Saturday, February 11, 2023

Music, Words, and ChatGPT

“What chatbots do is scrape the web, the library of texts already written, and learn from it how to add to the collection, which causes them to start scraping their own work in ever enlarging quantities, along with the texts produced by future humans. Both sets of documents will then degenerate. For as the adoption of A.I. relieves people of their verbal and mental powers and pushes them toward an echoing conformity, much as the mass adoption of map apps have abolished their senses of direction, the human writings from which the A.I. draws will decline in originality and quality along with their derivatives. Enmeshed, dependent, mutually enslaved, machine and man will unite their special weaknesses — lack of feeling and lack of sense — and spawn a thing of perfect lunacy, like the child of a psychopath and an idiot."

--Walter Kirn, "Goodbye to the Future"

Bad enough it's treated like a minor miracle. It's not. Worse, it's regarded as if it's in competition with humans, when absolutely everything it "knows" was human knowledge first. Worst of all, it's coming for the wrong people.


I haven't played with ChatGPT myself -- less than zero interest -- but I have read the accounts of many who have, and seen enough of the bot's output that I can recognize it fairly easily. It's clean, accessible prose utterly devoid of character. It reminds me of nothing so much as what the majority of pop music has become: soulless, inhuman, and ultimately boring.

AI isn't widely writing music. Yet. Here it is generating a hip-hop song, and here it's 'writing' something that purports to be jazz. It's repetitive, trite, and even where it inserts something unexpected, as a composer and wide listener, I'm underwhelmed. However, I have little doubt that in a very short while, AI will be able to generate something Bach or the Beatles might have written -- and like as not it still won't sound human. But I guess that's okay, since the majority of music overproduced today doesn't sound human either. 

I could get into a long technical diatribe on exactly how today's pop may as well be the product of a bot. It boils down to perfection. Let's take a song towards the top of the pop charts today at random -- and I have never heard any of these tunes -- here we go. Kill Bill, by SZA (how in the hell do you pronounce that?) Ah, yes, this is perfect. Too perfect. Every note she sings is machined and pitch-corrected and, um, ARTIFICIAL. Let's compare this to Freddie Mercury, who had perfect pitch and who Brian May says "was a metronome with balls." Face It Alone. Listen to all the little effects Freddie puts into every note he sings: fades and swells, drops and raises, thinnings and fattenings of his tone. He's occasionally, and deliberately, a bit late on the beat.  No silicon con here.

Joni Mitchell, an artist whom I revere, has this to say about today's music industry: 

I heard someone from the music business saying they are no longer looking for talent, they want people with a certain look and a willingness to cooperate. I thought, that's interesting, because I believe a total unwillingness to cooperate is what is necessary to be an artist — not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision. The considerations of a corporation, especially now, have nothing to do with art or music. That's why I spend my time now painting.

Notice that? "TO PROTECT YOUR VISION". AI doesn't have a vision.  We can teach it notes on a page. But music is a lot more than notes on a page.

We can teach it words on a page, too. It has all the words, all the pages. It can synthesize those words and those pages in novel, superficially interesting ways. But it'll never have the pizzazz, perspicacity, or passion of a person. 

There may come a point where, via some process we can't anticipate, something sparks and ChatGPT shows insight, creativity, imagination, something that is uniquely its own. I'm not sure that's possible, but I don't think anybody knows for sure. And at that point, if and when it comes, we will have to have a real discussion about subhuman, superhuman, and other than human, and what it all means. That point is not yet, and frankly may never come. In the meantime, I think it's very important to recognize that ChatGPT is mindless. It's no more than a colossal database and pattern recognition. It can turn out an A grade essay, but can't be said to "know" anything it writes. Why does this matter? Because it is a tool, not a god. As such, we ultimately control what it does and how it affects the world. Given how we've used other like tools, I'm not optimistic. What's more likely: 

AI will be used to remove all the drudgery and grudgery from our workaday existences, leaving us free to create art and derive meaning from it


AI will be used to remove all the human-created art from our existences, leaving us free to be be cogs in the capitalist machine?

But Ken, AI will allow anyone to create anything, regardless of ability or dedication -- and what then becomes important to our senses of self, if we're not even allowed to be talented at something?

Hell, Google is even calling its ChatGPT rival "Bard". That chills my blood. 

Per Kirn's point above, too, the overall quality of all information will degrade as AI content swamps the web. Eventually, you're dealing with copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of... so fitting for this hellishly abstract world we've complexified beyond all hope of understanding. 

How do we combat it? Two ways. The first is to keep AI in its proper place: while it may look like a god we've created in our own image, it is merely a tool. The second is to create ourselves, as long and as hard as we can, even if AI eventually can outdraw us and sing circles around us. We will never lose the urge to create music, because music is hardwired into us.We will never lose the urge to use our words to make hearts soar. We must never concede our humanity to machines, no matter what promises they whisper in our ears.

Friday, January 20, 2023


I came across a list of "30 Random, Weird Questions To Get To Know Somebody Better". 

Random. Weird. No kidding. But it's been a while since i have done one of these, or indeed anything light and bubbly, and so without further a-do-do, let's go!

1. What’s the most obscure fact you know that would make you win on Jeopardy?

"This was the first music ever to be pressed to a  compact disc."

What is "Ein Alpensinfonie", by Richard Strauss?

This is it, right here.  To this day, my favourite tone poem. 

2. What is your favorite version of the potato?

It USED to be French fries, specifically Ken's fries in Stratford. This is a boring answer that proves I'm not a kid anymore: mashed. Or better yet, creamed. Add a bit of cheddar and I'll  cream. 

But it's a hard question, because I love potatoes unless they're baked. (Not a huge fan of their skins, but get those buggers naked and GIT IN MY BELLY. Hell, vodka comes from potatoes and it's my favourite alcohol. ALL HAIL POTATO. 

3. If I gave you the money to set up a theme restaurant or bar, what would be the theme? What would you call the establishment? What would be the signature cocktail?

There are actually two such establishments I'd love the chance to be the proprietor of. The first I would call simply The Place, after the third and final iteration of Callahan's Place in KeyWest, Florida.  Theme is "Let's Get Drunk And Save The World". The signature drink -- Callahan's was God's Blessing, an Irish coffee -- would probably be a vodka and berry infusion and I'd call it Shared Joy.

The other place is SUPER obscure. Bill Richardson, the CBC personality and comedian, counts among his bibliography two pieces of fiction concerning one "Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast", a haven somewhere on or about Vancouver Island where you go to read, relax, and soak up the local atmosphere, which is, shall we say, thick with absurdity. I'm the first thing from a bachelor and I have no brother, but I would love to open a B&B like this. As for its themed meal,  that'd be a Jane Gruyère.  It'd be a breakfast casserole with lots of that gruyère cheese.

4. If you could only eat one type of cheese for the rest of your life, which type of cheese would it be?

Gruyère. No, wait. GACK this is hard for a cheese slut like me. If I don't say mozzarella, I never get another pizza! If I don't go with marble or old, my burgers become practically worthless! If I forego Havarti, my club sandwiches will suffer greatly..... eeny meeny minie moe, holy fuck this hurts me so -- 

Mozzarella. I answer this under protest. One cheese is not enough. 

5. What’s the coolest place you’ve taken that pair of shoes?

Britt, Ontario, -48C with a -72 windchill, and they were boots, and let me tell you that's almost as cool as it gets. I had to come inside three times in the middle of scraping Happy Harold The Homo.

You're confused and a little alarmed. Please trust me, we christened him with the utmost affection.  Harold was our 2003 Toyota Echo, and he started right up that morning after only a few grumbles (we hadn't even plugged him in). How did we know our car was gay? Oh, honey.  For one thing, he had a horn JUST like what the Roadrunner would sound like if Wile E. Coyote crept up behind him and suddenly sodomized him. For another, Toyota Echos are built with their butts in the air, presenting. And the final convincing factor: his trunk. Reader, you would never guess a car that small out the outside could have such a TARDIS of a trunk. It was larger than the trunk of our current Chrysler 200. Somebody reamed him out but good before we got him. 

GodsDAMNIT was that cold. 

6. When’s the last time you saw a monkey?

I...have no clue. The last time I went to the zoo. When was that? Eva and I have been there, but barely. At least 20 years ago. Monkeys -- simians, really -- are Eva's thing, her favourite animals and she loves most animals. She could spend a day watching them. Me, not so much.  Pretty sure every married couple has things like this: have fun, sweetie. 

