Saturday, December 15, 2012

The art of arguing

I was asked yesterday if I was going to post something on my blog about the tragedy in Connecticut. I said the last thing the situation needs is another half-baked opinion. I stand by that. A thirty second tour of the internet and media outlets will give you every side of every argument, no matter how sensible or crazy. This post isn’t about Connecticut, but it is inspired by it. In the wake of the tragedy, the arguments for and against gun control have already begun. I want to talk about the way those arguments are going to proceed.

What’s the ultimate point of arguing? Some people get off on the conflict; they just enjoy a good row. Others like the intellectual challenge of a debate. At its core, however, an argument exists because one side wants to prove that they are right.

So how do you do that? The easiest way is to prove that the other side is wrong. By default, if the other guy is wrong, then you must be right (or at least “more right,” which amounts to the same thing in the end). To paraphrase the vanilla vs. chocolate ice cream argument from the (phenomenal) movie Thank You For Smoking, I don’t have to prove that vanilla is the best flavour, I just have to show that chocolate isn’t.

So how do you do that? Coherent, reasoned, well-researched, factual points to prove the validity of your point of view, of course. That’s if you like working AND you also have facts and reality on your side. If you’re lazy and/or reality might not be 100% in your favour, this path to victory isn’t for you. It’s important to realize that in any moral or ethical debate, reality is almost NEVER 100% on anyone’s side, so relying on so-called “facts” to win an argument, even if you put in all the work in the world, is a risky proposition. Since you theoretically care about your argument and really want to win, you need to hedge your bets. And the more you care, the more important the issue is perceived to be, the more hedging you’ll feel is justified.

So how do you do that? Well, remember, you don’t have to be right if the other guy is wrong. Personal attacks work wonders here. If you can prove the guy espousing the ridiculous doctrine “sky is blue” is a Holocaust-denying pedophile, who’s going to believe him? At least, who’s going to publicly declare they believe him, no matter what their heart secretly holds onto? And in a public forum, if no one stands up to be counted in defense of a position, they lose by default. Belittling the qualifications of your opponent can also be effective. “He’s just a musician, what does he know about international relations?” Maybe nothing, maybe everything, but the point is, because he isn’t famous for his skill with international relations, you can make him look like a buffoon when he comments on them.

Insults and mud-flinging aren’t your only recourses, however. As any good magician will tell you, distraction is key. Delay, misdirection, and obfuscating the issue can all work to derail an otherwise deadly opponent. Misinterpreting facts can also be a key strategy.

Let’s see how it all comes together. We’ll use smoking as an example, to keep with the theme suggested by the above movie reference. You want to keep smoking legal. Your opponents want it outlawed, placed in the same category as pot. Go!

“Is now really the time to have this debate? The American economy is lurching on the edge of another recession, and you want to talk about crippling an industry worth billions of dollars? It’s amazing how some people just want America to fail. Do you want to drive us into a depression? Our economy just can’t handle a change of this magnitude, and it’s in pretty bad taste, to be honest, to even talk about something so damaging.”

“More government control isn’t the answer. Responsible use of cigarettes, leaving the choice in the hands of the consumer, that’s the way to deal with this issue. What’s next? Taking away my bacon because it’s got cholesterol? No more apple pie because it’s too high in sugar? Where will it end? I think folks are smart enough to make their own choices. God gave us free will for a reason, after all, and it’s not government’s job to take that away.”

“Smoking has health benefits, too, but of course you anti-tobacco lobbyists never want to talk about those. They calm frayed nerves. Do you realize the suicide rate of air traffic controllers jumped more than 30% when their workplaces went non-smoking? Are you aware that non-smokers are eleven times more likely to suffer Alzheimer’s than smokers?”

“We live in a society where one in every ten people is unemployed, and you want to waste time talking about cigarettes? What about solving the real problems we’re facing? Or maybe you don’t want America to continue being the best damn country in the world.”

And so forth. It’s pretty easy, really, particularly if you use a lot of volume. I’m not arguing for gun control or against it, or for any other particular stance. I’m not an expert on the multi-layered causes of a violent outburst like what happened in Connecticut. All I’m saying is that I’m sick beyond belief of the garbage tactics used by opponents in their arguments. Carry the day based on the validity of your position, not on parlor tricks and bullshit. Better yet, wake up and realize winning your case is less important than SOLVING THE PROBLEM!

So get to it. Quick. Before the next tragedy comes along.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Disgusting CSIS

Did anyone out there see the movie Syriana? There’s a scene in it I’ll never forget. George Clooney is duct-taped to a chair and his captor wants information. There’s no bragging, no boasting, no Bond-style delays or veiled threats. Clooney’s jailer means business. In very short order, Clooney is having his fingernails removed by pliers. His acting is very compelling. I remember being thoroughly drawn into the horror of the moment, imagining the degree of freak-out I’d be having in his place. How helpless I’d feel. How desperate I’d be to have the pain stop. How I’d be begging my body would go into catatonic shock the likes of which only the safety of a semi-private room in a Canadian hospital could cure. Clooney doesn’t talk, unrealistically, in my opinion. He’s a spy, so theoretically he’s been trained in keeping his lip zipped even under the worst conditions (for which this certainly qualifies).

I wouldn’t do as well in his place. The moment I saw a guy heading towards me with pliers, I’d be telling him whatever he wanted to hear. If my answers didn’t satisfy, I’d make stuff up. I believe most people would do the same. Even if some lunatics are tough enough not to wilt at the mere threat, they have ten fingernails to suffer through. Then ten toenails. Then the pliers might go for something that doesn’t grow back. There’s any number of things to choose from. The imagination would fill in the blanks as required. The logical conclusion of “My torturer’s probably just going to kill me afterwards anyway, so I might as well keep quiet” would have no weight with me at all. Death is nowhere near as scary as torture. Not even close. The pain ENDS when you die, after all. Most humans aren’t movie-star tough. We’ll crack, and probably pretty soon.

