Thursday, March 31, 2011

We are eternal

In the days before the nonconfidence vote (a phrase, by the way, that will forever be tarnished by the stupidity in which it was used in The Phantom Menace), the Harperites claimed that a “vote on nonconfidence is a vote that will weaken Canada’s economic recovery.” Sad fear-mongering, a usual tactic from the right-wing. “Whenever you don’t do what we want, something baaaad will happen. Oooo, spooky!”
Well, since then, our dollar has held stable at around 103 cents US. A suspiciously minded person might think that things are just a little too calm. Eye of the storm perhaps? When will the dire predictions come to pass? We’ll have to wait until the rest of the data is gathered to find out that the unemployment rate skyrocketed in the last week, that manufacturers fled the country in droves, and our service sector employees have all taken over-seas sabbaticals, fearing the unstable political climate here in Canada.
More likely nothing will happen. Why? Because our economy never failed. Yes, it took a hit, but that was due to the tight bonds we have with the US. When they took a nosedive, we had a touch of turbulence. Governmental efforts probably helped it from becoming worse, but that’s about it. It is hubris to believe that as Canadians we actually write our own ticket in terms of economy. We sleep next to a five-hundred pound man with sleep apnea, and when he tosses and turns, our night doesn’t go so well, either.
In order for an election to damage our economy or recovery, the world would have to care. But let’s face it, they don’t. Look at a non-Canadian news service, and you’ll have to use their search feature just to find the word ‘Canada’ at all. You definitely won’t get pages of in-depth coverage. There’s nothing the matter with that: we’re a small country made smaller by the fact that our umbilical cord is attached to the US.
The truth is, that they don’t need to care. First of all, our election will go smoothly, swiftly, and be decided in six short weeks (less, now). Compare that to our neighbours down south, who have been engaged in pre-election wrangling for months already, and won’t stop until the end of 2012! (Beware the Hanging Chad of Election's Past!) Second, when the dust has settled here, no one besides us will notice a difference (and some of us won't be able to tell, either).
For all their rhetoric, our two major national  parties aren’t really that different. Certainly they don’t have the canyon-like gulfs separating US Democrats and Republicans. Ignatieff or Harper, either way, we’re getting someone slightly to the side of the middle. Even if there were a major upset and Elizabeth May managed to get herself into office, so what? We wouldn’t start arming soldiers with flowers, or pulling out of any international commitments. From the world’s perspective, Canada post-May 2 won’t change one bit.
I’m just not sure whether that’s good or bad.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Too much knowledge is a bad thing

Polling has ruined democracy
There is a constant stream of statistics and data that flows over us, at all times, regarding just how well each party is doing in relation to the others. Conservatives gained 3 points. Liberals are down a percent. NDP are... well, does it really matter? Basically at any time we all have a pretty good idea just how popular each party is with the people. This is a bad thing, a very bad thing.
For all that we like to believe that we are an “intelligent species,” we are deluding ourselves. Part of the problem is that the creatures we compare ourselves to are animals. Dogs, apes, dolphins, and so on, and we always do way better in any tests than they do. Yay! We’re smart! But we made up the tests! Talk about species bias! Are they any questions about butt-sniffing, lit-picking, or blowhole maintenance? Is really isn’t that fair (or smart) to believe that we’re so clever just because we test well. But these tests are designed to measure intelligence, you say? Well, who defines what intelligence is? I suppose we do. So in other words, humans are geniuses because we have defined genius to be precisely that thing we possess that no one else has. At least we’re smart enough to have a phrase for what we do (circular logic) even if we’re not quite cunning enough to accept it as truth.
Because we’re not as smart and rational as we like to believe, we are suckers for polling. It’s like we get a small window to the future, knowing who’s going to win before the first vote has even been officially cast. What precisely is the point of a secret ballot when you get to see what everyone else has written down? It’s like those votes your teacher made you take in grade school for class president. Everyone had to put their head down and raise their hand when the teacher called out the name of the person they wanted elected. The theory was that no one looked, but I know for a fact that some kids were sneaking peeks. I know this because I was one of the peek-sneakers.
Knowing (or believing we know) the outcome changes what we do. Some of us are sheep, and want to be part of the majority. Some of us try to be “strategic,” and spend our vote where we think it will have the most impact. Some of us automatically go for the underdog. Some just don’t bother to vote, thinking there’s no point because the winner’s too far ahead. Many of us might change our minds without really even being aware of why we do it. Foreknowledge changes what is to come, and therefore renders the results invalid. Sure, it’s still technically a democracy, in that people are voting and the candidates that win the most votes are elected. But what I’m claiming is that the people they’re voting for aren’t necessarily the ones they actually want to have win. We’re just too easily swayed by public opinion.
It’s impossible to live in an isolation booth (unfortunately, the “Skinner box for humans” has been deemed unconstitutional). I just want to do away with the non-stop, formalized pre-election polling. Let’s just roll the dice for once, and see where they land. It just might surprise us.

