Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Yet Another Triumphant Return

I recently returned from a couple of weeks of work-related travel. I had a couple of noteworthy experiences on the trip (besides the stuff that I won't be discussing on here for various reasons).

I almost got taken down by airport security at my point of departure. Besides my checked suitcase, I had a carry-on bag. It was a backpack containing my Bible and portable DVD player, and a few other books to occupy me during the trip.

The basket containing my jacket and the stuff out of my pockets passed through the x-ray screening without difficulty, and my own passage through the metal detector was also uneventful. The backpack, however, proved to be a problem. I had to put it on the little conveyor belt, and when I went to meet it on the other side a security guard was waiting for me, already holding it.

"Do you have a multi-tool in here?" he asked, in a pleasant enough tone.

"Nope," I replied confidently.

He smiled, not unkindly. "Are you sure?"

"I was, but I'm getting less sure all the time."

He chuckled, and began unzipping compartments. "Looks like it's way down at the bottom somewhere." After a minute of digging, he produced a multi-tool in its carrying case. It was the one I carried on my belt during my IT days. When I left that job (a diplomatic way of putting it), I stuck the multi-tool into the backpack, which I haul around with me anytime I go anywhere with stuff to carry. I figured that way the multi-tool would always be handy if I was out somewhere and needed it. Of course, I forgot all about it being in there when I was packing for this flight.

"I can assure you that I wasn't trying to smuggle that onto the plane. Feel free to chuck it, or whatever you do with seized contraband."

The security guard was very nice about the whole matter. Instead of just taking it, he asked if somebody had dropped me off at the airport, and if so, whether they were still around. My wife and mother-in-law were just outside the security screening area. I pointed them out, and the guard had someone take it to them. It was waiting safely for me at home when I returned.

Good thing I speak English, or I probably would have died right there, twitching on the airport floor.

Even weirder, the same bag got stopped again by security at the airport for my flight home. Once again I put it dutifully on the conveyor belt. This time, the young lady watching the x-ray monitor (which I couldn't see) stopped the belt and looked at the monitor for a while, clearly puzzled. She was tipping her head to the side, reminding me of my dog's reaction when I used to take my video camera, record myself calling her, and play it back on the living room TV. "Wait... you're on the TV, calling me, but you're sitting over there... but you're on TV... but... now my head hurts. Good thing my walnut-sized brain means I'll forget this in ten seconds, or I'd be traumatized."

The screener lady called a colleague over to join her for some synchronized head-cocking. Eventually they decided to send my backpack to someone else. It came out of the x-ray machine, and was promptly grabbed by a very serious looking guy, who said, "We've got to test this."

"OK", I cheerfully replied. I had lots of time before my flight.

This new guy dug through the bag, and ran a little wand over it. I don't think it was a metal detector. My theory is that it was a dowsing rod, and he suspected that my backpack contained an underground spring. In any case, after a few brow-furrowed moments, he handed me the backpack and said, "OK, you can go." This guy was just gruff enough that I decided not to push my luck by asking any questions. The folks at the first airport, which was much smaller, were a lot friendlier, and they busted me trying to sneak a weapon onto the plane.

It looks like I'll be flying again in October. Perhaps I should invest in some less suspicious carry-on luggage before then.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the bottom shelf, left-hand side, on bookshelf # 1. On the left are a bunch of records that don't fit on my actual records rack. Most readers under 40 will have no idea what "records" are. In the middle are notebooks and photocopies of textbooks from my university days. Yes, photocopies. I was blatantly disregarding copyrights long before anyone ever heard of Napster. Photocopies were a dime each at the library photocopiers (I liked the unsupervised one in the basement), and reduction allowed two-page spreads to fit onto a single sheet while remaining legible. Even those of us who weren't math majors got pretty good at calculating whether it was cheaper to buy a textbook or just photocopy it. Finally, that pile on the right is what remains of my Rolling Stone magazine collection. I got rid of the vast majority of them long ago.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Reading Log - Mark Haddon's Clash Of Fundamentalisms

I'm back. I may talk about the trip a little some other time. For now it's Sunday, and I've got a reading log entry with potential for spiritual implications, so away we go.

One of the books I read during my exile was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. It's the story of an unusual young man's investigation into the "murder" of his neighbour's poodle. The young man's name is Christopher, and he's autistic or has Asperger syndrome. The book is written in first person from Christopher's perspective, and he has no interest in any labels anyone else may place on him, so his exact diagnosis is never revealed.

From here in there may be spoilers for anyone who intends to read this book but hasn't yet. If you happen to be married to me, this means you.

