giant strobe light pulsing through the audience. It occurred to me that nobody was actually watching the spectacle unfold in front of them...they were all letting their phones do that for them. Something about that struck me as almost soul-crushingly depressing. It felt, to me, like living life at a remove. That's all the rage now, of course--people would rather text than talk, for instance--but it's a rage I intend to let pass me by.

I don't even need a picture of it.      


21 July, 2013

Portrait of a Marriage

They say that opposites attract. I've never found that to be true. I don't think I could live with a neat freak, for example, and I know one couldn't live with me. I used to be ridiculously profligate with my money, and have since reformed (thanks in no small part to my wife)...I couldn't abide a spendthrift at this point in my life.
(Interesting -- if you're me -- linguistic aside: "spendthrift" means precisely the opposite of what you'd think it would, given thrifty means frugal: once upon a time, thrift meant "prosperity", and so a spendthrift is one who has spent her prosperity.)

What's true is that complements attract. It's dangerous to think of this as a "you complete me" exercise...each of us is a complete human being, and searching for 'completeness' in others too often produces a dependancy and associated expectations...which will eventually go unmet...and pop goes the world.

But since we're sharing the completeness of life together, it's interesting to look at our differences and how they inform our marriage.

The biggest difference between my wife and I is our level of observance of the world. Mine is virtually nonexistent. Hers is simply incredible.

I can't easily explain my absent-mindedness. It's just there, a constant. It dates back as long as I can remember, which probably means I tripped out of the womb.  I've called it HICS...Head In Clouds Syndrome, also an acute inflammation of the Hey, Watch Where The Fuck You're Going! gland.
It's beastly hard to put into words, the same way any default state is: suffice it to say most of the world dims to the point of invisibility and inaudibility  much of the time. Tell me something when I'm in this state, and without any cue that it's important, it'll as like go in one ear and out the other. Or take the television as an example. With the exception of a very few shows, I can't stand the television: it's just mindless chatter to me. So I simply don't hear it. The same thing applies to seeing Internet ads. I don't. I click to close without even noticing what they're for.

This is probably the most famous example of my HICS in action. It's by no means the only example. Ask my wife about the several times (SEVERAL!!! TIMES!!!) I have walked right past her without seeing her. Or I can tell you about that time, back in first year university, when I left my dorm room for a class, forgetting my textbook...I got halfway to class, realized I didn't have it, went back to the room, unlocked the door, threw my keys on the bed for some reason, retrieved the text, and then spent half an hour trying to find the keys I had just had in my hand.
Losing things is a daily, almost an hourly occurrence around here. It would undoubtedly be lessened if I could apply the 'place for everything and everything in its place' rule that the rest of the world lives by, but when you live life in a fugue state you tend to forget things like where you left your keys. Or your shoes. Or your pants.
I will freely admit HICS is probably curable, or at least can be managed better than I manage it. But the mental effort involved is daunting in the extreme. I try to pay attention to everything at once--my job demands it, for one thing--and the result, all too often, is me spinning like a top. I'm more of a 'complete one task and move on to the next' kind of person.

There's a reason I don't drive, people. There's a reason, a good reason, I'm scared shitless of trying to pilot an automobile. If I let my attention lapse for an instant, I'm apt to kill somebody and/or myself.

Contrast Eva. I have never in my life met somebody who can focus so intently on something and yet see everything else in the area at a single glance. She pays special attention to where anything of mine might be at any given moment, because I'm apt to ask her: "Love, where are my pants?" But it's not just that she sees all and hears all, she knows all by some process of osmosis I can't even grasp. She can tell you the plots of movies she's never seen. She's completely uninterested in most celebrities and yet can tell you things about them that they don't even know. Pop culture just seeps into her through her pores, or something.
She bores easily. Boredom, actually, is probably her default state the way HICS is mine. She's learned how to only do three or four things at once instead of the seven or eight she used to do (I'd like to think I've had something to do with that)...but give her only two streams of stimulation and she's mentally spinning like a top. She says lots of stuff to do "relaxes" her. I've known this woman for almost fifteen years now and I still haven't even begun to understand how that works. To me that's like saying "I need lots and lots of cold to feel warm".