The wheels on the election go round and round

By the time you read this, we may already be heading towards an election. Whenever this happens, we get to hear a few of the same tired phrases trotted out. Let’s begin.
“Canadians don’t want an election.” This gem usually comes from the incumbent. Why do they say this? As Canadians, don’t we already know what we want? Or are they swinging a shiny pocket watch in front of us while they say it, hoping to hypnotize us into repeating it, zombie-like. Is it a Jedi mind trick? (“No, these aren’t the MPs we’re looking for.”) I suppose they are just trying to remind us that with an election comes a price tag and a wasted half hour when you go to vote. Wow. Big deal. The annual budget for MP haircuts probably costs more than an election, and Canadians waste a half hour watching commercials every time they watch a late-night movie. The truth is that the only people who want an election live in countries that don’t get them at all. For some reason, democracies always treat their own election like a visit from a Jehovah’s Witness: you’ll say or do anything to get it over with and get that smiling guy out of your face.
“Time for a change.” In one shape or another, this is the rallying cry for the challengers. They’re probably right, but their argument doesn’t explain why we should change to them. Instead they hope that we’ll equate change with the next most numerous party and vote that way, resulting in a landslide victory. The real problem is that an elected official can’t really bring about change. Just ask Obama about that. A system with checks and balances helps to prevent dangerous tyranny, but it also stunts innovation and improvement.
“That guy doesn’t respect Canada: don’t vote for him.” Here we have a loose concept used to prove not that Candidate A is awesome, but rather that Candidates B, C, D, and especially E, are all evil, useless, thieving liars. Both sides use this kind of attack ad, and the irony is, both sides are always correct in whatever they say. I would be very interested in legislation limiting all electoral commentary to discussing only your own party and platform. Tell us what you can do. Tell us what you have done. Telling us that your opponent both sucks and blows isn’t selling us on you; it just isn’t. During election time, the politicians throw out all those rules we’ve learned on how best to get a job. Don’t they know an interview candidate that trash-talks their co-workers never gets hired? This is pretty basic stuff, right? Your application can’t say things like, “Yeah, my high school grades were pretty bad, but they were way better than the rest of the losers in my class. Especially that Michael guy: he barely even showed up for class.” At least in the States, attack ads are so over the top they are funny. Here, they’re just boring, and sometimes in bad taste. Does everyone remember that Chretien ad where the PCs took shots at the way his face looked? Kind of over the top, boys. I wonder which side will go that extra step this time to disgust us?
Overall prediction? In two months we wind up with another Conservative minority. In three years we’ll get to do it all again. But so what? All we’re giving up is haircut money and commercial time.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

When the laughter stops...