That’s why it seems to me that information derived through torture can never be considered reliable. The sufferer, unless he’s a clinical masochist, wants his torment to be over. He’ll not only talk, he’ll tell you want he thinks you want to hear. Truth is less important than ending things, so a victim will invent anything if he thinks it’ll help out. At the very best, the confessions of the damned are only good as leads to be followed and later confirmed by other sources. If you can’t get that confirmation, chances are the info was bogus.

So why did our glorious Canadian Security Intelligence Service conclude precisely the opposite? Setting aside the considerable ethical, legal, and moral issues involved in profiting from torture-derived info, what rational person thinks it’s reliable? I’m referring to the “case” against Mohamed Mahjoub, an Egyptian man accused of being a ranking member of Vanguards of Conquest, an Egyptian group linked to al-Qaida. They want him deported, and have apparently done everything they can to accomplish this without actually succeeding. (Which is just sad. They’ve used torture-tainted information, illegal wiretaps, and suspicious “summaries” of mysteriously “lost” interview tapes and still haven’t managed to achieve their goal. Lazy or incompetent or a little bit of both? Impossible to say.)

Mahjoub has been kept under wraps for TWELVE YEARS without being formally charged. Maybe he’s guilty of being a threat to national security, maybe not. What I do know is, if you can’t prove that kind of thing in the lifespan of your average beagle, maybe you should be in a different line of work. CSIS has been at work on Mahjoub since Chrétien was in office and they still haven’t got him. Were they so focused on obtaining information from any source that they forgot they needed to actually, you know, present a case? Preferably a legitimate one, which clearly they haven’t done.

It’s all rather pathetic, when it isn’t repugnant. I’d like to have a moral government, if at all possible, and have that morality trickle down through all of their policies and subsidiary arms. That includes the intelligence service, military, police, etc. Failing that, I suppose it’s better to have incompetent villains, from a “public good” perspective. Bumbling and slow evil is preferable to swift and efficient, I guess, but if our guys were at least honestly dedicated to the Dark Side, maybe we’d be a country to fear. Respect is better than fear, yes, but isn’t fear better than disgust? Right now, all I’ve got for us is disgust, and it doesn’t feel so great.

Not “pull your fingernails out” bad, but still... not so great.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

"Human wrong"

Canada’s Human Rights Museum is scheduled to open in 2014.

Originally it was slated to be done in 2013 but they’ve had delays (of course) and spiraling costs (why don’t costs every spiral DOWN? A spiral can go both ways, you know), so 2014 is the new number. Unbelievably, they’ve chosen to build it in Winnipeg. While the ‘peg is the city nearest to the geographical center of Canada (at least on the east-west run), every other national museum in this country has been plopped in Ottawa, the greedy buggers. It’s high time they started to share.

Any project is bound to have it’s issues, and this one is no exception. In fact, I’d guess it’s far worse than normal, and it sounds like the people who work (or have worked) there would agree. They have 68 current employees. They have 38 people who have been fired or quit. This seems high turnover, like “call-centre” high. Everyone who leaves get slapped with a gag order. They aren’t allowed to say anything bad about the museum or its employees. Harsh. The CEO of the Museum, Stuart Murray, says the gag order is a standard provision and they would never sue anyone over it. So why have it then? Are you telling me the contracts can’t be edited? We have this wonderful thing called a “Delete” key. Or whiteout. Or, if you’re truly archaic and have hammered all your employee contracts on stone tablets, a thin coat of pre-mixed cement will get rid of that silly “standard provision.” If you aren’t going to enforce the clause, the only reason to have it in there is to intimidate the ignorant, and isn’t that pretty close to a human rights violation? At the very least, it’s bullying.

So now Murray’s established himself as being full of crap, a trait no doubt in common with many other CEOs (it’s hard to rise that high without the ability to lie). Therefore it’s hard for me to believe him when he says there’s been no political interference in the museum. See, the employees who have left complain (anonymously, for the most part) about government and corporate influence. The powers-that-be want more “positive stories” and nothing that negatively touches on current government policies. (Just what might those policies be, I wonder, that they would feature in a museum about human rights?) This is entirely too likely, in my opinion. Corporations and governments are big fans of interference.

Here’s my favourite quote of Murray’s, though. He says the museum has to have balance and not be concerned solely with atrocities. “This is going to be a museum for human rights, not wrongs.” What a gem. Beautiful. He clearly employs a writer from SNL. How long has he been holding onto that chestnut, waiting to drop it on some reporter?

However, I call “bullshit” again. Just how do you explore the history of human rights WITHOUT hitting bad stuff? Every time we enact positive change it’s in response to inequality. You can’t end slavery without there being slaves in the first place, for instance, and it’s a strangely blind person who looks at that situation and says in smug self-satisfaction: “Hey, wow, good for us!” Yes, good for us for ending something terrible, but SHAME on us for starting the terrible thing in the first place. If someone sets fire to your house, watches the flames build for a half hour, maybe pours a few litres of gasoline on the blaze, then lets you use their cellphone to call the fire department, do you thank him? (Maybe you do, if you’re Canadian, but otherwise, NO WAY!)

You can’t touch on a “human right” without a corresponding “human wrong,” plus there’s a boatload of stuff still going on or essentially “unfixable” beyond simply not doing it again. Apologies and cash payouts just don’t cover the evil garbage we do to each other. Residential schools come to mind. So does the Holocaust, Rwanda, and all the children being abused by Catholic priests. Not only do genocides and abuse continue to happen, our reactions to these things are strangely subdued. We freak out when our internet goes down, but when people suffer? We kind of shrug and move on. For instance: When Jews were hunting for refuge back in the early and mid-20th century, what was our enlightened, generous response? “None is too many.” A touching sentiment made no less horrible by the reality that it was shared by virtually the entire Western world. Boy Scouts have reported on the abuse their charges have suffered, but so far as I know, their organization isn’t being dismantled, or even culled and reworked. Ditto for Catholics. The tales of human sins enacted on ourselves is legion, and very few of them have (or can) ever receive the justice they have coming.