We have an ill-defined point system in our marriage for when one of us surprises the other with some piece of knowledge that usually falls into the other's bailiwick. For  instance, my wife is bored almost to tears by hockey, which is a passion of mine...and every once in a while she'll out with some obscure stat or remind me of a goal that some player scored once, and thus earn mad points. The last time I earned mad super extra bonus points was the death of Cory Monteith. I'd never heard of this guy before he suddenly was everywhere. I had heard, vaguely, of some other Cor(e)ys, and I told my love that I wasn't surprised this one had died with drugs in his system, after all, his name was Cory. She looked at me for a second and then doled out a large number of points. I got even more when I provided the surnames of the other Cor(e)ys I was thinking of (Feldman and Haim) and even named the one who was still living -- that was a complete guess, and I've forgotten which one it is. Note that I couldn't identify a picture of any of these people. Just random chaff that stuck in the back of my brain, is all. But that chaff got me mad super extra bonus points and brightened my morning considerably.

Then there are the other points, the husband points I get for doing things like making dinner (which is silly, because I mean, hey, we gotta eat, and Eva doesn't get home until almost nine p.m....for her to have to cook dinner at that hour is ridiculous),  Or going shopping with her. Or making her coffee in the mornings. None of these things are worth points, in my estimation: they're all the bare minimum a husband does. The fact is I don't do enough around here -- laziness is second only to HICS as a fault of mine -- so the stuff I do tends to be directed towards her wherever possible.

She gets all the wife points for putting up with me. For loving me even when, especially when, I'm forgetting to love myself. For recognizing when I'm not capable of coherent thought and acting accordingly. For being the beacon in the storm that is life outside this house. The fact is I'm not comfortable in public, never have been. But with Eva next to me I can do anywhere and do anything.

You've seen our morning routine. The evening routine is similar, in reverse--in the summer it even often includes a shower, albeit much shorter one, just so I don't stick to the sheets. Eva falls asleep to the TV--gotta keep the stimulation going as long as possible. Usually, not always, the Food Network, just as long as it's focused on food and not people. Just today I groused about the coming "Sous-Chef wars"...I figure if the Food Network realities up any further, well have "Saucier Wars" and "Dishwasher Wars".
If I'm tired enough, I'll even fall asleep before the sleep timer goes off on the TV. Lately I've gotten somewhat used to six hours a night of sleep. Still not optimal, not for either of us. And it goes without saying (so I'll say it anyway) it's all but impossible to sleep soundly without Eva there on the other side of the Tux.

Our days are full of love and laughter and comfort and joy. I joke often that I'm still on the honeymoon...except it's not a joke. I'd marry Eva all over again in a heartbeat, and the only thing I'd change is most of the wedding party. Friends come and friends go, but Eva and I are that ever-fixed mark.

14 July, 2013

The Love Muscle

I never went through the 'girls are icky' stage that all little boys are supposed to experience. I found girls entrancing from my first exposure to them, away back in kindergarten. By grade one I had a girlfriend named Allison...the first girl I ever kissed. To this day I can tell you her address, which kind of frightens me being as I can't remember any number of important things in my current life.

Allison was the first girl to see me naked, and thereby hangs a tale. She came over to my house one day while I was having a bath, and when my mom came up to get me out of the bath, Allison followed her and barged into the bathroom. Like most kids that age, I'd imagine, I had no idea what she'd done wrong, only that it was definitely something, and looking back I'm kind of amazed at how cool my mother kept herself in the face of a seriously awkward situation. Then again, I don't recall seeing much of Allison after that, so perhaps some pressure was applied; in any event, she moved that summer and I never saw her again.

By grade three...well, I've written about what happened in grade three. Twice. After that, Her Name was Legion. I moved a lot starting the summer between third and fourth grade, attending three more elementary schools (one of them twice) and three different high schools. Each new school and each new year brought new girls to fixate on and new boys to beat me up. Very few of the girls over that time period paid me the slightest mind, and entirely too many of the boys paid me entirely too much mind. It's really some kind of blue-sky miracle that I eventually found equilibrium. I never was able to shut off the girl-valve entirely...even now I get crushes that are irrationally strong. But I've learned several coping strategies for them. The first and by far foremost, of course, is the happy marriage I have, the life I've built with Eva that I wouldn't exchange for all the crushes I've ever felt, even if they were all reciprocated. Marriage has a way of putting single life in perspective.