The book is compelling and Christopher, although a bit odd by western social standards, is a well-drawn character. He is extremely literal-minded and uninterested in emotions. The other characters in the book are not fleshed out nearly as well, but this too rings true since everything is narrated by Christopher, who isn't particularly interested in or capable of understanding what's happening inside anyone else's head.

Christopher will ring true to anyone who is close to someone on the autism spectrum (or on it themselves). He is single-minded in his quest to determine who killed the dog, finding loopholes worthy of a high-priced attorney in his father's orders to leave the matter alone (and thereby ceasing to pester the neighbours with questions about it).

About halfway through the book, there is a sudden shift. It's not a Shymalan-level twist, but something is revealed that simultaneously makes perfect sense and alters the course of the narrative. The book is no longer about what it had been about. It gets much better, although it had been perfectly good to that point.

I won't reveal the twist, or even whether Christopher solves the crime. Instead I want to shift gears, using the book as a segue to my justification for posting this on a Sunday, the day I set aside for spiritual themes on this blog. Part of the book's structure is that the chapters (which are numbered in ascending prime numbers, one of Christopher's obsessions) alternate between moving the narrative forward and Christopher explaining his take on some subject, often mathematical.

In several of the "explanation" chapters, Christopher mentions that he is an atheist, and goes into more detail in a few. He rejects the Bible as having any divine origin, dismisses any talk of Jesus as fable, and accepts the theories of the Big Bang and evolution as perfect, comprehensive explanations for the origins of everything.

In our modern, "enlightened" world he is far from alone in these positions. Many people agree with his articles of faith. They cling to Science as fervently as any other fundamentalist clings to their dogma. They consider themselves different from, and even superior to, those other fundamentalists because their beliefs are based on Science, not on the unverifiable writings in an ancient tome.

Their logical error here is obvious. When it comes to matters like the origins of physical reality or the human species, the writings in any science book are speculative. The theories are no more testable, no more provable, than Genesis. Whenever a physicist begins expounding on how the universe was created, utterly certain, utterly unshakable in their faith, I'm always reminded of Job 38:1-4:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand."
No, I don't have all the answers to every question in life. I can't ultimately be 100% sure that my beliefs are correct. Neither can anyone else. The primary difference between a dogmatic materialist and any other believer is their choice of sacred text. I've chosen the Bible; others choose the writings of Darwin and their high school textbooks. I note that those schoolbooks invariably get revised. I've read several science books that had forewords explicitly stating that most of the book would eventually be supplanted by newer, more correct information. I've never seen a Bible with that sort of disclaimer, and don't expect to ever see a new edition with corrections. The Bible doesn't need it.

Here's another key difference between a hardcore materialist and other breeds of fundamentalists: the materialists tend to be much more certain that they're right, and much more smug and arrogant about the discrepancies in beliefs. If I didn't believe in the depravity of humankind, I'd probably be confused when more "enlightened" people almost invariably prove themselves less tolerant than supposedly backward believers.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the fourth shelf down, left side, on bookshelf # 1. I don't seem to have a picture of the third shelf, so we'll come back to it another time. This shelf is full of psychology and criminology textbooks. The black binders on the right are full of Sunday School materials that I've written over the years. Those binders contain a lot of plastic sheets for overhead transparencies, which gives an idea how old they are. Nowadays I usually don't even bother keeping a paper copy of the handouts, and just keep the OpenOffice files.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Wednesday's Title: Avoid Me

I'm still living in Chaosland. Not a place I enjoy.

The title is a Newsboys reference, by the way. I frequently refer to Breathe as "my daily devotional song". It's one I need far too often.

Ever have one of those days where your contempt for humanity festers and grows to such an overwhelming degree that you can't stand to deal with other human beings for another moment, and you start planning ways to completely isolate yourself from society? I have days like that eight, sometimes nine times a week.

Oh, all right, maybe it's not that bad most of the time. But sometimes it is. I had one of those days on Wednesday, the culmination of the last couple of weeks. I've spent too much of my time lately in limbo, waiting for other people to do something or at least tell me something. As an Olympic-level curmudgeon with an advanced degree in misanthropy, I don't relish dealing with other people at the best of times. I go into overload very quickly when I'm stuck depending completely on those other people - which I strenuously try to avoid - and they leave me dangling in the wind, which happens almost every time.

I don't often agree with the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, but "Hell is other people"... yeah, I'm all over that one.

Most of the problems have been professional. Stuff at work, and stuff with the prospective new job I recently mentioned. Those wheels are still turning, although they were mired in some pretty deep mud for a while this week. Others are personal. Remember that contractor who was coming to look at my house? I was very pleasantly surprised when he actually showed up.