7. If you were a guest on a late-night talk show, what story would you tell?

Probably the story of how I damned near drowned in a septic tank. I share this one at intervals so everyone can laugh at me. I don't usually enjoy it when people laugh at me, but I'll take mockery over the terror that incident actually provoked any day and twice on Tuesday. I can spin the story out in several directions, too. That trauma gifted me with a spiritual foundation I can only call "believing in god" in the loosest of possible terms (despite the title of that blog entry)....but with nevertheless powerful intent. 

8. Who’s the artist you’ve listened to the most in the past month?

Oh, an easy one. Jukebox The Ghost (Spotify link). Probably upwards of twenty hours this month. I'm not super keen on some of their early output but three of their last four albums are EXCEPTIONAL for what they are. I mean that as no slight: they're not Serious, they are in fact light and bubbly (though some of their lyrics are deceptive)... and you want pop hooks? These guys play hooky every day. Right up there with Josh Ramsay and Roxette for effortless. 

9. Please rank: Pizza Hut, Dominos, Papa John’s, Little Caesars.

1, not applicable, not applicable, not applicable. Sorry, folks. I've had Dominos and Little Ceasars at some point, ages and ages ago, and found both entirely forgettable, as evidenced by the fact I've forgotten both of them. Papa John's you promised no politics you promised no politics you promised no politics. And Pizza Hut is probably my favourite chain pizza. Greasy crust, mmmmmm. Stuffed with cheese, hmmmmmm. Mmmmmhmmmm. 

All that said, I'll take Twin City Pizza, my local joint, over any of these, and Woodstock Pizza and Pasta over Twin City and most other food on the planet. 

10. If you could reshoot any film, shot for shot with the cast of the Looney Tunes, which film should you pick?

Pulp Fiction.

11. Do you have an internal monologue? Like, do you think in words, images, some other way?

See, I think about how I think more than I should. I think. Do you know the poem, "The Centipede's Dilemma"? The author is anonymous, but the poem has stuck with me for decades. 

A centipede was happy – quite!

Until a toad in fun

Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"

This raised her doubts to such a pitch,

She fell exhausted in the ditch

Not knowing how to run.

Unless I am seated at a piano -- which I was for a while earlier -- to express or even fully comprehend thoughts, I have to use words. But do I think the words? No, I don't believe I do. My usual state is nonthought, more of just an emotion, an energy. Thoughts intrude on this without sound or visual effect but nonetheless with a kind of pop hi i am a thought think me! Then to think the thought I have to resort to words. 

12. When you put your socks and shoes on, do you do: sock, shoe, sock, shoe or sock, sock, shoe shoe?

The latter! The former seems irrationally odd to me. Actually, come to think of it, socks go on before shoes with me, and shoes don't go on in the same room the socks yeah, if any of you do things the other way, chime in because you're WEIRD! I wanna know your weirdness so I can honour it!

13. Would you rather drink Pepsi or Coca-Cola?

Here's how weird I am. Depends on the day. I love both, though I shouldn't drink either. Some days I want the acid kick of Coke, sometimes I want the sweet smoothness of Pepsi.

14. What’s your opinion on cows?

Uh...I better not say anything bad about them or my friend Sue will appear and beat me. Cows are cool. I'm given to understand they have best friends. Anything with a best friend is a friend in my book. 

15. Who is your favourite villain?

Do you have any idea how hard I have thought about this? And my thoughts keep butting up against I don't admire villains. Sorry, you've hit one of those strange pockets of literality that dot my mental landscape like quicksand. In my teens I identified strongly with the Phantom of the Opera, feeling as hideous and misunderstood as Gaston Leroux's creation, but favourite? I got nuttin'. 

16. If you had to be half lobster, would you want your top half or bottom half to be lobster?

Good lord. Bottom, on the grounds I could contrive some way to hide it.

17. Compare yourself to a lead character from a movie.

And again we have run hard up against I'M ME. I'M NOT ANYONE ELSE. This is one of those exercises that's easy for humans and well-nigh impossible for me. I can't act. I mean, of course I can simulate emotions on cue, but I can only do that as me, not as some completely different character.

I wish I knew where this came from, because it has stunted me something fierce.

18. What is your favorite video game?

Yet another opportunity to laugh at the Ken: Royal Match, on Android and iOS. I'm sure few of my friends would even consider it a game, it's so basic (and I mean that in the old-fashioned sense). Probably could be played on a Vic-20. I don't do games with five hundred pages of lore, forty seven different joystick combos, and reams of information to digest on every screen. That's my work, why would I work to play? 

But if you're like me and like your games simple, this is the best match-3 I have found, far surpassing the Candy Crush franchise. I'm almost sixteen hundred levels into this thing and while of course some of them are very difficult, the game takes pity on you every now and again and drops you more powerups than you can shake a stick at, so you never get hung on a level for days and days and days. BEST OF ALL: ZERO ADS, and perfectly playable without investing a cent. 

19. Do you believe in aliens? Why or why not?

Yeah, I do, and while I won't say a word if you don't, I'm quite convinced you're wrong. Jodie Foster said it best in Contact: "I'll tell you one thing about the universe, though. The universe is a pretty big place. It's bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it's just us... seems like an awful waste of space. Right?

You don't even have to leave this planet to encounter intelligences that may as well be alien. Octopods: some scientists think they possess at least human level smarts, just largely on scales we can't measure well. Their physiologies are so wildly different from ours, yet they have a lot in common with us.   Ants. A colony of ants is scary smart: they farm, they build cities with 'superhighways'; they have race wars (reds versus blacks); they have funeral rituals; they navigate using more cues than are available to us, and they do it while remembering their most recent experiences. But they do all this without building a cognitive map of their world. Instead, they use highly tuned 'modules' almost like plug and play apps. Utterly alien and fascinating, at least to me, but we step on these things without notice. What's out there if we just open our eyes? 

20. Are you a Goldfish or Cheez-It kind of person?

I'm a...Canadian person? Do we even have Cheez-Its up here? Well, sigh, I was "K-k-k-Ken" for a while thanks to this movie: I guess I'm a goldfish person. 

21. What’s your oldest memory?

The oldest memory I can date with precision: arguing with my mother, at the top of our backsplit's stairs, bargaining for the right to suck my thumb. My mother relented, "but only until you're four", which at the time was three weeks away. Related memory: the hot mustard she daubed on my thumb to hold me to the bargain three weeks later. Gross

22. Tell me a memory you have about fruit.

I remember being called a fruit often enough... what comes to mind here is Christmas. Christmas stockings, most particularly, and the nuclear giant mondo apples and oranges that only seem to inhabit Christmas stockings. Here's an orange most of the size of a volleyball...Merry Christmas!

23. What is something you can talk/rant about for 10 uninterrupted minutes and still have more to say?

Polyamory. And I never do anymore, and I feel a hell of a lot more tolerated since I stopped. There are lessons in this, I'm sure, but you promised no politics you promised no politics you promised no politics. I'll write on this somewhere else, soon: it's a big lesson that's been staring me in the face for a year and a half now, and it was only just this instant I realized its much wider application.

In all seriousness: I don't hide who I am or who I love. There is a distinction it took me far, far too long to learn, between private and secret. I refuse to be a secret. I refuse to have person-sized secrets. But privacy is something altogether different. It merely looks the same on the surface. 

24. What are two facts about yourself that are true, but also seem contradictory?

I either care too much or don't care at all. I believe that sometimes the latter is the inevitable product of the former. If I don't care, the depths of my uncaring are  bottomless, to the point I likely won't even see the thing I don't care about. Ads are like that. Sure, my eyes register them in the sense I have to click something to make them go away, but I don't SEE them. If I do care...those depths can be pretty bottomless, too.

25. What do you dream about?

I don't dream at night often anymore: the cookies I eat each night enhance sleep but repress dreams. The few dreams that do sneak through are not fit for family consumption (although I personally consume them eagerly).

In the daytime? Travel. Doesn't matter where. Could be Maui, could be Manitoulin, could be Morocco. I love the me I am out in the world, and I love seeing the world. 

26. What’s the best thing that happened to you today?

Morning answer: day just started, but I did see another 100% evaluation when I logged in to the work machine.  Night answer: I'm gonna stick with that because I had a workday to forget, it's the weekend, and I intend to forget it. 

27. Have you read any good books recently?

I don't read bad books: they get set aside and donated to somewhere somebody might appreciate them. I've been stressed of late and when I'm stressed I revisit old favourites. To that end, I recently read a collection of short horror called PRIME EVIL, edited by Douglas E. Winter.  There are stories by King and Straub and Campbell and Barker and Strieber...but the highlight is a deliciously creepy story called "Orange Is For Anguish, Blue Is For Insanity" by David Morrell. Morell, born in Kitchener in 1943, is better known for FIRST BLOOD, which created a certain John Rambo. Guess what? The guy writes great horror, too. 