I suggest, Murray, you throw out the idea of “balancing” right and wrong. You’re operating a museum. Just show us the truth as history has revealed it. Let us draw our own conclusions.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Shameful joy

This morning I saw a news article entitled Divided States of America: Obama win sparks secession mania and eagerly clicked on it. What are those crazy Yanks up to now? There’s always something wacky going on down there, and I nearly always enjoy reading about it. This particular instance has several right-wing states organizing and signing on-line petitions declaring their desire to get out from under the US flag. It’s no surprise that the majority of the states involved were on the Confederate side of the ol’ Civil War (they’ve never really let that old chestnut die, as the slogan “The South Shall Rise Again” would suggest).

I’m not suggesting this is a racial issue (though if the Twitter-verse is to be believed, there are plenty of folks who don’t much care for the skin shade of the current president). They are quoting “state’s rights,” saying they’re pissed about Obamacare, claiming El Presidente isn’t following the Constitution and that “it isn’t the same country anymore.” If you’re interested in the details, feel free to check out the article.

It amused me, anyway. Immediately after I finished reading it, I saw another story called Secret document details new Canadian foreign policy. Instead of leaping at the chance to read about my own nation humiliating itself, I hesitated. Did I really want to hear about what lunatic rules our man Harper has concocted? Was there any chance I’d possibly agree and not end up frustrated? I realized I have a bad case of schadenfreude (the Germans have a word for everything). The stupidity of the US delights me, while I’ve developed an apprehension about learning about my own country’s idiocy. I decided to be brave and plunged in.


Harper wants us to make money in the world, regardless of moral considerations, bluntly stating we’ll do business with anyone, no matter what. Read the article and the quotes from the “secret document.” It’s chilling. A comic-book villain could hardly come up with a more obvious greed-based manifesto.

When I was a kid (how do you know I’m old? I start stories with “when I was a kid”), I remember Canada as a nation with a proud heritage of peace and peace-keeping. We put our morals and ethics before global power and financial success. Immigrants were welcomed into the Canadian fold without having to leave their culture at the border. As a people, we’d rather apologize then argue, rather be quietly right than publicly wrong, rather come in second than hurt someone else to win.

Of course, I was a kid, so I didn’t realize all that was delusional crap. Still, it was a lovely image, and I believe truer thirty years ago than it is today. In only six years, Harper has managed to virtually destroy our global reputation by his contempt for any world-wide issue beyond his oh-so-precious economy. We’re often pointed at as an example when someone else wants to find a villain on climate issues, poverty, the protection of children, human rights, and police corruption. This is particularly disturbing when one remembers we live next door to the UNITED STATES! They used to be the whipping boy for the world; no more. Have we become the bad neighbour on the block, the one that never mows his grass, has a rusting car on cinderblocks, and has pets that leave unpleasant coilies on other’s lawns? Are we, in the eyes of the world, lying in a wading pool in our underwear, beer between our legs? If the Conservatives have their way (and we seem determined to let them), I believe this is our fate.

There’s an exchange from Quantum of Solace, the second Craig-as-Bond movie, from the CIA agents:

Felix Leiter: You know who Greene is and you want to put us in bed with him.
Gregg Beam (sarcastic): Yeah, you’re right. We should just deal with nice people.

Beam has a point. No one’s perfect. I would suggest, however, that choosing business partners based on morality rather than immediacy of opportunity is wise long-term thinking.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Cold War

Enough is enough!

I’ve been assured that the usual, run-of-the-mill (also known as “common”) cold will take between seven and ten days to burn through one’s system. From one perspective, this is amazing. Our bodies are invaded, identify the pathogen, then research, manufacture, and distribute the appropriate cure to deal with the enemy virus/bacteria. To mirror this effort outside of the human body takes months in million dollar labs staffed by hordes of PhD graduates, yet we do it many times in a single year. As I said, amazing.

From another perspective, of course--namely the perspective of the cold-sufferer--this is painfully, frustratingly, agonizingly slow. It means days of mucus, wadded up tissues, sneezes, and general malaise.

This has been a bad year for me. Colds and I have become far, FAR too familiar with each other. If I’m using the “7-10 days per cold” as an average, based on “days sick” I’ve managed to clock in four colds since the start of school (I’m currently in the midst of Cold Four). Unacceptable. Something must change.

Oh, I know why I’m so stricken. I’ve been doing the rounds of playgroups with my year-old, so I’m getting exposed to hordes of unfamiliar viruses. In a few months my immune system will sort of wake itself up and remember it has a job to do, and things will go back to normal. Until then, however, it’s time to re-examine some old customs that just don’t work in this pandemic-prone world of ours. We do, after all, live  in a global village where one nasty bug can be flown everywhere in the cushy convenience of pressurized airplane cabins.

First on the chopping block? Handshakes. What a stupid idea. I don’t know where your hands have been, and you don’t know where mine have been. Anyone who’s ever gone into a public bathroom knows hand-washing is a lost art. Some do it, some just splash water and run, and the truly evil few walk out of the stall, adjust their belts, run their hands through their hair, and head off to spread their ugly particles. Even bathroom design helps these jerks, by having taps that require turning and doors that must be opened by hand, meaning every clean hand is now sullied by the dirty. (I have an uncle who used to--and maybe still does, I don’t know--open bathroom doors with his feet rather than sully his epidermis by physical contact. It was really very amusing watching him contort in order to manage this impressive task.)

Yet try to avoid handshakes in social situations. It’s tricky; I know, I’ve tried it. People look at you as though you’re a freak, and no explanation you can offer 100% reassures the wounded party that you aren’t being a) standoffish, b) germophobic, and/or c) making aspersions about their own hygiene. Even the Japanese, famous for their bowing, have bent to Western groping, as evidenced by all the hand-shaking whenever the US President goes on an Asian tour. Why couldn’t we have gone for the nice, safe bow, respectfully accomplished at arm’s length?