I've also learned to shut the hell up about the them. It's a good thing that piece of knowledge came to me well before I met my wife, eh? Before Eva came along, I was a perpetual maelstrom of raging hormones and inappropriate thoughts. That sort of thing forms a feedback loop if you let it, so I don't let it.

Perhaps oddly, the fact that there's never just one of these crushes at any given time mitigates them a great deal. People look at me oddly because I care so strongly about so many people, but what can I say? While Eva will always and forever be top of mind for me, there are many loveable people in the world. Pretty much everyone is, in fact.

I'd like to expand on that a minute, because I think it's a Great Truth that is too often overlooked in this world where people are looking for others to 'complete' them.

The word "enjoyable" is usually thought to mean that something or someone is a source of joy. That's not necessarily true, To "enjoy" is a verb, and perhaps it should be hyphenated en-joy...to inject joy into something. If you say something is 'en-joy-able', it means you're able to find the joy in it. Joy can be found almost anywhere, if you know how to look for it. Not everyone knows this secret. Precious few do, in fact.

Likewise, to love is of course a verb. It takes effort to love, sometimes concerted effort if the person you're loving has forgotten he or she is loveable. The Bible says to love your enemy, and that's easier said then done sometimes. The trick is to remember "your enemy" and you are intimately connected, that you are part of your enemy and he or she is part of you. Therefore, to the extent you hate anyone, you're hating yourself. Which is never productive.
Do I live up to this teaching? I do not. I try, and fail, and try again. But I think of love as a muscle: the more you work it, the stronger it gets and the easier it is to use.

My love muscle has grown appreciably over the past twenty years, and you can get your mind out of the gutter any time now because this


is NOT what I'm talking about.

(Can you imagine this happening in North America? A guy sleeping nude in a park in the middle of the day, and instead of being roused, he's left in his aroused state? Munich's quite the town.)

 Not for the first tine nor the last, I will lament that English, the language of endless synonyms and nuances, employs the catch-all 'love' to describe so many shades of  emotion, especially since sex has crowded in on  love to the point where a "lover" doesn't mean what it logically should anymore.

The love muscle must be used judiciously, and not just for the obvious dirty reason you keep thinking of. I think some people may mistake my inclination to express my love, even though I'm not -- don't worry -- going to run up and give you a smooch. I also am positive the people I care about have no least idea how much I do care about them, on account of there's more than one of them, as I said. For some reason you're only allowed to care about one person, or rather, you're only supposed to say so, in this life and in this world. I get that you should only love one person "in that way"...but there are lots of other ways.

Too many people are uncomfortable with the notion I care about them, which would hurt me if I'd let it. I chalk it up to misunderstanding: just because I love you, just because I have a crush on you even, doesn't mean I'm thinking sexual thoughts about you every seven seconds. No, it's more like every half hour. Joking, joking. And I'm certainly not expecting you to think sexual--or indeed any--thoughts about me. I love unconditionally, or try to, at any rate. I have extensive experience with unrequited love...before I met the wife of my life it was pretty much the default setting. It used to bother me, so I turned it into a strength.

Shakespeare told us to "love all, trust a few, do harm to none". That's good advice. "Loving all" is a challenge, to be sure, but trust me if you will, it does get easier with practice.

13 July, 2013

Facts, Schmacts

What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” — what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts! -- Robert Amson Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

"I reject your reality and substitute my own"--Adam Savage, Mythbusters

This article comes from Britain, but I'll bet you bollocks to bobbies it's equally applicable in Canada or the United States. The individual statistics are of course different for each country...but the point of this article is that statistics are not important. Facts are not important. Reality is unimportant. A depressingly large segment of the population lives in their own reality, unconcerned with the one you and I are sharing.