That single visit ended with a promise to come back in a few days with a ladder to look more closely at the roof. It's been over a month. He hasn't been back, and he doesn't return my calls. I've left him voicemails, and left messages with a nice lady who answers his phone. Good thing I didn't give him any money yet, although I'd happily hand over a stack of twenties and fifties if he'd show up and do his job.

I've given up on him. I sent out a team of cryptozoologists to see if they could confirm another sighting, and although they tell me there may be a plesiosaurus in the drainage ditch out back, they couldn't find a trace of this guy.

So, I started calling other contractors. Each number was answered by a very pleasant and enthusiastic lady who took down my information and promised that somebody who knows something would call me back ASAP. Nobody has called back.

I'm planning a full entry one of these days on the history of trying to get people to come fix my house in exchange for money. I've been taking notes over the years. This is not that entry, and I'll stop now before it turns into it.

Anyway, yesterday and today have been much better. It's even been relatively safe for people to speak to me. However, I have to get on a plane this weekend. Let's see what dealing with the airlines does for my view of humanity.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the second shelf down, left side, on Bookshelf # 1. Another slushpile. This one is a complete mixed bag of books both read and unread, among other debris. Highlights include C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Hobbes, Sigmund Freud, doctrinal volumes from religions other than my own (The Book of Mormon, The Catechism of the Catholic Church), and a Late Night with David Letterman mug full of writing implements. The colourful cellophane-wrapped package in the upper right is a bundle of apologetics tracts from Catholic Answers. I may blog my way through them one of these days if I feel like alienating a whole lot of people. Suffice it for now to say that I've read their arguments and given them careful (and prayerful) consideration, and the reasons why I've chosen Protestantism remain.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Quick Notes

Some hither-and-yon ramblings in lieu of a real entry. Things are still hectic.

My son and I went to see Up. It was good, if surprisingly melancholy. He appreciated the floating house and talking dogs. I appreciated the theme that we will all inevitably lose everything and everyone we ever loved. This movie was fun for the whole bipolar family.

Spoiler time. If I had been in charge of the movie, the photo montage over the end credits would have included a shot of the kid (sorry, I forget his name and am far too lazy to look it up) sitting alone in the funeral home, in a throwback to the earlier shot of the old guy (see what I said about the kid a very short time ago) sitting alone at his wife's wake. That shot seemed like an obvious capper to me, and I was disappointed that it wasn't included.

I also liked that Pixar made a movie with virtually no merchandising potential. Nobody is going to want action figures of the old guy or the chubby kid. It's almost as though the Pixar crew were thumbing their collective nose at the Disney machine to which they were tethered. Now that the Pixar/Disney split is imminent, I know which side I'm on. My son and I will probably be at the next Pixar movie. The next Disney movie, not so much.

While at the theatre for Up, I picked up the free movie magazine in the lobby. Trendy Nitwit Monthly or somesuch. Most of it was of course vacuous fluff. I take perverse pleasure in flipping through it without reading the captions to see how few of the stars-du-summer-blockbuster I recognize. My ratio is down to about one in ten.

Anyway, one article (the movie started late, so I actually read a good chunk of the magazine) caught my interest. Not for a good reason. In an article about an upcoming werewolf movie, this passage appeared (sadly, the link means I now know the actual title of the magazine. I preferred Trendy Nitwit Monthly):
Director Chris Weitz told USA Today the requirements included having Native American or First Nation ancestry, because their characters belong to the Quileute tribe, based in La Push, Washington. “They had to have papers that proved their heritage,” says Weitz.
See the problem? If not, I'll wait.

OK. Anybody who doesn't think there's a problem with that needs to consider the logical outcome of this sort of thinking. I foresee a World War II movie in which the director insists that all Nazi characters be played by actors who are purely Aryan and have the papers to prove it. After all, racial purity is important in filmmaking, right?

When that happens, I don't want to hear any whining from anybody who doesn't acknowledge the problem with demanding racial papers from actors playing Native American werewolves.

Now there's a sentence that has probably never been written before.

Michael Jackson is still dead. Just throwin' that out there.

Actually, I've got a couple of other notes on the matter.

First up, I feel especially bad for poor old Latoya being tossed into the spotlight again. I think most of us had forgotten about her, which was the best thing for her reputation. It's pretty rough when Janet Jackson is your sister, but you're still considered the trampy one.

Second, Michael is on the cover of every tabloid this week, and most mainstream "news" outlets are still running factoids about him as their top stories. Farrah Fawcett is getting thrown an occasional bone. (Don't snicker at that phrasing. Show some class.) Ed McMahon has been largely forgotten already.