Next up for elimination is kissing. I’m not just talking about the cheek-slobbering done in France and Russia, but suggesting all oral contact is verboten. Your epidermis is a very effective defense against plague, but when you slurp up viral agents through that big hole in your face, you doom yourself (and others when you later start coughing, sneezing and otherwise smearing your surroundings with germ-filled liquids). Of all types of kissing, surely mouth-to-mouth is the silliest. “Here, have some bacteria-laden sputum.” “Mmm, thanks, here’s some back.” Yuck. People freak out about backwash in a bottle of pop, but we still do the ol’ open-mouth kiss. There’s no Daily Health Advisory broadcast about kissing, but there should be. Why doesn’t the UN’s World Health Organization make some sort of announcement about it? The UN is all about grand, symbolic gestures; this should be right up their alley.

Come on, Margaret Chan, help me out here. Make it alright for me to avoid human contact and eliminate the common cold from my life.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

WFC 2012, or There and Back Again Part 2

One big thing I forgot to mention about WFC: they treat their attendees very well. Each person receives a bag of books I’d estimate weighed about fifteen pounds, easily worth the price of admission just there. The bags are assembled randomly, but if you got something you didn’t want, you just brought it down to the Trade Table and hopefully grab something more to your liking. I ended up with at least six books I really wanted and eight more I was interested in. That doesn’t include the twenty or so e-books you got. Suitcase space became my biggest issue.

Virtually any time of the day or evening you could get snacks or a meal at the hospitality suite. Nor were the meals just cheap pizza. Chinese food one night, roasted potatoes and chicken the next, and a good spread for breakfast every morning.

What I’m saying is that if you compare the retail price of the books and meals to the $175 price tag of the convention, you actually walk away with a profit. I was very impressed. Then, on to the Big City...

I’d never been to Toronto before, so I wanted to do some touristy things, and what could be more touristy than riding to the top of the CN Tower?

Toronto sure knows how to take your money. It reminded me of a gaming city that exists entirely on its ability to cadge dragon-gold from adventurers. I’m sure Toronto is in no way unique in this capacity, but it’s been a while since I’ve gone tourist, so the 24 bucks a head to ride the CN Tower elevator came as a mild shock. (That was the minimum. You could have gone much higher, with all sorts of bells and whistles, but I figured I was completely capable of absorbing the view without a video tour guide pointing out the line between “ground” and “sky” is commonly called “the horizon.”)

I will say it was pretty dang cool up there. Eleven hundred feet puts you well above the Toronto skyline, meaning the glass and concrete skyscrapers that look so dominating from ground level are suddenly transformed into little Lego bricks. I walked on the Glass Floor, where you can see directly down between your feet. My friend refused to stand with me. He didn’t trust human infrastructure. The reward wasn’t worth the risk, as his view from the edge was only slightly less imposing. It did occur to me, a thought I shared, that if the glass panel beneath my feet suddenly gave way and I plummeted to my doom, I’d have nearly nine seconds to ruminate on the error of my ways. Can you imagine the stupefied, stunned shock on the faces of the other people around me if something like that happened? That--and the inevitable lawsuit winnings my family would gain--would almost make my death worth it.

We stopped for lunch at a Vietnamese place, saw pigeon on the menu, and thought: Why not? We should’ve thought: Why? It wasn’t bad, but I won’t stand in line for it again. Having the head and claws still attached was a nice touch. Grisly, but nice.

After that I wanted to take in the ROM, but time didn’t allow. I didn’t want to zip through the Museum, so we went down to Kensington. This is a neighbourhood of quirky businesses all converted from houses, many of the owners living above their shops. It was really cool and extremely dense. Each store was stacked from floor to ceiling with goods. It would be the work of a lifetime to look at everything, but I did have enough time to at least absorb the basic idea, summed up in this odd decorating choice:

And that was basically it. Time went too quickly, and the airline wasn’t going to hold my flight for me (I missed my plane out of Winnipeg and didn’t want to repeat the process). Bye Toronto, hello Brandon. Not for the first time, I wished for teleportation as a super-power (that two-and-a-half hour drive from the airport to home is a real downer).

Monday, November 5, 2012

WFC 2012, or There and Back Again Part 1

This last weekend was World Fantasy Convention in Toronto. For those who don’t know, it’s a 1000-person gathering of writers, would-be-writers, famous writers, readers, agents, and publishers. Basically, it’s packed with a who’s who of the fantasy and science fiction writing industry, including fans. I’d never gone before, though I have gone to other, smaller conventions. WFC was, in a word, stupendous.

Many other cons are not single-track, which means you’re more likely to bump into a girl in a wizard costume or a guy wearing steampunk goggles than you are to see a writer you actually recognize. WFC has none of that. No media track, no fandom gatherings, no costume galas. Nothing but panels on F&SF, readings by F&SF authors, and F&SF book launches.

(There was one guy who I saw several times consistently wearing the trappings of steampunk - neckerchief, top hat, the ubiquitous goggles - but for all I know that’s how he dresses every day.)

I had a great time. You couldn’t turn around without seeing someone you knew and admired, and I never bumped into a single person, no matter how famous, that wasn’t happy to stop and chat. To do a little name dropping, I got to meet Joe Haldeman, probably the science fiction author I most admire of all those left alive (Isaac Asimov would have bumped Joe to #2 if only we’d cracked that immortality problem before 1992). I had drinks with other such luminaries as Robert J. Sawyer and L.E. Modesitt, Jr. I got to meet Julie Czerneda, my very first editor, who gave me the pages she’d used for her reading, signed of course, and also taught me the valuable con lesson that hanging out in the bar would always lead to positive results.

Who else? Experienced (I say that instead of “old,” as I doubt the ladies involved would appreciate the title) pros like Tanya Huff and Mercedes Lackey were just as friendly and pleasant as relative new-comers Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss (creator of The Name of the Wind, one of my favourites). All three of the editors of “Shanghai Steam” (the newest anthology I’m part of) were present and happy to praise or discuss the merits of the Oxford comma. I was able to reconnect with another of my editors, Barb Galler-Smith, who has the energy of a 20-year old and the sense of fun of a 10-year old.