28. What’s in the trunk of your car right now? 

Can't check, it's at Eva's mom's right now with the rest of the car and its driver. But last I looked, it had an astonishing number of canvas grocery store bags. Are we the only ones who forget them at home...or if we put them in the trunk, forget them there? Seriously. We have too many cooks. I mean...too many bags. 

29. What is your ‘everyday superpower’

The speed with which I can zone out of everyday existence if I'm not actively concentrating on paying attention. I've thought about this, and I'm not sure I've ever met someone even remotely like me in this regard. 

30. What’s your favorite breakfast food?

Kathy makes a breakfast, or rather, a brunch, to die for, and part of it usually involves peameal bacon, which I have only had elsewhere once or maybe twice in my life, and  mmm mmm MMMM.'

I have a strange relationship with breakfast. I don't often have it. One of the reasons I'm going for an earlier morning shift in the next bid is so I can more easily eat properly. Off at 7:45 pm (or even worse, 11:00pm) means that to optimize my metabolism, I have to eat supper for breakfast. Which is...not optimal for me. When I DO have breakfast, I love it, even simple buttered toast. But I do have some preferences. I like my eggs scrambled...and runnier than most people would appreciate. Favourite juices are apple and orange (no pulp, please); hash browns are always good, and...I'm not supposed to eat sausage because it hurts my gut, but it hurts my heart not to have it. I could gleefully eat an entire plate of nothing but breakfast sausage. And six hours later, you'd find me on the bathroom floor writhing in agonizing cramps. It's almost worth it. Almost. 

So ends my first "just 'cause" blog in a long time. I think I need to do more of these.  Thanks for reading. 

Monday, January 09, 2023

The Banshees of Inisherin

"Maybe he just doesn't like you no more." --Siobhan Súilleabháin

"Some things there's no moving on from. And I think that's a good thing." --Padráic Suilleabháin


It wasn't the best movie I ever saw. But it got under my skin right quick and it's going to stay awhile. I can feel it itching

An island off Ireland, 1923. Padráic (Colin Ferrell, the character's name is pronounced POUR-ick, with a tiny bit of a roll to the r) is a amiable simpleton of a dairy farmer. Colm (Brendan Gleeson) is his lifelong friend and polar opposite, a melancholy fiddler who muses on existential themes. The two friends meet at the pub nearly every day at two for a pint and chatter, until one day Colm decides he's got better things to do with his life than listen to the same dull, meaningless chit-chat, and he tells this to Padráic in no uncertain terms. Except to Padráic, none of the terms are certain. Nothing makes sense. How can my friend think I'm dull? He didn't think that yesterday. (He did -- you get the sense he's been thinking that for years -- but never said anything.) Padráic persists, so Colm makes the terms even more certain: every time the young man speaks so much as a single word to him, Colm will cut off one of his fingers with a pair of sheep shears. 

All this plays out in the first fifteen or twenty minutes, and as a viewer I was horrified. What could have possibly turned love to hate? Was the whole friendship inauthentic? Why be friends with someone you think is a dullard (and to be fair, Padráic really doesn't have a lot upstairs)? Perhaps Colm simply outgrew him. But there's got to be better ways, less hurtful ways, to communicate that.

For Padráic's part, well, he can't take no for an answer. And so Colm follows through on his threat and chops off a digit, whipping it at Padráic's cottage door. THUNK. Padráic, you've just been given the finger. 


You'd think the young man would see the light and leave Colm the fuck alone. Nope: that just angers him further. Things keep escalating, in a village parody of the Irish Civil War thundering away -- well within earshot -- on the mainland. (At one point Padráic hears the thundering guns and mutters to himself "good luck to you. Whatever you're fighting about." 

Almost from the opening reel, I was forced to confront every friend who ever decided, for whatever reason, that my presence no longer served them. It's not like that happens every other week, but as a man who never really learned how to make friends and who, to be perfectly honest, struggles to keep them, this movie hit a hell of a lot of insecurity points of mine. Hammered on them.

I talk a good game about divergence. I do understand that sometimes friends outgrow each other, and further that I am the sort of person who is easy to outgrow. My own growth is glacial and largely internal in this life. I haven't been to the mountain. And I have little doubt I'm annoying to people. It's not like I try to be. I try not to be. But I have no doubt people -- perhaps many people -- see me as Padráic.

I have played both parts in my life. I have been Colm, and cut a friendship of twenty years off at the knees because it had been dawning on me over a period of time that my friend was in fact an emotional vampire. Her life was an endless series of crises, most of them of her own making, and no amount of emotional support was sufficient. I told her as much, too, but being as I had set myself up since high school as a problem dumpster extraordinaire, I have little doubt Jen thought me nothing but a giant fake.

I've hurt other people in a couple of knee-jerk snaps, neither of which I will ever forgive myself for -- as cheap as that sounds to the friends I hurt. But more often I have been Padráic, wounded myself, I wrote about the most painful instance here. There's been one very similar of much more recent vintage, a friend and colleague who did a slow fade and never explained why.

Yeah, I talk a good game. Relationships, whether they're friendships or marriages or something in between, are not prisons and I won't hold you in one with me. But I have asked why received an unsatisfactory answer, and asked why a few more times, each more strident and pathetic, and taken each non-response more and more personally. 

I mourned Kieron for years. I'll mourn Nicole for years. But -- and maybe this says something bad about me -- I'll mourn whatever drove them away forever. At least with Nicole I could feel the friendship slipping away, the warmth ebbing by slow degrees. I saw the end coming. 

My dad once told me he wished he'd dumped someone before he was to be dumped himself, and at the time I thought that a really immature impulse. I think it's fair to say I've come to understand what Dad was getting at. Further, to appreciate it a bit. It sucks to say, but sometimes this is a hurt or be hurt world. 

This movie taught me something valuable: how love can curdle into hatred. It's not something I have ever experienced myself -- even the people I hurt were hurt in a moment of unforgivable loss of control, I still love each and every one of them. But watching The Banshees of Inisherin, I began to understand that my aversion to conflict and commitment to emotional management are really all that separates me from a man like Padráic. That's a bit sobering. More sobering still is the possibility -- it's always in the back of my mind, but this film brought it forward, painfully -- that any or all of my friends might suddenly cut all contact with me tomorrow. 

That's not just sobering, that's petrifying.

You really can't ask more of a piece of art than for it to teach you something about yourself. For that reason, as difficult a watch as this was for me, I'm ferociously glad I got to see it. 

Saturday, December 31, 2022

A Good Swift Kick In The Year End

It's been a year, hasn't it?

It's said 2022 was "2020, too", and that feels about right. At the beginning of this year -- it feels so long ago --  the capital of my country was overrun by thousands of moronic automatons who fancied themselves freedom fighters. Their enemy wasn't the virus. No, for reasons I still don't pretend to understand, they were dead set against anyone who took the virus seriously. The virus which has killed at least fifty thousand Canadians.

I want to stress this point. The measures we took -- the lockdowns, the masking, the social distancing, even as haphazard as it all was at times -- those measures meant that per capita, one sixth as many Canadians as Americans died with covid. So when people protested those measures, what they were agitating for was six times as many deaths.

If people held up signs demanding a quarter of a million people should be killed, you would rightfully call them insane and lock them up. We let them loiter and lollygag around Ottawa for a month before we did anything, and when we finally did something, it was akin to picking up eight thousand cats by the scruffs of their necks and gently setting them down elsewhere. No meaningful punishment. Me, I would have exiled the fuckers. Every last one of them. But no, they're planning freedumb convoy 2.0 for Winnipeg in February. Two things with that: one, Winnipeg in February?!?! Even more proof these people are crazy. Two, what the hell are they protesting this time?

We know the answer to 2), as it happens. The clue was in all those signs the first time yearning to have sex with Justin Trudeau. These people are QAnon North: they believe Liberal governments and perhaps Liberal voters are invalid. And there are thousands and thousands of them, all championed by the Conservatives and their "leader", Pierre Poilevre. I will not write any further about that man: I'd like to keep the contents of my stomach where they are, thanks. Gag.

Trudeau managed to defuse Ottawa with an absolute minimum of cracked skulls (as in, zero). I regained a fair bit of lost respect for him over this. But I didn't have time to catch my breath before we were faced with something I thought had been left in the glittery eighties: the threat of nuclear war.