Crime is one of many divergent points. In our reality, the crime rate has been falling for decades. In many other realities that unfortunately seem to be bleeding into ours, the people act as if the crime rate is enormous and growing by the hour. You see the reality bleed-through everywhere. Spending on policing and incarceration is rising sharply, probably because of all that unreported crime. My driveway is my own for the next six weeks, but come September it will once again be turnaround central for legions of parents convinced my block is full of pedophiles.  And in Britain, where again the crime rate is falling, a majority believe the opposite. Confronted with stats proving otherwise, the vast majority of that majority will insist the stats are wrong.

I found some of the distortions so astronomical I didn't know whether to laugh, cry or scream. More than one in four Brits believes, for instance, that foreign aid is one of the top two or three expenditures of the British government; in actual reality, it was 1.1% of money spent last year. People overestimate the rate of teenage pregnancy by about twenty five HUNDRED percent. Incidentally, that's remarkably similar to the percentage by which people overestimate welfare fraud.  A substantial minority (29%) believes Britain spends more money on job seeker's allowance (what Canadians call EI) than pensions, when in actual reality Britain spends fifteen times more on pensions than on JSA.

You notice a pattern here? According to entirely too many people, the country--whatever country it is--is going to hell, and if you ask why it's going to hell, you're apt to hear something offensive. It's the tens of trillions of dollars of foreign aid (because clearly that's how much is spent) getting sucked out of the country instead of helping real people here at home. The tacit assumption, of course, is that real people look just like me and behave just like me and vote just like me. There are no poor people, just a whole bunch of able-bodied slackers living of the sweat and blood and tears of -- again -- real people. The younger generation has no morals and its girls live to pump out babies by the score, just for the added welfare benefit, you understand.

Sickening. And demonstrably untrue, all of it, with just a minute's thought, but who wants to think a minute?

I often wonder just how much racist, sexist and otherwise batshit crazy stuff I'd uncover if I had access to a 100% effective lie detector. We're proceeding apace with removing such discrimination from the law books, but I sometimes think all we're really doing is driving it underground. People are determined to believe what they believe. Take gay marriage, as a for-instance: it's gaining acceptance in the United States at what seems to be an astonishing rate. But there remains a sizeable group of people who are dead set against it, who say it harms society (yet who can never seem to explain exactly how), and who will shout down anyone trying to remind them the world has not come to an end just because Jack and Gil down the road have formalized their commitment to each other.

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The problem is multifaceted and daunting. Where do you go to find statistics you can trust? You certainly can't believe private sector studies, at least not without a thorough vetting of their sponsors and a comparison of the study's results to the vested interests of those sponsors. (How many people even know how to read a study, analyze its methodology, and spot potential flaws? They don't teach this stuff in school, more's the pity.)

 But sadly, government's getting in on the act, withholding information that disputes its ideology and occasionally just plain making it up as they go along. Couple that with the echo chamber effect of modern media--people overwhelmingly read only things they already agree with--and what seems to be a stubborn persistence to hold on to beliefs, even harmful beliefs, in the face of all evidence to the contrary...and you have a predicament.

How to change hearts and minds? It's a question I have been wrestling with since I started this blog almost a decade ago...and I'm no closer to an answer now than I was back then.

03 July, 2013

GMOs are not the problem: mini-rant

.That's a bold statement to make, given the hullabaloo over genetically modified organisms, specifically those hiding in our food supply. But I'll stand by it. There's nothing wrong with GMOs per se.
Human insulin is a genetically modified organism. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale (among other vegetables) would not exist if wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) hadn't been genetically modified through generations of selective breeding.  That's to say nothing of the increased pest, drought, disease and cold resistance that has saved lives and will save untold millions more if climate change turns out to be half as scary as forecast.
Every instance of genetically modified food is transgenic, which is to say it involves taking a naturally existing gene in one organism and inserting it into another. In other words, we're not creating genes out of white cloth. We have a good idea what these things are supposed to do, and they do it. There's been a lot of junk science published claiming we're just making this shit up as we go. Not true.

That's not to say GMOs are an unabashed good. It depends on what the modification is supposed to do. Antibiotic resistance, for example, is not something we need in our food supply, or anywhere else for that matter. And allergies are an ever-present concern: if you take a gene from a Brazil nut and implant it into something else, eating that something else may be harmful to those with nut allergies.