My friend Chadwick Ginther was there to launch/promote his first book, the excellent Thunder Road, along with his fellow Ravenstone Press author, Karen Dudley. She’s just put out her first fantasy (but fifth book overall, I believe) called “Food for the Gods.” It’s very good and very funny and very inappropriate (you’ll never eat bread the same way, believe me).

It was a place where all these people were on a relaxed and casual stance. They let their head down and just enjoyed themselves, and it was so great to be a part of it all. If I were a wealthy man, I’d go every year and skip all the smaller cons with their cloaks and such. I understand; the small ones need to vary it up in order to stay afloat, just as bookstores everywhere are selling candles and crockery and baby clothes to keep their doors open. Even if I never go again, though, WFC 2012 will always be remembered fondly.

(For the record, however, though the organizers of WFC 2012 claimed the con occurred in Toronto, they were lying. It was relatively CLOSE to Toronto, but not in the city itself but in the satellite community of Richmond Hill. Anyone who lives there was repeating the mantra all weekened: “Richmond Hill is NOT Toronto.” Part of the Greater Toronto Area, yes. Toronto itself? No. For proof I offer the reality of a $70 cab ride from the airport to the Convention, or the fact that the buses in Richmond Hill use colours instead of numbers to differentiate their routes. Route Purple instead of Route 192. Weird. Sensible, but no possible in a city with more than a hundred bus lines.)

Next time: Toronto itself and some of the fun and memorable characters I met at WFC. (Although actually, now that I think of it, that might get bumped as the US Election is tomorrow, and I can guarantee they’ll be some amusing tales to comment on about that.)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Time of the Choosing

So we’re getting down to it now. I predicted an Obama victory, and I’m standing by it. (Not that my opinion matters, as MSNBC still hasn’t responded to my audition tape, and Fox News sent it back with a grammatically incorrect death threat.) In a few short days we’ll have our results, and in a few short days after that, the courts will rule on who actually won. (Booyah! Take that, American democracy!) Then we’ll get four to six months of relative silence before campaigning ramps up again. It never ends. I support monarchies of old if for no other reason than you generally don’t get a new lord and ruler every four years, and you DEFINITELY don’t have to haggle over which child to elevate to the throne 365 days a year.

From a comedic standpoint, campaigning is awesome. It gave us the Republican primaries, with such luminaries as Herman “Pizza Man” Cain, Rick “Two Guns” Perry, and Michelle “My Husband’s Not Gay, I Swear” Bachman. If I’d written a screenplay that reflected the primaries with 100% accuracy, no one would have bought it - too unrealistic. Every day there was something to make you laugh, sometimes every hour. Good times.

But then the primary vanished. The crucible of public scrutiny burned off the slag and left us with the pure, unadulterated gold of Mittington Romney. That made it real. A horde of Republicans is hilarious. A single one that has a chance of ruling the most powerful nation in the world is kind of scary. It’s important to remember that while Mittworth has been the metaphorical weather-vane, he’s still a card-carrying Republican, which means at some point he’ll be expected by the party to support their official policies. That’s where the horror movie starts. Listen to Republicans and read their official party platform. Scary stuff.

My plan is to flip from one channel to another on November 6, hoping to reclaim the comedy. Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, CBC... somewhere among them I should be able to find something funny. If only John Stewart or Rick Mercer was having an Election Special. Listening to the rhetoric through the aperture of a comedian is pretty much the only way I can suppress my natural indignation at the lies, the insults, and the possibility (even if remote) of Canada being next door to a right-wing overlord for the next four years. The Bush years were not good. I don’t want to go back to them. We got involved in a war, yet somehow pissed off not only America but also squandered decades of hard-won international prestige. The current batch of GOP elephants make Reagan look like a Kennedy.

Of course, we have our own mini-Bush in Stephen “I Turned Off My Emotion Chip” Harper. It isn’t really fair of me to mock American lunacy when we still keep right on electing Robo-PM. (Why, fellow Canucks, why? Please stop it, I’m begging you. Of course, I’m pretty sure no one reading this is voting Conservative... or are they? Closet right-wingers, your preference is a CHOICE. You don’t have to live that way. Let us cure you. You can embrace socialism. Bring us one step closer to Star Trek Utopia.)

Obama for four more years. Harper gone in two. I live in hope.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Who gets it?

(This needs to be prefaced by the assertion that I am not, myself, currently being presented with the following situation. So far as I know, anyway, and you know what they say: ignorance is bliss. Knock on wood, all that crap.)

What’s the proper etiquette to deal with a “cheatin’ woman?”

Some background here: Brandon has several radio stations, but only two if you don’t like country music (I don’t). One plays more current pop, the other older stuff. For every chunk of music you hear, it’s sandwiched by really annoying advertisements (radio ads are so, so painful). So when an ad hits one station you jump to the other and hope to get lucky and get music. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

What’s important about this little game is that it resulted, the other day, in my experiencing, almost back-to-back, the songs “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix and “Wake Up Call” by Maroon 5. In the former, our protagonist (Joe) is heading out with a gun to put a pill into his unfaithful woman. The latter tune by Maroon 5 describes a gentleman who, when presented with a similar lack of fidelity, expresses his disappointment by putting the competing suitor in a grave. So, who has the right of it?

Some of you may be suggesting, with some validity, that either reaction is a little excessive. Most people would jump for “secret option C:” breaking up. For argument’s sake, however, we’re only going to deal with options A and B rather than muddying the waters by throwing rationality into the mix. So... option A, you eliminate the cheater. Or, option B, you eliminate the interloper. If the concept of murder disturbs you, think of it this way: which makes for a better story idea? The vengeful lover hunts down... who?

Technically, the trespassing individual (ie, the dude your lady is banging) hasn’t done anything wrong. He didn’t, after all, promise to be faithful to you or anything like that. He’s just a guy who liked the look of your woman and did what anyone does when they are presented with something they want: they try and get it. At worst, he’s broken social convention, but certainly a much less egregious sin than cheating.