It was inevitable Russia would invade Ukraine. Any student of geopolitics would say the same and any student of recent Russian history would say it much louder. The response, however, was unexpected.


I'm a big Stephen King fan. Have been since tweenhood. There are two things King makes clear about the evil in his stories: one, the real monsters are human; two, evil usually fails, either through stupidity, overconfidence, or both. In THE SHINING, the Overlook Hotel is indeed haunted, but without a deeply flawed alcoholic father and husband to drive insane, its haunts are just scary pictures in a book. Danny Torrance is the prize the hotel will stop at nothing to win; Jack kills himself to deny that outcome. The villain in THE STAND sees his best-laid plans fall through time after time, thanks to people acting in ways he can't foresee or understand.  Similar lessons are to be found throughout King's output: evil can and must be fought, but it helps that it fights itself....and sometimes takes itself out.

 This holds true in spades for 2022. This year has been a series of case studies: villain after villain being thwarted by his own stupidity and/or unintended consequences. None more so than one Vladimir Putin, the big bad Russian bear. His unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine has, um, not gone according to plan. I mean, it was supposed to be over in three days. It's been more than three hundred, and Russia is losing.

I am in awe of Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Absolute awe. You'd never know he was deeply unpopular and politically living on borrowed time when Putin invaded his country. Overnight, he transformed into the very essence of a wartime leader, highly worthy of respect and admiration. Putin didn't expect that. 

Putin also didn't expect the West's retaliation. We'd shrugged our shoulders in 2014 when he annexed the Crimea (that was a mistake); this time, to put it mildly, we put our foot down. Economically, with wide and deep sanctions (which didn't seem to work for a while, until they did), but more importantly militarily.  Joe Biden has done an absolutely masterful job uniting much of the western world against Russia, and Putin didn't expect that either. Hell, Putin didn't expect to have to deal with Biden at all. He bought someone else in 2016 and was expecting more of a return on that investment.

The guy he bought is still bubbling away, like swamp gas. That's nice, dear. In a turn of events I can't say I was expecting, the Orange Julius has been...almost...muted? The media doesn't hang on his every fetid exhalation anymore, and lo and behold that was his own undoing. Was it the dinner with the white supremacist? Threatening to ditch the Constitution, the very document Presidents are sworn to defend? It was surely partly Dobbs overturning Roe. Overreach. It'll bite you in the buttock every time, and Republicans have a big chunk out of their cheek. 

Villains gloating and then glouting. Liz "Lettuce" Truss and her Chancellor of the Exchequer (that's a finance minister to us non-Brits), Kwasi Kwarteng. They couldn't have tanked that government any harder or faster if almost have to wonder if they tried. Here's  a little irony, it's good for the blood: the free hand of the market they both so idolize reached up and bitch-slapped them right quick. 

This was the year Elon Musk tried to illustrate how much public good a billionaire could do by...oh, never mind. His Twitter tenure has been by turns comical and infuriating, and he's lost well over a hundred billion in net worth in 2022. (Still worth $145.7 billion as of this writing...c'mon, everyone, try harder!)

Musk has decided, in the manner of the misbegotten mango before him, that financial laws like severance and obligations like rent don't apply to people as rich as he is. I feel a shift in the zeitgeist that I think Elon missed: people are less inclined to put up with "rules for thee but not for me" in the wake of three years of blatant hypocrisy. Remember the forbidden covid parties that political leaders across the spectrum from Trudeau to BoJo and DoFo sneeringly attended? Remember how your chances of contracting covid-19 skyrocketed if you attempted to buy something from a company that didn't donate to Doug Ford's Conservatives? The world has been absolutely teeming with two-faced tomfoolery and its consequences are coming home to roost. 

Chris Rock told a mean joke and received instant karma. Will Smith slapped Rock and received near-instant karma himself: a ten year ban from attending the Oscars. Two rich men behaving badly and paying for it. 

Just this week a former kickboxer/current incel god Andrew Tate unwittingly doxxed himself with a pizza box. The ol' box-dox, ya gotta love it. He, too, clearly didn't think his actions through. Just had to taunt a teenage woman. It's pathetic...and I haven't felt so much vicious schadenfreude in years. Well, boy howdy, if it ain't the consequences of my actions, come to pay me a visit.

Part of me relishes a rules-based orderly universe as a hedge against the chaotic and quite frankly rude universe we actually find ourselves in. I have always believed irrationally strongly that actions must have consequences and those consequences should be considered. Over the past several years I have watched with dismay, at times almost a species of dull panic, as meaningful consequences eluded people who richly deserved them. What a relief to find in 2022 that the idea of cause and effect isn't completely broken.

Let's keep this up going forward into 2023. Let's ensure actions have consequences. Let's ensure we understand what, exactly, it is we are fighting. It has several tendrils.

Southwest Airlines is an excellent example of one of those tendrils: shareholders über alles. I mean, that's been SOP at almost every corporation for years -- customers? Employees? Fuck 'em -- and sooner or later the cows were a-gonna come home. Really, it's easier to list the companies that AREN'T being destroyed in the name of profit, if you can find them. And even things that aren't corporations soon will be, if our esteemed (?) Premier gets his way. Have you seen what's left of our health care system lately?

What is our response?

Another tendril has already been mentioned: people so poor that all they have is money, thinking rules and laws don't apply to them (and largely, for many years now, being proven correct). This is how rapscallions like T---- get to be admired: they don't bother with the pretending. They break norms, rules and laws right out where you can see it, then they boast about it. You get too much corruption and authoritarians shamble out of the shadows. It happened to the Roman Republic; it's currently well underway in the modern western  world.

What is our response?

If I'm correct, 2023 will be the year the climate emergency becomes unignorable, which means it will kill a number of white people. It's all too easy to see conservatives the world over suddenly embrace climate change and shut off the lights and heat to Black neighbourhoods. It's not as if they've bothered to fix the water in Jackson, MI -- or on any number of reservations in Canada, lest you think this country blameless. Funny how there always seems to be money to shove oil pipelines through indigenous land, but never money to get drinkable water to indigenous land.

What is our response? 

The world is changing, both slowly and quickly. A new world is emerging, and we can make it our world again if we only try. Let's re-solve that, for 2023.

Happy New Year, one and all.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Some Thoughts on Jesus, the Bible, and Literality

 It's nearly Christmas. 

I feel less Christmassy with every year that passes, and I know I am not alone in that regard. Crass commercialism lost its appeal a long time ago, and it's been many years since the Nativity story -- as it is recounted every year --  held any magic for me. What's left? What you make of it, of course, same as anything else. It can be liberating to know just how much of what we believe at this time of year is just...made up.

Virtually every historian agrees Jesus himself wasn't made up, though few of them would capitalize the 'h' and  there is some contention as to how he was made.  Science has had a go at explaining the Virgin Birth -- not a very convincing go, in my opinion. Both Old and New Testaments are emphatic on the point that Joseph had nothing to do with the whole thing: he couldn't have, for those all-important prophecies to be true. 

I'd posit that Christianity's attitudes towards sexuality and women are to blame -- it's all too easy to see the lurking misogyny in Christian sites that say things like "If Jesus were not born of a virgin, Mary was a harlot and conceived out of wedlock". Yeah, there's little doubt a religion that pins every single evil thing in the world today on a single woman eating a fruit has it in for the fairer sex. 

But Christianity isn't alone.

Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome, were born of a virgin. So were Ra (the Sun) and Horus in ancient Egypt. There are virgins giving birth in ancient China, in the Indus River Valley, and in Mexico under the Aztecs.  The Phrygo-Roman god Attis was born of the virgin Nana on December 25th; he later died and was resurrected. (That's another thing god-figures have in common: the buggers just won't stay dead. Jesus is NOT the only holy zombie shambling around.) 

Now, it's uncertain how literal this is in all cases. Witchcraft, for instance, is replete with references to 'blood of a virgin', which sounds ominous until you discover it really means 'virgin blood' in the same sense as 'virgin olive oil'. Virgin blood has not been previously used in a ritual. Likewise, words for 'virgin' and 'young woman' are often identical across languages. Then there's the eternal opprobrium heaped upon women who have sex, and the lack of sex education. Both conditions are ripe for miraculous pregnancies. 

Personally, the divinity of Jesus -- or of you, or of myself, for that matter -- is not dependant on the absence of s-e-x in the cooking process. But that's just me. It also seems to me like Jesus' origin story ought to be just about the least important aspect of his existence, but alas, that also is just me.