Which is why I support the labelling of GMOs. Not so I can avoid them, necessarily, but so I know what the hell I'm eating.
We need better labelling in general in this country: it's hideously lax. In many cases you can't even tell what company made your food (this is particularly true for store brands), or where it was manufactured. And even when it says "made in Canada"... 'tain't necessarily so. Fish caught in Canada can be processed in China, for example, and you're none the wiser from examining the label.

Now, I'd like to make one thing clear. There's a world of difference between being (generally) pro-GMO and supporting the companies, like Monsanto, that engage in genetic modification.

Monsanto in particular scares me because (a) they have been very effective in safeguarding their corporate interests by nefarious means, i.e., infiltrating the U.S. government; (b) as perhaps should be expected of a multinational corporation, they have taken what's good about GMOs and sought, at every turn, to profit from them. It's not about the greater good...as I keep saying, in this world it often seems there is no god but Greed, and Dollar is His Prophet.

I do not believe genes should be patented. While I have no qualms about companies making a profit, even a healthy profit, I, unlike some, believe there are such things as "unhealthy profits". I believe the line between the public and private sector needs to be as clear-cut as possible, and I'd like to think conservatives would agree with this, if only so you're clear on who your oppressor is.

Let's not throw out the baby with the filthy bath water, here. Let's continue to research GMOs...and let's make that process as transparent as possible. Let's label GMOs such that people who wish to avoid them can do so. And let's put the common good ahead of the corporate bank account whenever we can.

If I Could Drive...

...would I?
This is a question that occasionally pops up out of my brain and bitch-slaps me around for a while. Because of course I would drive, right? Everyone else does. And people are pretty reluctant to even think about giving their cars up.

You drivers, which is most of you, probably can't comprehend life without a car. Never mind the inherent limits it puts on your career and your ability to shop for anything--those are obvious first-order consequences. Here are some others. You get asked for a driver's license at completely random times, as if your ability to drive a car is correlated to your credit rating or your worthiness to enter a casino.  Trips to see friends and family who don't live in your city are difficult, occasionally impossible, and certainly inconvenient to yourself and your friend or family member, Suppose you have to be somewhere at seven in the morning. Gonna cost you. Cab fare starts at $3.50 and that's just to get in. It goes up fast from there.

The above article suggests that the biggest reason people avoid public transit is that it almost doubles your commute time. I don't think this is the biggest turn-off. I know I'm living in a supposedly time-starved society (in which nearly everyone watches more than 90 minutes of television a day)...but consider: time is a little more elastic on public transit. It's more your own time. No cop's going to bat an eyebrow at you for texting on a moving bus if you're not driving it. You can eat, read a book screen...you name it. (I know, you do all that driving your car, because it's all so much more important than that little kid who's about to jump out into traffic...but on a bus it's all legal.)

And I question their methodology. In the "car commute" column, did they include the sixteen trips you make around the block, looking for a parking spot? Did they include the time spent clearing snow off the vehicle in the winter? How about traffic jams? Yes, busses get caught in those too, but anything on rails doesn't.

No, I don't think it's the time. The problem most people have with public transit is other people.

I'll admit it. It's not pleasant. Sometimes it's downright disgusting. You have no control over who's going to get on, where they're going to sit (closeness to you is directly proportional to the amount of time it's been since they bathed), or what they might say to you. Particularly if you're female, this can creep you right out. And it goes without saying that poor people use public transit, which means if you use public transit, everyone around you is going to think you're poor. For some people that's just unacceptable.
I'm not immune to these uncharitable un-neighbourly impulses. I've been known to take a longer route home simply because it's much less crowded, and I've adopted any number of subtle tricks to preserve the vacancy of the seat beside me as long as possible (without, I hope, looking too weird). If you're interested:  reading a thick book is good people repellant. So is slouching in the seat. If you have cargo, don't put it on the seat next to you -- that's just rude -- but instead hold it in your lap and let it "spill" a little: subconsciously, people will think it'll spill on them and stay away. These and other like techniques work for me. Or maybe it's just that people get one look at my ugly phiz and run in the other direction. Maybe I'm the person who makes public transit intolerable for somebody. There's a Debbie Downer of a thought.