By this logic it’s the woman that gets it. However, that leaves you with nothing (well, a hefty prison sentence and nothing). In theory, you still find your woman desirable. So if you kill her, you can’t have her. Which means you’re back to option B: eliminate the interloper. By getting rid of all the competition, you win (sort of a “reactive default” victory).

It’s a tough call. What would the fictional murderous version of you do?

Friday, September 28, 2012

Beginning of life

When does life begin? Wow. What a dangerous question. Yet our local boy, MP Stephen Woodworth, thinks it’s worth looking into. Virtually everyone (including him) agrees that this “pursuit of knowledge” is a thin veil behind which hides a push to eliminate abortion. After all, pro-lifers think, what other conclusion will be drawn except that life begins when that fateful sperm invades the monolithic egg, a real life version of the assault on the Death Star. His motion got schooled, defeated 203 to 91. (As an aside, Rona Ambrose, Minister for the Status of Women, voted in favour of the motion. Really, Rona? Jeez, lady. Even her own boss, Harper, made the move to vote against it.)

I’m thrilled this stupid thing got batted down. While usually I’m all in favour of finding answers to all of life’s questions, this strikes me as less a scientific query and more in the realm of philosophy. After all, before you can answer when human life begins, you’ve got to define precisely what we mean by “life.” As any fan of science fiction, knows, this isn’t an easy question. (Many fine episodes of Star Trek have tried to answer it. Star Wars, on the other hand, ignores the whole issue and keeps clearly sentient creatures--droids--as slaves.)

Living things undergo metabolism, maintain homeostasis, have the capacity to grow, respond to stimuli, reproduce and, through natural selection, respond to their environment in successive generations (stolen from “The Seven Pillars of Life,” by D. E. Koshland Jr.) Now I don’t know what all of that means, but it sounds complicated. I’m not sure I can do all of that stuff. So am I not alive? Or was I alive, but now I’m dead?

Note that the very definition of life includes a nod to Darwinism, the evil thing that creationists (invariably also pro-lifers) deny exists. Because they would deny they have this trait, does it follow that creationists aren’t alive? An interesting notion, if so. This could get complicated, Mr. Woodworth. You sure you want the answers you’re going to get if you run with this thing?

Let’s start with the simplest criteria: reproduction. What about someone who gets their cords cut? No reproduction equals not alive? What if you’ve been incapable since birth? Have you never truly been alive? Taking this on a more basic level, what if we determine that an organism is only truly alive once it’s sexually mature? Boom. Just like that, all humans that haven’t hit puberty aren’t alive.

Or take “capacity to grow” to its literal extreme. As an adult, all I can in terms of growth is a gradual widening of the waistband, ie. I get fat. Is this enough to qualify as alive? Or are we going to embrace the Logan’s Run ideology, and deem all adults as “non-alives?” Grab any of the other criteria and play with them, and I bet you can find examples of humanity that wouldn’t qualify.

It’s obvious that defining “human life” is going to be the truly tricky part, and I think we can’t predict where the final conclusions would end up. Sure, it might end up saving millions of fetuses if the debate can be taken in the direction the pro-lifers hope; life is when sperm fertilizes egg. But what if it goes the other way and the official “start of life” is pushed further back? Instead of just dealing with abortions, we might suddenly live in a country where it’s not considered homicide to whack a gaggle of teenagers. Or seniors. Or the impotent. Or the stubborn (no response to stimuli).

Even if the pro-lifers get their way and the fertilized egg is defined as “alive,” what happens to the ovulating female population? Fertilized eggs can often be swept out of the uterus during menstruation--is that manslaughter now? Our jails will fill overnight just because hopeful women are trying to get pregnant. Failure to properly track your cycle will be considered “criminal negligence.”

Is that really the world you want to live in, Woodworth and company?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

To turn Facebook stock around...

I log onto Facebook once or twice a day. That’s a conscious choice requiring a ridiculous amount of discipline on my part. Facebook, for some reason, is addictive enough that when I sit down at my computer or open my laptop, my first instinct is to go to that familiar login page. I suspect I’m not alone in this, judging by the quantity of Facebook posts out there. Voyeurism is probably the primary motivation for the success, a way to lurk in the shadows and spy on people you’re almost connected to with no danger of getting caught. It doesn’t appear to matter to our dark psyches that our nefarious “spying” accesses only the information people choose to share. I mean, it isn’t like we’re getting a glimpse into the skeletons in anyone’s closet. (Though in all fairness, many people appear to delight in sharing things with the world that I wouldn’t talk to my psychiatrist about.)

There are a few things that Facebook needs to add. The “Like” button is great, but what do I do when someone posts something tragic? “My mother died.” “Eighty-three massacred in Syria.” “My tests came back positive.” (Which is negative, in spite of how great it sounds.) “Mr. Snuggles died.” I want to show my support, but you can’t “Like” something like that. (You shouldn’t, anyway, in spite of the fact that people still do.) You’re forced to ignore the call for help, or leave a comment. But how many times does a post need “That’s terrible, I’m so sorry for you” under it? You try to come up with some unique variant of support that doesn’t completely match something already there. “Keep your chin up, buddy.” Or “Man, that blows, Mr. Snuggles was an awesome iguana.” You have to watch you don’t cross from “somber sympathy” to “smart ass fakery.” Telling someone “It can’t rain every day” comes off as smug, plus it quotes the movie “Crow” (with Brandon Lee, great flic, really, check it out if you haven’t seen it). Not good. (For the record, “Not good” also qualifies as “smart ass fakery.”)

Keep “Like” if you want to, but maybe add “Sympathize” or “Testify!” or even a little “sad face” emoticon. Just so we can digitally pat our fellow sufferers on the back without the awkward need to verbalize our sympathy (ask anyone who’s ever visited a palliative care ward just how hard it is to do time and time again).