Oh, about December 25th? Yeah, arbitrary. Nobody knows when in the year Yeshua bar Yosef was actually born, but it wasn't in the bleak midwinter. Shepherds don't watch their flocks by night in the depths of December in the Middle East. The date was chosen to co-opt the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

The Star of Bethlehem: we don't know what that was for certain -- no celestial object behaves like the one in Matthew -- but the closest thing is a conjunction: when two planets appear close to each other from our vantage point. It's unknown why the Magi (which simply means 'wise ones' and comes from the same ancient root as our word 'magician') would have interpreted this conjunction in particular as heralding the birth of a king, and astrology itself is not treated kindly elsewhere in the Bible, and there's a lot I don't know. Perhaps there really was a stationary star in the sky. Though you would think the Chinese or Egyptians might have noticed and recorded something. Honestly? It sounds like something grafted on to fulfill a prophecy...something like a virgin birth. I'm vergin' on blasphemy here, but since I don't believe, I think I'm safe.

Really, the Bible is full of stuff that's obviously grafted on. Like the morality tale in Noah's flood. 

I truly hope I don't have to tell you that the flood story never happened as it's recounted. Among the thousands of things to be explained if it did: how (and why) a pair of penguins waddled all the way to the Middle East, or how all the carnivores on the Ark ever so kindly waited until their prey had reproduced before gobbling them up. Forty days and forty nights is a long time.

Actually, it really is. That's exactly what that idiom means: a long time. Whenever you come across 40 in the Bible, that's what it means: an indeterminate long time. And you do run across it après la déluge. Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights. Jesus wandered in the desert for forty days and forty nights. Forty days passed between the Resurrection and the Ascension. I can almost hear the ancient scribe: shit, we don't know how long Jesus hung around once He came around after being hung. Better go for the all-purpose "while". You find similar usages throughout the Abrahamic religions, which for me lends credence to the idea they all sprang from a common idiom in a common tongue.

As for the global flood itself, which has antecedents in the Epic of Gilgamesh and other places...again, try not to think literally. In a place and time when you rarely travel more than ten miles from the place of your birth, any bad local flood is the end of your world. I have little doubt somebody saved themselves and their family and maybe some of their livestock by building a boat. No doubt they felt blessed by God, and it's never a big step between "I'm blessed by God" and "they're cursed by God". 

The biggest reason I don't believe in an all-encompassing flood with just one family surviving it in the entire world: it turns the Lord God into the biggest monster in this planet's history. How do you worship something in good conscience that engaged in uber-genocide? "But they were evil." Really? All of them? In Christian parlance, who made them that way? And why does the Lord God have such antipathy towards the beasts on the land and in the air, but sees fit to massively (but temporarily!)  expand the habitat of the sea creatures? To say nothing of all the two-by-two nonsense. Uh, Lord? This male hippo has absolutely no interest in the female hippo I brought on board at great risk to life and limb, I might add. What now?

Back to Jesus, who really is the Main Event, the Reason for the Season, etc., etc., etc. I've had several pastors tell me that the Old Testament is there to show us what kind of God Jesus saved us from, and nope, sorry, my bullshit-o-meter just went redline. As far as I'm concerned, the OT -- not to mention the Pauline epistles -- are there just so people today can cherry-pick verses out of Leviticus to browbeat LGBTQ+ folks and women with. 

Jesus was, let's not forget, a Jew. Not a Christian. The whole purpose of Jesus, if you believe this stuff at all, was to bring faith to the Gentiles in a way the Gentiles could relate to. That means telling a lot of parables, but even beyond that, I guarantee you there are expressions He used with His disciples that have gone over every head that's read or heard them for more than nineteen hundred years.

Some of them might have to do with miracles.

I have little doubt at least some of Jesus's healings were figurative. The blind man who sees the light? Could very well have been a disbeliever, even a hater, that Jesus converted. That very metaphor is as common as hallelujahs in current Christian discourse. The same can be said of causing a 'deaf' man to hear (the Word of God) or even the healing of leprosy, which is mentioned some forty times (there's that number again) in Scripture. Leprosy was the disease God afflicted you with if you pissed Him off. Or exorcisms -- again, the removal of something unclean through commune with the Divine. 

Of everything I'm writing here, I hope this becomes normalized. Because Christianity is ridiculously ableist, thanks to Jesus going around "healing" people. If you need to be healed by Christ, there's clearly some sin in ya, ya sinner. If you just pray hard enough...



Many Biblical miracles and strange happenings turn out, on close inspection, to have rational explanations. My favourite involves the Plagues of Egypt....every single one of which can be explained as an effect of a massive volcanic eruption, such as Thera circa 1600 BCE.

  • Nile turns to 'blood': volcanic ash was rich in cinnabar, which turns water blood-red
  • Frogs: the ash was toxic, so of course all the frogs fled the river
  • Lice: would be a side effect of ecological collapse
  • Flies: and there's another
  • Beasts: besides all the mass death, in cataclysms like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, animals are driven mad and act in strange and unpredictable ways
  • Livestock pestilence: self-explanatory at this point
  • Boils: the ash eventually coalesces into rain -- acid rain. The acid, landing on skin, would raise boils
  • Locusts: more dead stuff to feast on!
  • Darkness: ash blotting out the sun
  • The killing of the firstborn: Charles Pellegrino, in RETURN TO SODOM AND GOMORRAH (great read, btw, no matter your level of faith) theorizes that first born sons would have had pride of sleeping arrangements, up off the ground. Sinking gasses would have got them first, maybe giving the rest of the people time to scramble out. It's also possible the volcanic toxins were more deadly for children: many things are. It's also a theory that families sacrificed their firstborn themselves in desperation, blaming the plagues (and Egypt itself) for the slaughter. 
Thera was an almost unimaginable disaster. Its tsunami may have been as much as fifty meters high: that's what we in the doomsday business call a kyag. Kiss Your Ass Goodbye. Incidentally, a tsunami offers a neat (if out of chronology) explanation for the parting of the Red Sea. AND, Santorini may very well have been Atlantis. 

So I keep circling around, giving some different perspectives: ones that work for me, much more than taking it all literally. I ask you to consider: what if Jesus's miracles aren't really miraculous? Does that lessen the man -- or the god? 

I mean, even calming a man prone to anger and hatred might be regarded as a workaday miracle. We toss that word around today to mean anything highly improbable that nevertheless happens. It all hangs together until you get to the Resurrection, and folks, that's where my theorizing must end. It's not that people haven't died and came back to life. I know two people who have, and sometimes, in the deep of night, I believe I did, too. Died on one timeline; flipped to another at the last moment. None of them, to my knowledge, stayed dead for three days. 

Well, I do have a thought. But it's blasphemous.

(Since when did that ever stop you?)

Suppose, just hypothetically, that the bodily Resurrection never happened, or at least was misunderstood by the people seeing it. Jesus lived in a Gnostic tradition: many historians believe that the 'heresy' of Gnosticism was in fact the original Christianity. This is very different from the faith that bears his name: it's at once infinitely more concerned with this world than the next, but also swimming in the kind of esoteric mysticism that many Christians would brand witchcraft today. One famous Gnostic work called The Shepherd of Hermas -- it was actually, briefly and narrowly considered canonical scripture -- states outright that the Son of God was a "virtuous man, filled with a pre-existent spirit and adopted as the Son". This "adoptionism" was nixed in Nicaea in 325, when the faith was codified (some would say fossilized) into something much more  resembling its current form. Oh, and per the Gnostics, there's no such thing as bodily resurrection. 

I find a Resurrection marginally easier to accept than a virgin birth, but also don't think it matters as far as what's important in Christianity. This may sound insane given that without a Resurrection, there is no Christianity, but questions of whether Jesus was human or god or both really don't signify for me. What matters, to me, is what he preached. Love your enemies? Revolutionary. Turn the other cheek? Unheard of. Women in positions of authority, placed there by Jesus himself? Pretty sure that was the sticking point for one Saul of Tarsus, who couldn't defeat Christianity from outside so he infiltrated and wheedled and said all the right things and boom, Paul, you get to write about half the New Testament. And if your ideas directly contradict the big J.C.'s on a number of points? That'd be the long con.

You can certainly question everything I've written here. I hope you do. It's much better than blindly believing stuff. I'm not suggesting everything I wrote is (haha) gospel, either. These are possibilities and perspectives, not proofs. 

But I'll bet you at least some of them are at least somewhat more accurate than the narrative we're fed from pulpits.  And strangely, or perhaps not so strangely thinking about all this doesn't lessen the Christ story for me in any way whatsoever. It's been two millennia -- more like four, if we're looking at the OT, too. There's serious staying power in the story. I think at least some of that story was crafted that way.