There's a worse omission, though. Where's the love for Karl Malden? The guy was in Patton, for crying out loud! That alone should be worth any number of swimsuit posters, "Hey-Yo"-s, and child molestation allegations.

Driving things further into the sewer, let's play a round of America's fastest growing quiz sensation, Choose Your Own Punchline! Today's episode is rated For Mature Audiences due to immaturity.

Today I noticed that a co-worker's wristwatch was loose. Having my watch sliding around on my arm like that would drive me crazy. He said, "I lost some weight, and now my watch is loose. I need to readjust the strap sometime."

I replied, "I don't think losing a few pounds should make your forearms shrink that much. That's a loss of muscle tone."

Knowing full well what he was getting into, he said, "Do you have any suggestions how I could build up my wrist muscles?"

Which brings us to that time again...Choose Your Own Punchline!

(A) "Get a divorce."


(B) "Stay married a while longer."

As always, your votes will be tabulated by Price-Waterhouse-Cooper! Well, Price and Cooper. Waterhouse is off somewhere building up his wrist muscles.

Hey, did a U.S. Supreme Court Justice actually say something this revealing while discussing Roe v. Wade?
Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.
Why, yes. Yes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg did.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: If you don't see the problem here, I can't help you.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the top left shelf of bookshelf # 1. This shelf is a slushpile of stuff that I haven't sorted away in a proper place yet. Highlights include several photo albums / scrapbooks (the last three on the right are full of Beatles clippings), unread books by B.F. Skinner, Ayn Rand, and Richard Matheson (I like to imagine those three hanging out together when they were alive, perhaps at one of those old drive-in burger joints with the waitresses on roller skates), and my beloved three-hole punch. It's under the monkey. No, the other monkey. No, the one in the middle with the Santa hat.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Marital Mathematics

It's very close to my wedding anniversary. My wife’s, too. What are the odds of that? This anniversary is a round number, one of the Big Ones. My wife likes to call it “Ten down, two to go!”

The actual anniversary went by very recently. Or it might be coming up very soon. I forget. It might even be today, which would plausibly explain all the people in my house and possibly the balloons. However, I still haven’t gotten a satisfactory explanation for the streamers. I’m pretty sure they’re unrelated, and reject all claims to the contrary.

This is the kind of occasion when one reviews and takes stock of their life. In my case, it makes me wonder about a specific statistic. This is a delicate matter, but it should be clear from this blog that any aspect of my life, no matter how intimate, is fair game for discussion. Well, except for anything that’s actually personal.

Anyway, I got to wondering about, shall we say, “relations” statistics for my wife and I over the course of our marital career (sorry for the vulgarity, Mom!). If we appeared on baseball cards, this is the kind of thing I’d like to see on the back. So, I ran some numbers to estimate how many times we’ve (THIS PORTION OF THIS BLOG HAS BEEN REDACTED BY THE DEPARTMENT OF MORAL STANDARDS ON GROUNDS OF GENERAL ICKINESS) over the last decade.

Ten years is 520 weeks, or about 3,640 nights. So, divide that out, carry the eight…

Four times. Yep, that sounds about right.

No, wait, three. I forgot that 2000 wasn’t a leap year.

In other news, reliable reports indicate that Michael Jackson remains dead. However, several witnesses claim to have seen Generalissimo Francisco Franco at the 7-11 in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday. There was a special on Slush Puppies.

We have received no new information on the whereabouts or condition of Hostage Bunny. Our prayers tonight are with Mrs. Bunny, their 74 children, and their innumerable grandchildren.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a finished frog pinata. Sadly, no photos were taken of the smashed-to-bits frog pinata that came to be soon thereafter. There was green paper mache and months-old candy (mostly hard candy wrapped in cellophane, so no worse for wear) everywhere.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Omar Khadr And Michael Jackson

I had intended to call this post "Michael Jackson And Omar Khadr", but I decided that just for once, Omar deserved to get top billing.

I've received four CNN Breaking News E-Mail Alerts (so far) about Michael Jackson's death. Unless he got back up shortly thereafter, screamed "BRAAAAAINS!" and took a bite out of Tito, that's probably three-ish too many.

What, too soon?

Poor Farrah Fawcett. She died first (garnering only a single CNN Breaking News E-Mail Alert for doing so), and promptly got overshadowed. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis dying on the same day as John F. Kennedy, meaning few people noticed. And so we add one final item to the list of "Eerie Coincidences Between The Lives Of Farrah Fawcett and C.S. Lewis".