The second change is more far-reaching but also far more critical. Using state-of-the-art image recognition software and keyword search engines, Facebook needs to automatically take every single post relating to cute kittens, lovable puppies, and adorable animals and throw them onto a special page. Let’s call this new domain “Petbook” and there, and ONLY there, will you be able to peruse at leisure the myriad pet-related posts. Once Petbook is up and running, we’ll all be saved from involuntarily seeing yet ANOTHER kitten batting at toilet paper, or a bushel of fuzzy puppies over the caption “Joy” (“Personal Hell” would be more accurate). I’m sure Petbook will have plenty of viewers, but I won’t be one of them. One picture of a pug cocking its head quizzically looks much the same as the rest of them, after all, and how many pics of kittens do we really need? If we’re ever lonely for the visual of a pink-nosed furball, Google has this handy thing called “Image search” and I GUARANTEE you’ll find kittens there if you bother to look.

Besides, there’s only ever been one image and video as far as kitten pics are concerned. The rest are all just wanna-be’s and sad copies. I speak, of course, of the The Laughing Cat:

Best video ever. Maybe I should post it on Facebook.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Face

I'm a cheerful atheist. I don't see how any atheist could be anything but. When I die, that's it. I don't have to jump through any metaphysical or spiritual hoops to get to some weird eternal paradise afterlife. The atoms that comprise me go back into circulation, the ultimate in recycling. Simple, easy, straightforward.

(I've never understood the lure of an "eternal paradise" anyway. When you apply "forever" as a time limit, anything becomes hell. Maybe it'll take six million years, but eventually, you're going to wake up on your memory-foam bed (all beds in heaven are memory foam--if ever there was a heavenly-sent material, it's memory-foam) and wish for the peace of the Long Sleep. Mark Twain had it right, anyway: Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company. I love my Grandma, but she's a realistic cross-section of the type of people that will be up there, which means there's no WAY I'm going to be able to find a gaming group.)

I have respect for people who have faith, but I have NO respect for the religious organizations themselves. This post was going to be a scathing assault on Catholicism (who better deserving of one?) spurred on by the death-bed honesty of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (you go boy!) but then I realized I had nothing to say that hadn't been said a billion times already. To summarize: Martini said the church has no clue, is 200 years out of date, and needs to transform itself, particularly in light of the child-abuse scandal it's been going through. I found a bunch of quotes from the Pope where he makes light of the situation and downplays its impact and seriousness. Then I was going to show you a picture of him and talk about how he looks like an evil grandpa, the kind who beats you and locks you in a closet.

Pope Angry German really does look harsh. Yet he was chosen by a whole host of people as the best choice to lead his church. Theoretically, these people had seen him and were aware that many pictures would be taken of him, but they still went ahead and lifted him on their octogenarian shoulders to victory. It's a testament to how competent they believed he'd be, because I wouldn't have the guts to hire someone like that: he'd scare the crap out of me every day, and who needs that at work? It did get me thinking about the physical appearances of other world leaders.

Sure, we shouldn't be judging people on their appearance. Beauty is only skin deep and all that. Comeliness is an accident of birth and can't be taken as a measure of a person's worth. But where's the fun in that?

Let's start local. This is Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada. Note the cold eyes; he's famous for them. If this guy came to your door, would he really get your vote? Or would you excuse yourself as quickly as possible, throw the deadbolt, and peer through the blinds until he'd left? How he continues to get elected is a mystery to me, but having a popular figure that is simultaneously loathed and impossible to get rid of is a perversely Canadian trait (see Celine Dion and Nickelback).

This is Stephen's dad. See the resemblance around the eyes? Mercy does NOT run in the family. Oh, wait, my bad. That's actually John Boehner, Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Still, a chilling visual, isn't it? People voted for this guy, too.

Doesn't this guy look like a lot more fun? As I've already stated, I think he's going to take the race this November. But if we're rating presidents entirely on "movie star appearance," his competition is a fierce opponent:

Look at that chiseled jaw. Those dreamy eyes. His grey temples, so reminiscent of Mr. Fantastic. If you weren't allowed to listen to him speak or read his very flexible political positions, he'd be a shoe-in.

Moving to a broader stage, here's Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. This guy looks more fun and personable than all the rest combined. Nothing against Kofi Annan, but I hope Ban is around for a long time just from a photogenic standpoint. The camera loves this guy!

And then there's the man who inspired this little journey down Superficial Lane:

Sorry about the nightmares.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My presidential prediction

Apparently I think Barack Obama is going to win the presidential race this year. I wasn’t at all sure I’d decided, but last week my back was to the wall and I was forced to make my prediction.

Why? Was my political editorial column for the NY Times late? Was I in the green room waiting to go on as a guest on The National? Did I need to put my money down on some sort of really boring office betting pool? No. Something much more important was happening.

I was gaming. The session was taking place in December 2012, I was the Game Master, and the identity of the President of the United States was required. So I made my call, and now I’m going to be held to it. Lauded as a genius if correct, mocked as a fool if wrong. Gamers have long memories, and they love to ridicule (why do you think Monty Python jokes still hold true around the gaming table, even after nearly 40 years?). Granted, my choice basically amounts to “heads or tails” in terms of options, but I’m sticking with the “Obama” side of the coin.

The power of incumbency is a major factor on his side. I believe sitting presidents who choose to run for re-election win almost 70% of the time, so this coin we’re flipping isn’t exactly balanced. More like rolling 1-4 on a six-sided die. (Or needing a 7 for a saving throw. Pretty good, but nothing I’d want to risk my life on.)

It doesn’t help Romney’s cause that, in spite of his almost comic-book square jaw and salt-and-pepper hair, he has no human appeal. He doesn’t share the cold, dead eyes of our own Stephen Harper, but there is a certain aura of the robotic around him. Though he claims to be born to human parents in Michigan back in ’47, he might just as easily have been assembled in some mad scientist’s lab from the body parts of 1920s movie stars. Put some “Intel Inside” to run the machine, and power him up. Even his political views are as changeable as your preferred internet browser: can anyone believe his Governor 2.0 operating chip wasn’t replaced with Republican President Vista before the campaign began?