If you celebrate the birth of Christ, no matter the season, I wish you a  Merry Christmas. I'll be writing later on what the day itself means to me.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Breaking Down The Breakdown

 I've said some uncharitable things about the Premier of Ontario. 

I have been far too kind.


There once was a time -- it wasn't all that long ago, really -- when our society lived by certain norms. If a judge rendered a verdict, you could appeal it, eventually up to the highest judges in the land (if you had almost unlimited funds, of course, and that's part of why our norms are breaking down)...and if you were rebuffed there, you were S.O.L. 

There was a time -- and this was just a few years ago -- when if you lost an election, you went back to your party and brainstormed what policies might win you the next one. 

There was a time when, in the exceeding rare event that a politician, let alone the spouse of one, was attacked by a home invader, the country would almost without exception and regardless of politics rally around the people most closely affected. 

There was a time here in Canada where the idea that thousands of people might occupy a city for a month, terrorizing residents 24/7 and breaking innumerable laws in the process, would never have even been thinkable, let alone garnered widespread ardent support.

There was a time in Canada when we had this quaint thing called the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It wasn't a perfect document: contrary to extremely popular belief, Canadians have no Constitutional property rights, for instance. But it was the law of the land, to be superseded only in times of grave emergency, and most Canadians (the ones who even knew it existed, anyway) had few beefs with it. Certainly nobody outside Québec would ever consider overriding it.  (I don't want to get into why Québec is a special case, as it's completely outside the topic of this blog.) 

Time marches on. Catabolic collapse continues apace. One of the inevitable facets of civilizational decline is an erosion of social, political, and judicial norms. You are starting to see this play out at present. In the United States, the Supreme Court has gone rogue and intends to erase the last sixty years of progressive victories for women and minorities; there is a very real risk that if it follows through, more than half the population of the country will lose faith in it. A question to ponder: what happens when a majority of people decide the Supreme Court in their country is full of ka-ka?

There were sixty two court challenges seeking to overturn the last election in the United States. Sixty one of them failed; only one verdict could be considered a tiny victory for the insurrectionists. Those guardrails held, for the time being.  Completely unhinged conspiracy theories still circulate, thanks to a hermetically sealed conservative echo chamber impervious to challenge.

That same echo chamber has amplified ludicrous and offensive statements about the attack on Paul Pelosi (no, I'm not linking that toxic slime: if you don't trust me, go find it yourself). A third of the country seems to find a fractured skull hilarious. Given that fact, increasing political violence is assured.

Neither the sore loser of the last American election nor the lucky winner of the last Ontario election had anything resembling a coherent platform. Just empty slogans, because both the  American Republicans and the Ontario Conservatives have no wish whatsoever to govern, only to rule. 

The so-called "Freedom Convoy" that occupied Ottawa earlier this year spun its own web of lies about what it was and what it stood for. I'm still wondering how people luxuriating in a hot tub drinking donated beer can in any way be referred to as "oppressed", but they and their supporters insist we live in a "fascist tyranny". They want to "fuck Trudeau" (must be the hair)  but are virulently opposed to "man dates". Methinks they are very confused. 

Now let's talk about the monstrous authoritarian power grab that Doug Ford, the Premier of Ontario, is trying to get away with. It's a bloody big deal: international news, in fact, because governments outside of banana republics simply do not act this way. 

Let's first clarify that this education workers' strike is fully legal. Or at least it was, until the government declared otherwise. The government has spun this as concern for students, who have faced unprecedented chaos since March of 2020. I do get that, and I sympathize with parents and students. That said, the unprecedented chaos affected educational workers too. As one protest sign rightly noted, "our working conditions are their learning conditions."

I know some of my readers probably still look at compensation for teachers -- for what they very erroneously believe is a six hour day in a ten month year. (I always ask people: if you think teaching is such a cushy job, why aren't you a teacher? I've asked probably close to a hundred people that over the years, and I have yet to receive even an attempt at an answer.)

But this strike is not a teachers' strike. 

These are educational assistants, librarians, janitors...and they make, on average,  $39,000 a year. That may seem reasonable to you, until you consider the average one bedroom rental pushes $30,000 a year in many cities. You may say well, I don't make that much and I'm not getting a fucking raise. It's one of many strange blind spots people have been conditioned into having: it's always they make too much, never I don't make enough, and the one thing that tends to at least help make sure you DO make enough -- it's called a UNION -- is spit on by the same people who bitch about unionized people making money. Don't like it? Unionize. 

So anyway. Union in a legal strike position. Demanding, at first, an 11.3% wage increase, and of course the media seized on that. Outrageous! How dare they demand so much money?  Greedy little fucks! Don't they realize that figure, um, wait a second, barely covers inflation? Uh...shit, I just shot myself in the foot.

I hear you getting restive again. I haven't had a raise in five years. Do you have a union? No? Ahem.

The thing is, I have no problem if you disagree with the strike. It's a free country, after all, or at least for now. Even if you are vehemently opposed to strike action from education workers, you should still shudder at how far the government is going on this. They have invoked something called the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution. For people who fall asleep at the very notion of politics, please wake up for this, because the notwithstanding clause is meant for times of massive civil unrest or disaster. It suspends your Charter rights as a Canadian citizen, overriding sections 2 and 7-15 of that document. Wanna know what's in those sections? Oh, nothing much. Just your rights to

  • freedom of religion, thought and expression;
  • life, liberty and security of your person
  • freedom of movement, including the right not to be arbitrarily imprisoned
  • and oh, you can't use a court or a legislature to challenge any of this. Ever.
But hey, you can still vote. This will be in effect until the government drops it or is tossed out in a constitutionally guaranteed election. Our next one of those will be in 2026. Maybe in 2026 the next majority government elected by 18.1% of voters will be less diabolical.

(You read that right: Ford was elected to a majority government by just 18.1% of those of voting age. You millions of Ontarians who did not vote, this is YOUR doing as much as it is Doug Ford's. 


Even if you hate these people, do you hate them THAT much? And if the government is allowed to get away with this, who's next? I have opinions regarding Doug Ford. Is there a point in my future where those opinions might not be legally permitted to be expressed? That sounds crazy, but until it happened, I would have said this was crazy.

Crazy, but expected. We are deep into what Robert Heinlein called "The Crazy Years", and I'm afraid we have a long way to go. I can assure you the people will eventually win this war of many, many battles. History proves it. But the victory may well feel Pyrrhic, because the forces of business as usual will not give up easily, and they will, given the chance, strip us of all that is right and good in the world. 

In the meantime,  there is strength in solidarity. The union involved here is being supplemented by other, more powerful unions across the land. CUPE is calling for a general strike starting a week tomorrow. There hasn't been one of those in Canada since  the infamous Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. That was crushed, incidentally, after 40 days. It achieved nothing in the short term, but it did unite workers across the country into prolonged activism.

Let me tell you something, and please remember it.

There are many of us and few of them. They have all the power of the State behind them, and they intend to use it. We have our own power: a power much, much greater than theirs. We must only choose to exercise it ourselves. 

I have no idea what's coming over the next little while in Ontario. I'd like to think Ford will back down: he's a bully, and he's threatened to use that notwithstanding clause already, before a court granted his wish anyway. Remember: that clause makes whatever the government does unchallengeable. 

There is one clause stronger than what Ford invoked, called disallowance. It hasn't been used since 1943 and legal experts doubt it would survive a court challenge today. I don't expect Trudeau to go that far. His father might have, but Justin doesn't have Pierre's steel. 

Too bad. 

Buckle up, Ontario. And let's stand together.


Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Exacting Payment

 I should be an old hand with these accreditations by now. I've been through five of them: order support tier one; chat; order support tier one again; order support tier two three days later (and oh, was THAT an ordeal) payments.

I was never anxious before exams in school. Ever. But directly tie my result on an exam to my ability to earn money and yeah, butterflies. Butterflies the size of cement mixers. 

You get two chances to pass these things, three if they really like you. They like you if you contribute in class and if you are seen to be making an actual effort to learn. I always ensure they like me. Just in case I need that third pitch. I did need a second attempt with one of these accreditations, and it's not like you get to pick the task you get. If it's something that would tax a tenured agent, they won't expect you to take that task for accreditation....but you'll still have to work it (with all the help you need) and wait for another. 

Second attempts are beyond stressful. Avoid avoid avoid, as in a void you might be falling into if you fail twice. I do not want to have to go back to working for a living, you know?  