Nerds know all about stereotypes. Not because we embody one, but because we read fantasy and sci-fi novels, play role-playing games, watch movies, and enjoy the occasional video game or two. Without stereotypes, none of those things could exist. Stereotypes are comforting and allow us to understand a character quickly and without spending too much time drilling down to the root cause of all their personality quirks. Thanks to stereotypes, you know what sort of person a character is after a single scene, regardless of the medium. Hard-bitten tough guy? Wise-cracking playboy? Grim and merciless killer? (If a hero, by the way, the G&M Killer will have a soft spot for babies, puppies, kittens, or bunnies. If a villain, maybe hairless cats, but that’s about it.) Stereotypes free us up to get more quickly to the good stuff, whether that’s plot development or enormous explosions.
In fantasy and sci-fi, stereotypes are often applied to entire worlds or races. Of course that’s not realistic. It’s just easier. It lets us move on with the story. “Okay, desert planet, got it. Now what’s gonna happen?”
There is one stereotype that should be done away with entirely. In every fantasy world and role-playing game, you will find a race or species that is “fun-loving, care-free, and irreverent, the [insert made-up race name here] enjoy nothing more than teasing the other races. A well-timed prank is applauded as a great victory among the [insert made-up race name here].” Typically, this puckish race also gets terribly upset if someone they have “Punk’d” doesn’t take the joke well. Their reaction usually entails an unremitting attack of non-stop pranks until the poor humourless victim crawls away to die, happy in knowing that at least in death, the jokes will stop. (Imagine the horror at finding that hell is entirely run by [insert made-up race name here].)
Usually this particular stereotype manages to somehow inhabit a world that is dark and dire. At the very least, any world at all would have a race or culture that would make it their personal business to wipe out precisely this kind of laughing maniacs. And who could blame them?
So what justification exists to allow these dudes to keep on drawing breath? Why haven’t all the evil people ganged up just for a week to wipe out the Ravnos, kender, Ragabash, halflings, Pooka, gnomes, and windlings? For that matter, why haven’t the good races done it? A practical joke here and there can be considered amusing, but if every time you turn around your shoe laces are tied together, don’t you eventually lose it? You’ve had a helluva day, work was terrible, your boss chewed you out, you haven’t gotten laid in months, and you get a flat tire on the way home. Finally you walk into your own house, only to have a bucket of liquid pig feces fall on your head. Are you telling me you wouldn’t cheerfully strangle the jerk that put it up there?
Then there is the old fable about the grasshopper and the ant. A culture can support a certain number of lazy grasshoppers because the hard-working ants can handle it, but if everyone is a grasshopper, you’re dead the day after the first hard frost. It just isn’t sustainable to spend all day pranking each other. No matter how good the party is, someone eventually has to clean it all up.
Nope, it just wouldn’t work. Come up with a new stereotype. How about they only play pranks one day a year, and everyone else in the world knows to stay inside with their doors locked and the phone unplugged? We could call it... um... how about April Fools Day? Or is that already a thing?

Monday, March 21, 2011

We're number 1! (Well, tied for it, at least.)

That’s right, Manitobans are getting their radiation therapies within medically recommended wait times. All of us. One hundred percent.
In fact, a recent report states that slightly better than 8 out of 10 Canadians are receiving surgeries in a timely fashion (defined by “within medically recommended wait time”). That’s pretty darn good. It's an A on our national transcript. Yes, it would suck to be one of the '2 of 10' that has an extended delay, but there are numerous factors that might require your surgery to be delayed. Other medical complications, for example, can bump that surgical procedure far into the future. They aren’t going to cut you open until you have an outside chance of surviving, for instance, and if you’re not healthy enough, there isn’t much point in pulling out the scalpel.
National average for radiation therapy is 98%. Bypass surgery? Ninety-nine percent. We drift down to the high 70’s for hip replacements and knee surgeries, and that’s unfortunate, but you’ve got to be a pretty selfish person not to be willing to delay your titanium knee to open up a space for someone to get their ticker working again.
(There is no wait time at all for emergency procedures, by the way. The above stats deal only with scheduled surgeries. Virtually no developed nation has any appreciable wait time for emergency surgeries.)
As Canadians, it is our right to complain as widely as we want about almost any topic. Complaining is an indoor, year-round sport; with our eight-month winters, we need as many of those as we can get.
But maybe we should give our health care system a break. Surely we can find something else to whine about, just for a bit. Weather, that’s always a classic. How about the escalating frequency of drivers that aren’t familiar with how to use their turn signals? And if it’s really wait times you’re yearning to attack, why not complain about the drive-thru line-ups at your local Timmie’s?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Where will he stop?