But there are advantage to public transit. You've doubtless heard some of them from people trying to guilt you out of your car. You'll save the planet (memo: the planet's fine.) You've heard that it's cheaper...

Well, yes, it is. It's drastically cheaper, in fact, so much cheaper it's actually rather scary for me, a non-driver, to consider where you drivers get the money to fund your habit.  Gas, insurance, repairs, parking, depreciation, to say nothing of the cost of the car itself...
This is particularly true for short intra-city trips, which oddly enough is the majority of many people's driving. A bus pass in this city costs $72. That's the sum total of your costs per month. See how far you can get in a car for $72. Hell, in many of them these days that isn't even a full tank.

Intra-city  is a little more comparable. From downtown Kitchener to downtown Toronto...let's call it a hundred kilometers, it's pretty close to that.  If you travel to Toronto each weekday it'll run you about $500 a month using public transit. Better add in a transit pass at each end, since it's unlikely you live within walking distance of the Kitchener GO station and only slightly more likely you work within walking distance of Union Station in Toronto. That's another $200. $700 a month to travel roughly 4000 km.

COST OF KITCHENER-TORONTO COMMUTE BY PUBLIC TRANSIT: $700/MONTH

NOTE: ANY ADDITIONAL TRIPS, BE THEM IN THE TRI-CITIES OR IN TORONTO, ARE ALREADY COSTED IN. THIS IS A FIXED COST.

The figures  on the car side of the scale are hugely variable. The make and model of your car, how you drive it, and what kind of insurance deal you can wrangle will all have a massive impact, positive or negative. Still, let's get rough and dirty with some figures and try and add things up. Let's assume you have a Honda Civic LX. Civics have been the most popular model in Canada for about ever and one reason is their fuel economy, which is certainly important to you if you're commuting to Toronto each day. I'm using figures from the C.A.A: feel free to check 'em or chuck 'em. 
C.A.A. says if you drive a Civic LX 32,000 km a year--which is three quarters of the driving we're assuming here just for the commute--your annual ownership cost is thirty-five cents a km. Looking at their sliding scale I'm going to guesstimate it's about thirty cents/km for our purposes. Multiply that by the 4,000 km we're putting on per month -- again, just for the commute -- and you've got $1200. Note again this is rough and dirty, back of the envelope stuff. Your mileage, ha-ha, may vary.

COST OF KITCHENER-TORONTO COMMUTE BY CAR: $1200/MONTH

I strongly doubt you can knock anything close to five hundred bucks off that monthly cost.

I'm trying to be as fair to cars as I can here--I'm going on twenty work days a month, which is low--once you get over 40 trips a month on GO your travel is free, which obviously isn't true in a Civic.
I've also assumed your employer offers free parking. Not all do.And again, this is counting just the commute. You're obviously going to drive your car to and from other things besides work.

Ah, but Ken, what price my time?

You think you've got me there, don't you? I'm always suggesting in other contexts that people don't value their time near highly enough (say, standing in line to buy the latest iteration of the PlayStation when the one you had yesterday was perfectly fine).  So let's look at that. In rush hour, which is when you're going to be doing this drive, the trip from downtown to downtown is going to average out at about 90 minutes by car. This, again, is variable. You won't be able to do it in much less than 70 minutes without risking the wrath of the law and some days I can assure you that trip will be 120 minutes or even longer. The GO train takes approximately 120 minutes per trip, rain or shine. There are occasional delays, some of which GO will refund you the cost of the trip for. (Try that next time you pull in to a gas station. "Sir, I was caught in a traffic jam which caused to to use considerably more fuel: I believe this tank of gas should be free.")

Besides, as I have said above, your time is your own on public transit. Obviously you're not at home, but these days it seems many people believe home is where their phone is and you can play with your phone to your heart's content on a bus or a train. Rearrange your life a little and that commute can be a pleasurable part of your day, especially given the lack of stress from actually driving the vehicle.

I'm not going to suggest that public transit is perfect. Not even close. Sometimes it sucks. But then again, driving sometimes sucks too. And if I could drive--if I wasn't burdened by just-barely adequate vision and a driving phobia--let's just say I woudn't drive near as much as you'd think.