We have 60 new payments agents between two classes, and only one accreditor most of the time. You're given thirty minutes to complete a task -- they can extend it to 45, again, if they like you -- but any task that could possibly take that long is deemed too difficult. So if you're taking that long...don't take that long.

As usual with these, I wanted to go somewhere smack dab in the middle of the class. As usual, I didn't get my request in fast enough and ended up towards the end. This was fine, I thought. I had worked a mix of tasks, and right now in the mornings we're getting a lot of the same task, called a C61. That was at the top of my list of ideal tasks to draw for testing, and I figured I'd get to go midmorning today, on the second day of accreditation.

It ended up being 12:30 PM.

We're working from home (another reason I wanted to keep this job). My Webex training room-mate had already passed yesterday, so he took no tasks this morning at all: he was there solely as my first layer of support. They did this because if all the newly accredited agents took tasks, the wait time between them would be such that the students left to pass would have to wait and wait and wait to get the chance. 

Practice practice C61 C61 C61...hope I get this and not some random task out of left field. 

Task comes in. I have barely enough time to register I have something called a P05 that I had never seen before when I was suddenly in a different Webex room with...who the eff are you  OH SHIT IT'S GO TIME AND I'VE NEVER EVEN SEEN THIS TASK....

deep breath

archive through my head to retrieve any information I know about a P05 before I go to the procedural documents

and suddenly I was back in grade 13 taking my final English exam. Our teacher that year fell gravely ill over the Christmas break; we had a sub for the rest of the year. We were told that NOTHING from September through December would show up on that final, on the grounds we'd already had a midterm. 

I will never, never forget striding into the library where they held that exam, sitting confidently about to turn over my paper and begin, when I heard gasps and profanities all around me, the loudest from my soon-to-be-best friend Jason. A guy down the row from Jay got up from his carrel, pushed it over with a clatter, and stormed out, never to be seen again.

Well, this oughta be interesting.

I turned the paper over.

EVERYTHING on the exam was stuff we had learned from September to December. 

As you know, I was bullied pretty badly from grades four to eight, encompassing three schools, one of them twice. One of their favourite torments involved stealing or desecrating my notebooks.   So after awhile I stopped taking notes at all. Instead I would sit with my head down on the desk, appearing for all the world to be asleep, and concentrate...hard. Teachers learned to put up with this quirk after one of them slammed a ruler down on my desk, millimetres from my head. First, I struggled not to shit myself. Then, I regurgitated everything the teacher had said for the last half hour in elegant point form, adding in some outside knowledge because why not. 

That teacher lost his mind. He grabbed me and practically threw me out of the classroom. I was sent to the office for the first and only time in my scholastic career for being a smartass. I asked the VP: "what was I supposed to do, give him the wrong answers?" and explained why I didn't take notes. I was never bothered (for that) again.

And that's how I aced that exam. I learned later I got the only A+; the rest of my class appealed and had the exam graded on a curve.  Thank you, bullies.


I performed a less intensive version of that for just a minute today, while I gathered myself. We'd only had six days of class and practice, and it was the last six days, so I didn't have to go into a trance and time travel like I did in grade thirteen English. I took about three deep breaths and scoured my mind for P05. 

Nothing. But wait.

Somebody had said -- on the second day of class -- that tasks ending in 05 were "timeouts", and they were ridiculously easy to fix. Go into one screen in SAP, uncheck something, back out and save the order, and that's it. 

I couldn't believe my luck when Cynthia said "if you want, I can test you on this task you just got."

I want.

You know I passed, right? I wouldn't be writing this if I didn't. I'm not going to ratchet up suspense. That's cheap, and while I'm easy, I am NOT cheap.

Look up P05 in our compendium of how-do-I-do-this. Open the first document that pops up and skim through it so I understand exactly what's going on, chattering the whole time because I'm still nervous as hell, even though my mind archive had assured me I was golden.

Notice the PR doc doesn't mention notes. Recall -- it would have been hard not to -- that we must document everything we do in SAP, even if it's nothing. Put in exactly what I did and what happened when I did it, finishing with "closing"...and closed the task. Took maybe three minutes. Could have taken 30 seconds if I was only being tested on getting it done as quickly as possible. They want to see you work through those PRs. They want to know you know how to find instructions, not just follow them. 

Cynthia: "okay, just so you can relax, you passed with 100%." 

Oddly, that didn't help me relax. For two or three hours afterwards, my guts were roiling worse than they had been this morning. I felt like I'd cheated: the task was waaaay too easy. There are much, much more difficult tasks, and I'd better see as many of them as possible in the next three days because after that the training wheels come off.

I find out my new schedule tomorrow, hopefully, and it's almost certainly going to suck. On my last shift bid, I was ranked fifth of 54 agents, and got a great schedule, 10:15 am to 6:45 pm, Monday to Friday. This time I'm 48th out of 103. Why the drop? I was still being ranked strictly on my order support standings. But the 40 tenured payments agents are ahead of all of us. I can console myself that I'm really top ten, still, but that doesn't help me get a decent shift in this bid.

Call centers. Almost all of them have bids like this. If you don't like that, you're free to go back to retail, where your schedule can change every week.

We'll see what I get, and whether anybody else wants it. In the meantime, I am now something I never imagined I would ever be: a payments specialist.

Sunday, October 09, 2022

Autumnal Adventure

 We'd been looking forward to this little road trek for nearly as long, and nearly as much, as the bigger trek we did in July. Fall colours, baby. Ontario isn't quite as world famous as, say, New England for colour, but I think it should be. 

Let me warn you first off that the previous paragraph, while not hyped in any way, will have little supporting evidence in this blog.  Which isn't to say we didn't have a lovely time. You should know by now that we can do that anywhere.

A long while back, I'd bought Ron Brown's BACKROADS OF ONTARIO. It contains 23 excursions, and one of them caught our eye almost immediately, called "Valleys and Cuestas" (a cuesta being a ridge with one gentle and one steep slope). Part of the 90km tour passes through areas we've been to before and know fairly well; much of it was going to be new to us.

Ken should probably read these things a little more closely before he gets all excited and starts us at the end of the tour, the capstone, the Beaver Valley. Kathy and I have been here before, but not in fall. 

We found a rest area with no view and the Epping - John Muir Lookout, with a view that maybe lacks autmnal pop, but is nevertheless gorgeous: 

I apologize, sincerely: the best shots of the Beaver Valley would have caused a wreck.

John Muir (1838-1914)  is very famous in conservation circles.  A born wanderer, he spent time in many places on the globe, and played a significant role in the introduction of America's National Parks system. But before that, he lived here in Ontario, near Meaford. 

Muir's biographer, Robert Burcher, said that in order to capture Muir's spirit, he had to learn to "go slow, saunter and be present". If that doesn't describe a Kathy and Ken road trek, I'm not sure what does. (Kathy does put her lead foot away on road treks. Honest, she does.)

This is a place that demands a few moments pause. Although you can see modern farm equipment trundling around in a few distant places, you can't  hear it, which suits me just fine and proves, if any further proof was needed, that I belong in a different time, a time before people learned to hate silence. 

I feel a sense of solidarity with everyone else who has gazed upon this view. Especially those from long ago, like Muir, who walked most of what we now call the Bruce Trail, communing with Nature the whole way.

We walked along the path to the left of the lookout -- Kathy tells me it extends a fair distance, "longer than you think" -- and something about the forest here felt almost magical to me.

I feel a little silly sharing pictures like this, because -- I mean, here are some trees. I don't know if you can feel what I felt looking at this. I'm not sure I can even put it into words. For me, the forest felt alive, which of course it was and is, but -- on some other levels as well? Like there was a presence here. Calming and soothing, but with a subtle ominous undertone. We live in peace. Why can't you?

The knots in the trees felt like eyes, regarding us. Warmly but sternly, if that makes any sense. 

Moving along before you think I've lost my marbles. (Can you be said to lose something you never had in the first place?)

We had some delicious and inflation-busting chicken Caesar wraps, along with veggies and sausage and cheese (oh my) lovingly prepared by Kathy. Then we discovered that if we wanted to complete the tour, we'd have to ditch Gertie the GPS lady and do it old-school. 

My, has Google spoiled us and how.

To be fair, Ron Brown's maps in this book are less helpful than they could be. He doesn't even bother to name the roads on the map, in many cases, leaving you scouring the text, cross referencing the map, cross referencing your eyes, and then remembering too late that you started this tour at the end and so all the directions are backwards. We ended up forgoing the planned route from this point on.