Gaddafi be damned, we’ve got our own little home-grown tyrant.
You’ve been elected to the highest office in the land. You have the honour (and yes, sometimes the pain) of representing an entire nation of diverse citizens that hail from varied backgrounds. You are top dog, the big banana, and principal for a day, all rolled into one.
But that’s not enough for you. Representing the people isn’t as important as owning the people.
Harper has let it be known (again) that all missives, documents, and departments are now part of ‘the Harper Government.’ Just a little while ago, they were all part of ‘the Government of Canada.’ Notice the difference?
Technically, we still live in Canada. We’re not Harperians (Harperese? Harperites? I’d say Harpers, but I think TSR owns the copyright on that one). But can anyone see the similarity between this and what a military junta might do after it takes power? “No, no, we didn’t overthrow the government of Valagan. We are the rulers of a new nation... Malagan. Yes, Malagan.”
Branding is a powerful tool. Marketers use it to make billions every year. There are legions of people who make their living coming up with slightly more insidious ways to rename things so that you will instantly fall in love with them. Virtually everyone thinks this year will be an election year, including the PM. If he shoves ‘Harper Government’ at you every time you blink, you won’t even know that you’ll come to equate Government and Harper. “Of course Harper should be the PM: he’s the Government!” What's next? Do we have to refer to him as 'your Most High Excellent Piece of Awesome Harper?'
Even if this ploy has no discernible effect, it is a slap in the face to us all. One, it assumes we’re dim enough to fall for it. Two, it is an enormous explosion of ego all over us. Harper has already proven himself to run a tyrannical cabinet and secretive government. He and his people have repeatedly been summoned to the floor of the House to disclose things they refuse to disclose, snubbing their noses at Parliament and its procedures. Under his regime, the Tories have utterly ignored the fact that they work for us. You are elected, you petty thug! Act like it!
But why should he? Harper’s boss has shown that time and time again we refuse to fire him. Sure, we haven’t promoted him, but what will this guy have to do in order for us to give him his walking papers? I just don’t understand it. If I wanted my head of government to be an egomaniacal blowhard and bully, I would move to the States and vote GOP.
And where is the uproar over Harper’s effort to rob us of our identity? The only people upset about it are left-wingers who already hate the guy and wouldn't vote for him if all the other candidates were in persistent vegetative states. No one else is noticing. No one else cares. He’s going to cake-walk his way into another minority (dear God, please let it only be a minority) government and we’re going to stand by and let him.
I guess you do get what you deserve.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Elementary school's for learning

Now and again I eavesdrop on the wee ones when I’m there to pick up my own boy. Two boys were engaged in a battle to the death, and I was able to bear witness:
“I’m in a laser cage so you can’t get me.”
“You can’t leave the laser cage, so you’re trapped.”
“That’s good, because outside the laser cage, the air is filled with poison gas.”
“I have my gas mask on.”
“This gas gets you if it touches your skin.”
“Then I turn on my force-field. And now I can get through your laser cage!”
In triumph, the force-field boy closes in on the laser-lad and grabs him, thereby defeating his vile enemy. I have no doubt if laser-lad had been given just a few more seconds, he could have come up with some brilliant counter-stroke, but he choked, and therefore lost. By the way, as near as I can tell, the only consequence for losing was having to start the game all over again.
Is it any wonder kids love card games like Yu-Gi-Oh? Just like their lives, the whole thing is basically an improv scene. “Yes, that happens, but then this happens, which counters that, and then something else goes down, which ends that second thing.” And so on, and so on.
Child humour hasn’t changed much, either. A pair of third-graders are talking as they take their winter boots off:
“I’m late!”
“Me too. I’m late for my butt-waxing!”
Much hilarity ensued. I remember being reduced to helpless gales of laughter if someone said any of the magic words: booger, boobies, penis, Uranus. We all spelled BOOBIES on our LED calculators. Five million, three hundred eighteen thousand, and eight. Try it. That’s the number. You know you want to. Ah, the glorious innocence of childhood naughtiness.
For all that they say kids are growing up too fast these days, I’m sure not seeing any sign of it on the school-yard.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Apparently Peter King writes horror, too