This lack of charisma might be explained by the silver spoon carrying the platinum spoon he actually gets fed with, but watching the news you get the impression even the wealthy elite are kind of put off by him. Mitt was probably the kid at prep school everyone WANTED to beat up, but were afraid if they did, his dad would buy their houses and put them out on the street. Nor do Romney’s pleading, desperate efforts to relate to the “common man” help him at all, most probably because he’s so out of touch with their wants and needs that he actually calls them “common” when he thinks of them at all. In another era, Romney would have been entirely at ease, one suspects, riding across his manor looking for a chance at prima nocta.

Ultimately, this contest will be decided on the weakness of Romney rather than the strength of Obama. Poor ol’ Richie Mitt has a lot working against him, all of it self-created. At least he’s not going to become a drain on that Republican-hated safety net when he fails to land this gig.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

White-washed $100 bill

Anyone out there a fan of Community? Have you seen any of the episodes that feature the college mascot, the Human Being? It is a creation by the dean (and his mad assistant, Pierce) to sculpt a representation that all humans can relate to. They did their best to scrub the Human Being clean of any traits that might be indicative of his ethnicity. Even the maleness of the Human Being can be called into question, as it lacks any of the stereotypical gender attributes. The result is an extremely disturbing and creepy apparition.

Chevy Chase and the Human Being

See? Imagine that thing rushing toward you during a basketball game. Inspiring school spirit is the last thing you’re likely to see.

I’m reminded on this fictional experiment in stereotype “white-washing” because of the recent snafu over at the Bank of Canada. If you haven’t been following it, here it is in a nutshell: they recently altered the image of a fictional person on the new $100 bill because it is their policy not to depict people of “a particular ethnic origin.” This image was deemed to be “too Asian.” Therefore, it was given its own version of “white-washing,” emphasis on the white. The result is ethnically “neutral.”

I get it. White people, for the moment at least, are the dominant ethnicity in Canada. Therefore Mr. and Mrs. Cracker (and their 1.7 children) are “normal” and not seen as ethnic. So much for the “Global Village” idea. How can it escape Canadians that the world is filled with people that aren’t white? If you put a representative sampling of the world’s population into a jar, there wouldn’t be very many white jelly beans (maybe 1 in 7 or so). If “ethnic” is equated to “minority,” that counts.

There are a lot of problems here. Believing “white” isn’t ethnic is one. Another lies in the Bank of Canada policy, clearly written by someone who has magically been alive since the days of Confederation, before we had to deal with all this pesky non-white immigration. How can you possibly--EVER--depict a person without indicating “a particular ethnic origin?” They could be wearing gloves and a balaclava, I suppose. Not exactly an inspiring symbol, though, to have our money proudly displaying bank robbers performing day jobs.

I grew up in the days when pencil crayons included “Flesh” and “Indian Red” as colours. Things have improved. Band-Aids no longer harps on the “realistic flesh tone” of its products, for instance. Compared to race riots and apartheid and segregation, this whole "Asian on the $100 bill" thing is pretty small potatoes. But they still shouldn't have changed it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The True Olympian

It’s all over. No more Olympics. As usual, we have another American victory. Why is that? Being a nerd, I amused myself by looking at the final Olympic standings from a couple of angles. My primary motivation is to find a way to massage the numbers to make Canada look better (spoiler alert: I fail). It wasn’t our nation’s best performance. As one news reporter pointed out, we’re getting more bronze medals than ever before! (Such a Canadian thing to say. Hey, we’re third, but we’re doing very well at being not quite the best.)

So how to manipulate things? The most obvious way is to use the American system of counting medals. By raw numbers, we place 13th overall. Not bad, compared to a showing of 36th using the “gold standard” method the Olympics officially uses. But Canada is a small country in terms of population, and while our per capita wealth is quite high, our national coffers aren’t as deep as some. So what happens when we adjust medals for those factors?

For simplicity, I used the Olympic method of counting. Gold medals determine your standing, with the others used only to break ties. Here’s the way the Olympics actually went:

Gold Medals
United States
United Kingdom
South Korea

I’ve included Canada in the list, even though there are actually 25 countries between ourselves and Japan. Below see how things appear once I adjust the medal counts based on comparative population. Since China has the most people, their total stays the same and the rest get a boost based on the discrepancy between their own population and China’s. Here are the top people now:

Gold Medals
New Zealand
United Kingdom
South Korea

Our standing improves a couple of places (early 30’s now), still behind the US (they have 197 medals in this “population model”). We do beat China, though, by a single fictional medal. Jamaica is obviously doing quite well with the limited people they’ve got (what is it about hot countries, I wonder, that makes them capable of running so fast? If I were living in Jamaica I’d never move faster than a slow amble from one air-conditioned building to another.)

Now let’s try adjusting the original standings for national production. Nominal GDP gives us:

Gold Medals
North Korea
New Zealand
United Kingdom

Once again, Jamaica rules. They are certainly making the most of what they’ve got. Our own standing drops well below 36th: we don’t get much bang for our production dollars. China has 106 medals, the US 46, so both those nations cease to be big winners.

I didn’t bother going for per capita GDP. If I had, Luxembourg would have kicked serious butt. This whole project is simplistic, but it’s entertaining (to me, at least) to see that using variable criteria, the Kings of the World suddenly don’t look so good. The US and China (and us, to a lesser degree) have a lot of advantages other nations don’t enjoy. That’s what makes the victories won by the “small fish” like Jamaica even more impressive. (With a fraction of our resources and population, they still snatched up 4 gold medals in the real world.) Is this just because the Olympics does its best to create a level playing field?

As a result of this “analysis,” I declare the true winner of the 2012 Olympics to be... the United Kingdom! Why? The UK is the only nation that appears on all three lists of the “Top Twelve.” They placed 3rd in the real world, 5th in “Population Matters,” and 11th in “It’s All About Money.” Perhaps spurred on by a home court advantage, they clearly did something right.

Congratulations, United Kingdom. I’m sure the IOC will be in touch with you directly to arrange the awarding of your commemorative plaque.