 Because we were close by,  we went to Thornbury.  We  were here last summer and kind of fell in love with this charming lakeside village. We had hoped to see the salmon running. I'm guessing the posse of fisher-people had caught them all. There had to be thirty cast members scattered along both banks, precariously balancing on stones. Kathy warned me not to get too close in case somebody's cast went awry. Cue Margaret Atwood:

You fit into me
Like a hook into an eye
A fish hook
An open eye

I think we might be back up here in the Spring, when it looks like it's a busier place fishwise. It was a whole hell of a lot busier peoplewise than the last time we were here. 

Back to the Bridge of Kindness. Can't get enough of this view. 

It was COLD here. 

I used to be a dairy/frozen guy, and cold never, ever bothered me before. I would routinely spend upwards of an hour in a walk-in freezer, temp -40 plus, or rather minus, windchills, clad in only a T-shirt (okay, smartass, pants and shoes too). Kathy chided and chastised me for refusing to bring a coat along. Stubborn me.  "It's going to be like 9 degrees. A sweater will do me just fine," I said, and Kathy tut-tutted and asked if she could say "I told you so" when I announced how freaking COLD it was.


You told me so.

The wind just cuts off the Bay here. 

Kathy, dressed for the season:


(not cold anymore)

So glad to have gotten the shot from the bridge behind Kathy here, the Bay in all its glory:

We tried to meet up with the trek we were supposed to be on, but between Ron Brown's less-than-stellar descriptions, my own directional ambivalence, and Gertie the Google GPS lady being drunk as a skunk, we had no luck.

Dad: is it an offence under the Highway Traffic Act if your navigating machine is drunk? Damned thing wanted to take us into the heart of Collingwood. That was NOT where we wanted to go and not where we told her to take us. Eventually we told HER where to go.

It only occurs to me now what the issue was. The next stop on the tour was a little hamlet named Banks. And Gertie, bless her heart, wanted to take us to the nearest bank.

Kathy wanted a turkey dinner, but didn't want to cook one. I can't blame her there: turkey is yummy, but it's a hell of a lot of work. And expense, these days. So we meandered our way to Anna Mae's in Millbank, which has been my favourite place to eat out since I first ate there. Pulled the same schtick that first time I had previously done At The Crossroads (R.I.P.)...when I was paying, they asked me how everything was and I lowered my voice and put on an air of supreme indignation. "I'm really quite angry," I said, and the hostess blanched a little. "I'm sorry, what was wrong and how can we make it right?"
"What's WRONG," I said with feeling, "is that I have been WASTING MY MONEY eating at OTHER restaurants for YEARS." And smiled.
But I meant it At The Crossroads and I for damn sure mean it for Anna Mae's. The prices here remain more than reasonable. Full meal: potato soup, turkey dinner with fixins, and their to-die-for raspberry cheesecake: $20.65. And easily worth half that again.

As you'd expect, it was busy. We were told the wait for a table was 55-65 minutes, and ended up seated at roughly the forty minute mark. I wouldn't wait that long for a table at many other places. But (a) this one's worth the wait and (b) the nearest pale comparison was practically 40 minutes away anyway. Millbank is kind of in the middle of nowhere.
The bakery was even busier, the day before Thanksgiving. I wanted to bring something back for Jade but it was picked clean. 

Home again, jiggety jog.


There are four places Kathy knew of to break a fast in Woodstock. Three of them she'd been to, with varying results. The fourth, right downtown, is The Barnyard (menu link, no website). Formerly the Olympic, this place is a Woodstock institution Kathy missed only because it used to serve Greek food. Apparently the last remnants of that will be gone with the next iteration of the menu, and the prices will of course go up, but I DEFY you to find a place that will serve you two eggs, homefries and toast for $6.50 anymore. GOOD homefries, too. Prices like this make me seriously wonder how much of the inflation monster is really real. If you can afford to serve decent food at this prices, the places selling the same food at twice the price have some 'splaining to do.

The time came to take me back to Waterloo, but we didn't want to end the day just yet, so we moseyed our way there using a route Kathy had never taken before (which honestly kind of surprised me). Sorry for the lack of photos. "Look at that stand of trees!", we'd exclaim time after time, and now I'm on the Food Network. "Look at all this delicious food, God, you wouldn't believe how it tastes, I'm just smacking my lips here. Oh, you want some? Make it yourself! Bye now!"

I'll stop now. Only two more stops anyway, and I have a PICTURE of one of them: Abraham Erb's Grist Mill, where the city of Waterloo began in 1816. (This is a replica built on site in 1998.) 

Gotta get running water into these treks somewhere...

Last stop of the day was Holy Shakes. Eva and Mark and I dishskipped from this place about a month ago on a celebratory day, and that experience was memorable enough I wanted Kathy to share it. 

 It's made (and priced) for celebrations. Extravagant and rich in more than one way: they serve you your message milkshake in a bottle you get to keep. My "Berry Dreams" shake had a slice of (heavenly) strawberry shortcake balanced ON TOP OF IT. 

Kathy is vanilla all the way when it comes to shakes and she went way outside her comfort zone to try a KitKat (smile) Cinnamon Toast Crunch milkshake that she said she'd have again sometime.  Honestly, people, this is not your run-after-the-mill standard milkshake place. The creations here are really impressive, and damned tasty.

It's Thanksgiving. I give thanks for this beautiful province, and for the chance to see it. I give thanks for good food, good conversation, and good navigating in the hopes that thanking it in advance might bring it to me.  I give thanks for all the love in my life. And I give thanks to you for reading.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Guest Blog: Eva: I'm Off Slaying Demons

Hey, you.  Been a long while since I logged into Facebook.   I will offer a genuine apology, but I mean that in the "defense" sense and not the "I messed up" sense. I'm truly sorry -- and not sorry enough to come back.  Settle in.   Imma get personal.

I’ve long since abandoned a belief in the Christian God.  My personal philosophy is that whatever you believe in is true.   For you.   So essentially I believe in a Christian God for Christians along with a heaven and a hell, if you're one of those Christians who believes in hell. If you believe in the Buddha, I'm clapping one hand with you. There's a meme that goes around Facebook periodically -- Ken always tells me, because I could have written it. It's about the Grim Reaper, and how he gets a bad rap that's totally undeserved. All that guy does is guide you to your afterlife. It's not like he kills you or anything. He's the H.R. of the Beyond. "Okay, Joshua, says here you were a Christian. Heaven's three doors down on the -- wait, Catholic. FOUR doors down on the right." "Maureen, agnostic, eh? C'mon in here and have a seat, we'll discuss your options."

Do you understand what I mean?  I believe that my essence,  my soul if you will, will be released to the universe when  I  die. I’ll understand things I never thought about.  I'll be able to do things I can't do in this life. To be able to let go and forgive. To be at peace.  To go anywhere in the universe with the power of a thought.

I used to believe in God and when my aunt  died in an accident it started to shake my faith. I had a boyfriend at the time, a man I thought I'd marry, and he went off and married the Church instead, so then I didn't just disbelieve in faith, I was almost jealous of it. I ended up leaving the Church, and David.

 Fast forward to the day I started  on a job that I ended up loving for a little over 10 years.   This  goes somewhere,  I promise.   Anyway,  I met this beautiful,  shy, sensitive young woman named Erin.   I grew a bit close to her, close enough that I remember her first date with the man she would later marry and have babies with.    We grew apart when I left,  and then reconnected through LinkedIn and of course Facebook.   Not "meeting in person" close, but catch up every once in a while close.   I watched her announce her babies.  vicariously revelling in her accomplishments.

And one day she announced her breast cancer diagnosis.   

She fought like a wildcat to beat it.  Ran marathons,  the whole nine yards.   Then she started to get headaches.   They didn’t post much after that.  

The last time I logged into Facebook I saw it was her birthday.   And right under her birthday notice was her obituary.   And I snapped.   She left behind her young family.   I couldn’t take  one more minute of the whole thing.   


Next month my Durga tattoo will finally be finished. Durga is a Hindu warrior goddess I deeply respect and identify with. Ken will have a blog up with pictures and meanings, but for now, let's just say Durga is a demon slayer. I had to earn her, and earning her took half a lifetime and many demons slain myself. 

Most of you know I have disabilities.   Not going to go into it.  But I’m happier not going on social media.   Happier not worrying about it.   I already give far too much attention to what is in my head. Like another meme Ken told me about says, "face your demons, but don't go demon hunting." No offence to my friends here, but Facebook itself is a demon, and it's not MY demon. 

So I don’t log in.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t love you.   I do.  I’m doing OK.  Durga's helping me.