I’ve really wanted to start commenting on some Canadian issues, but every time I start, something happens south of the border to fascinate and/or horrify me. Well, this time it’s Peter King. (Emphasize on the “horror” half of my equation here.)
He’s Republican, and he is promising to run a “fair and honest” congressional hearing. The goal of this hearing is to explore the extent and dangers of radical Islam in America. If anyone immediately thinks of the McCarthy hearings (just insert “communism” in place of “radical Islam” for their mission statement), you’d be right on the money.
But the difference here is that King’s going to be fair and honest (his words). That’s a relief. Bear in mind, this is the same man who has claimed that 80 to 85% of mosques in America are controlled by “Islamic fundamentalists.” He’s referred to Muslims as “an enemy living among us.” Another gem is his belief that “no American Muslim leaders are cooperating in the war on terror.”
It’s a good thing he’s heading into these hearings with an open mind. He’s even claiming that he’s not stacking the deck because he’s inviting an elected official who happens to be a Muslim! Wow, bold move. Very brave. One whole Muslim! That’ll even the odds. You’d just better make sure he’s checked for suspiciously large tubes of toothpaste and matches.
King is a little unsure if terrorism is a good thing or a bad thing, by the way. I suppose the dividing line is American soil. If it happens here, bad. Elsewhere, good. I mention this because his support for the IRA has been unstinting. He’s referred to the IRA as “the legitimate voice of occupied Ireland.” (It’s a powerful “voice” that can blow up buildings.) Again, to quote King: “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, that is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA for it.” While certainly a rich mine for disturbing quotations, please remember that this lunatic has been elected to high office in America. It makes me both weep and shudder in fear.
However, based on King’s long history of being able to examine both sides of an issue before leaping to a pre-conceived conclusion, I’m sure American Muslims have nothing to fear from him. Just tell the truth, name names, and it’ll all work out for you guys.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Wisconsin hates teachers

Events in Wisconsin, the politicians and people targeting teachers, has gotten me thinking. Are teachers really the under-worked, greedy deadbeats the right-wing media is painting them as?
Teachers do get a lot more holidays than the average person (though they do lose any choice in when to take them). They get to work banker’s hours, too, since school only starts at nine and is all over by 3:30, Monday to Friday. Pretty sweet gig.

A good teacher will clue you in a little. They don’t really get two months off over the summer. One month is more common, because they start going back to school midway through to prep for the next year. Likewise, they will also point out that while the school day might only be six or seven hours long, they usually show up an hour early, and stay an hour late. Or they are marking at home. Or doing lesson plans instead of watching TV. And they might go in to school a day or half-day on the weekend to catch up, especially around report-card time. If you really look at hours worked, they put in a 45-50 hour work week, so that means their “extra vacation” is really just time off in lieu of extra pay for overtime.
Terrible teachers will tell you the same thing, only they’ll be lying, because they don’t actually do any of that. And therein lies the problem.
In your typical job, you show up for work according to a schedule. You work while you’re there. When you leave the place of work, you are also done working. If you have a profession instead of a wage-slave job, then there is an amount of work you need to do, and if you have to put in extra time, so be it. But almost any job has a way of tracking how much work you actually accomplished. Teaching doesn’t have that. If you want to do the minimum, you show up for work when the bell rings, beat the kids out of the door at the end of the day, and never think about it again. You wing all your lessons, or just have your kids do photocopied worksheets all day while you drink coffee and nap. Sadly, this scenario is all-too common.
The solution to this is to standardize the teacher’s day. You get to work at 8. You leave 5. You do not come back to the school after hours. You don’t get two months off, you get a month, and then spend the rest of the time in the school or attending “up-training” seminars, thereby getting rid of those teacher PD days that happen throughout the year.
Will this solve the problem?
On the issue of bad teachers, the answer is unequivocally no. Bad teachers are lazy, virtually their defining characteristic. As we all know, lazy people have an infinite amount of energy when it comes to avoiding assigned labour. It would take them about four seconds to crack whatever new system you put over them (similar to hackers, I suppose).
On the issue of public perception, not a chance. People are never content about how their taxes are spent. One guy fifty years ago saw one municipal employee leaning on his shovel, and that image has become an indelible part of the social fabric. For all we know, that mythical city worker had just broken a toe, and didn’t want to put his full weight down. (It’s particularly amusing to me when I hear one public worker bitching about how lazy public workers are in a different department.)
So, since the problem can’t be solved, why waste money and time trying to fix it? Let the teachers have their golden age, for all things come to an end. Summers-off have been a mainstay of teaching since public schools were invented. Do we really want to be part of the generation that brought such a proud tradition to its knees? I think not.
Live while you can, teachers! Live like there's no tomorrow, because if the Wisconsin governor has his way, there won't be.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Right-wing hypocrisy, example twelve million or so

Hypocrites are deeply aggravating.
We’ve all been guilty of this sin at one time or another. Sometimes without even being aware of it, we’ve behaved in a way at odds with our words or beliefs. It is loathsome behaviour, and we should all apologize for it (but only if we mean it, because otherwise we’re falling into the same trap again).
But the reality is that when little people are hypocrites, not much happens. You think stealing is wrong, but you take pens from work. I think safety is important, but I drive over the posted limit. These things aren’t great, but the world manages to keep right on spinning.
The ones that get me, that really infuriate me, are the people that have the public ear. They get time on TV, radio, and newspapers, to try and bend the opinions of society with their rhetoric. Entertainment stars are terrible, but frankly, no one should care what they think. We’re the fools for even listening. No, it’s politicians and pundits that make my skin go green and my shorts turn purple. And not just any politicians, of course, but right-wingers.
Example: Our local boy Harper says time and again that government should be transparent, yet he operates with a degree of opacity not seen since the days of Stalin’s Terror. But ultimately, he’s a small fish. Prime Minister of a tiny, powerless country... how much damage can he really do? (Outside of his own borders, that is. Inside Canada he’s been a nightmare.)
We've got classic hypocrisy being generated by the Wisconsin issue right now. The Republican governor wants to cut the hell out of union powers, reduce public sector wages, and basically send organized labour about a half a step away from the days when we had strikes broken up by thugs with axe-handles. This move is being applauded far and wide by fiscal conservatives. “Yeah, teachers make too much, they can actually afford cars, there’s room to trim some fat. Sure, we might cut some meat, too, but you can’t balance a budget without sacrifice.”
Okay, fine. It’s stupid, but fine. If you want to squeeze blood from a stone, go ahead. Cut everything you can, balance that budget. But then, almost without pausing to take a breath, these exact same people applaud the extension of tax cuts for the rich. They are, in fact, trying to redefine rich two times in the same argument.
Teachers are too rich because they make 50K a year. Then they say that a family that earns 250K a year is far too economically fragile to absorb a higher tax burden.  Now, maybe my math is wrong, but if you have two teachers in a family working, that makes an income of 100K. That seems less than 250K. How can that be rich and yet not rich? It has to be one or the other!
They complain that the tax-payers have to foot the bill for teachers. Then they applaud the tax-payer money that went to saving the inept banking industry. Public sector contracts can be broken, they say; teachers need to be flexible. But you can’t break CEO contracts! They’re legal documents! These are literal examples of the kinds of two-faced crap they have been spewing.
All I want is consistency. You want to save money, do it. If what you really want is to make the rich richer by breaking the backs of the poor, just admit it. Either way, I’m not going to agree with you, but at least I might start respecting you.
(If you caught my own hypocrisy here - going hard on the people I dislike while being soft on the rest - well done.)

Friday, March 4, 2011

The suicidal reign of us

Dave Collins of Ontario is dying of cancer, and he wants to know why. Actually, he already knows why: he was one of the unlucky bastards given brushes and pails and told to paint weeds with noxious chemicals while working for CN Rail. The noxious chemical in question? The infamous Agent Orange of Vietnam fame. He offers a chilling quotation: “The four gentleman I started with on the railway - each one of them stayed until they received a full pension and retired. And before any one of those [men] reached the 18-month mark of their pension they were all dead - and they all died of cancer.”
This isn’t the first time Agent Orange has made an appearance in Canada. Compensation has already been paid to workers made ill in New Brunswick due to Agent Orange exposure. There was nearly a decade of time in the 70’s where Agent Orange was used liberally as a defoliant and weed suppresser. Yes, it was a bad move, but only one of many that we lovely humans are capable of making. Our history is rife with examples of gleefully embracing some new chemistry miracle without pausing to ask “Could this be dangerous?” Even when we do ask, we are always content to be told a blithe “Naw, it’s fine. Eat some.”
We added lead to our gasoline because it was a simple and cheap way to avoid engine knocks in high performance machines. Problem with a luxury item? Add poison! Thomas Midgley, Jr. was a pivotal figure in its invention. He learned very quickly how damaging lead exposure was, due to the number of employees in his factories that ended up with brain damage, stumbling around like drunken zombies. Yet he continued to deny it’s toxicity because it was making him boatloads of money. He would dip his hands into the gasoline in front of reporters to reassure them, then dart off-stage to wipe himself down before he could absorb too much lead. Instead of installing safety measures, or stopping manufacture of the stupid stuff, they began monitoring the lead levels in their employees’ blood, and firing anyone who had too much so that they wouldn’t also become media nightmares. He’s quite the guy. (Midgley was also responsible for the invention of CFC’s, by the way. It’s like the dude had a personal issue with Mother Nature.)
Other instances abound. Let’s use mercury to make hats. What would life be like without a fine beaver-pelt top hat? So what if we end up with enough crazy hat-makers that we still use the expression “mad as a hatter?” Thalidomide to dispel nausea and calm down pregnant women. We all know how that turned out. DDT to control insects (sorry about that, bees, our bad). Lung cancer was unheard of until after the proliferation of cigarettes, but we’re still lighting up all over the place, oblivious to emphysema, tumors, birth defects, and worst of all, yellow teeth and unpleasant personal odors. Testing nuclear weapons closely observed by thousands of military and civilian personnel. Guess the thousands of rads and radioactive fallout had a greater range than the explosion. Oops.
Workplace safety and protective equipment are definitely modern concepts. Much of the world still doesn’t worry too much about them. The real question is, what are we doing right now, oblivious to its pitfalls? And will we stop when we find out?
Maybe safety goggles cause blindness in third-generation offspring. Only time will tell.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court has it all wrong

The highest court in America has ruled that it’s okay to foster hatred, so long as it’s against gays.
They didn’t quite say it that way, but that’s the end result. Using their mythical and inconsistent “free speech” as the paper shield to defend this notion,  they’ve ruled that the hate-mongering performed by the small, fringe Westboro Church is alright with them, and is in keeping with the high standards of behaviour demanded by the U.S. Constitution. This church is a group that targets the funerals of dead soldiers so they can spread their message of “It’s God’s punishment that your loved one died, because we live in an amoral country that is tolerant of gays.” (Out of all the amoral things happening in America, why is that the one they focus on? Could their pastor perhaps be over-compensating for certain leanings of his own? Might he be casting the occasional doe’s eye at that strapping fellow handing out the collection plate?)
I love free speech. I’m happy to live in a country where I can say stupid, ignorant, or even hurtful things and not be locked up, shot, or tortured for it. Sure, I might become a social pariah, but the odds are just as good that I might attract a loyal horde of like-minded idiots to wait on me hand-and-foot.
But free speech comes with all sorts of caveats in any country. It’s against the law to utter threats (an odd phrase, but that’s the way it’s said in the books, as though “utter” is in common usage these days). I can’t even say the word “bomb” in an airport without risking an immediate full-body tackle by four eager security thugs. Try idly talking about how you would like to punch the President, and see how long it takes before your phones are tapped by the Secret Service.
More to the point, do you think the court would have ruled similarly if the church had been saying that America is being punished because it houses Jews? Or better yet, because it freed its slaves? Some topics are acceptable in the States, and some aren’t. Some groups don’t receive the same protection as others. Currently Muslims can be freely slandered and libeled. Homosexuals have always been a favourite target in America. You still get rabid anti-communists, although now they call it “socialism” (political code for “sharing,” and if there’s one thing rich folks don’t like, it’s sharing).
Of course, I could be wrong. America might be entirely comfortable with defending the right to offend. Certainly there have been precedents in the past that indicate they are. What I contend is that the right to free speech shouldn’t automatically confer the right to free expression. There is a world of difference between standing on a soap box, preaching to all who will listen, and following me around while I’m in the grocery store to harangue me. One is free speech. The latter is not: it is harassment.
Talk all you want. But who’s going to protect my right to not hear you?