On to Omar Khadr. This was going to be the entire entry until celebrities started dying. Khadr's case lets some people demonstrate that they think Canada should be dictating American policy (emphasis added):

...the argument raised by the federal government's lawyer in telling the courts to butt out of its handling of the Omar Khadr case is chilling...Federal Court Judge James O'Reilly had issued a blunt order "to return to Canada as soon as practicable" the young Canadian languishing in American custody... Justice O'Reilly's finding in April that the government's refusal to demand Mr. Khadr's repatriation was against fundamental justice...
In case you don't get the point, those quotations are from an editorial called, "Lawyer Exposes The Fragility Of Civil Rights". While the editorial makes some interesting points, most of it boils down to a theme that Canada should be able to demand (note that exact word used above) that the United States release accused murderers of their citizens, as long as the accused have a Canadian birth certificate. Sadly, lots and lots of people (in lots and lots of countries) don't seem to understand that this is at its core an issue of national sovereignty.

Omar Khadr is in American custody, facing charges under American jurisdiction for offenses against Americans. I would have liked his case to have been resolved in a more timely manner, but that's a separate issue.

Here's the bottom line on this whole debate: Canada has no business interfering with how the U.S. deals with Mr. Khadr. Imagine for a moment that an American were to come into Canada and commit serious crimes. Suppose that this hypothetical American criminal were then arrested and charged in Canada. If American lawyers were to call us up, demanding that we turn him loose and send him home, we'd see this as a ridiculous attempt at bullying. We'd say that he's our problem now, and that the U.S. can have him back if and when we're done with him.

In short, we'd tell the American lawyers to pound sand, go hug a rope, and / or sit on a pencil and twirl. And rightly so.

The same principle holds true in reverse. As long as Omar Khadr is in American custody, facing charges under American jurisdiction, then the diplomatic thing for Canada to do is butt out. We have absolutely no right to attempt to dictate to America. To even attempt to sway the proceedings by "just asking" (a suggestion contained in the linked editorial) would be an insult.

I acknowledge some exceptions. Rogue states and dictatorships sometimes lock up foreign nationals without valid cause, and in those situations I think it's perfectly appropriate for their home countries to call for their release and repatriation. However, I haven't heard any credible suggestions that Khadr was an innocent kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. By all accounts he was a non-uniformed enemy combatant on a foreign battlefield, which makes him a terrorist by definition, and quite possibly a war criminal. He could have been shot down like a dog on the spot, which in retrospect would have been simpler. Apparently I'm more grateful than he is that they chose to bring him in instead.

Just to deal with the objection that any wayward Daily Kos readers will surely raise at this point: just because you didn't like George W. Bush doesn't make him a fascist. Despite your fantasies, America did not change into a dictatorship between 2000 and 2008, on a slippery slope to dissidents being rounded into prison camps. The leftist delusion to the contrary is disproven by one simple observation. If America were really a draconian dictatorship, then Al Franken, Janeane Garafalo, and everyone whose picture appears on Zombietime would have disappeared in the night long ago. Instead, each of those folks are perfectly free to complain to their heart's content, without fear of jackbooted thugs showing up at the door. That's one of the greatest things about America: you can live in it without having to like it. (Same goes for Canada, incidentally.)

Here's a summation for Canadian terrorist sympathizers: how the U.S. of A. chooses to deal with Omar Khadr is really none of your business. He's their problem now. Go ahead and write all the protest songs about him that you want, but don't expect the grownups to take you seriously.

Hey, is Michael Jackson still dead? I haven't gotten a CNN Breaking News E-Mail Alert about it in like twenty minutes. How am I supposed to know?

Before this dies down (hey, see what I just did there? And it was an accident!), Jackson is going to be reported dead more often than Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of an unfinished frog pinata. This started out as one of those projects with the kids (or kid, in my case) that sounded good on a dreary weekend afternoon, but for which all involved lost their enthusiasm partway. This thing hung in our kitchen like this (ostensibly "for the paint to dry") for months. The story didn't end there, though. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

And It Gets Worse

Chapter the Second, in which we continue to follow the curious case of Mr. Gilles Blackburn. Go read my last entry first, if you haven't already. After that, go read my first entry last. It's not relevant in the slightest, but I'm in a Lewis Carroll kind of mood today and enjoy the wordplay. By this time tomorrow I'll regret the previous two sentences. That one too, in all probability.

If I'm reading this editorial correctly, Mr. Blackburn stamped out some SOS signs in the snow, then kept wandering. On at least a couple of occasions, someone went to one of his signs, but Mr. Blackburn and his wife were by then nowhere around. I also enjoyed the offhanded mention that since there was snow on the ground, all Mr. Blackburn and his wife had to do when they first realized they were lost was turn around and follow their own tracks back to the trail they had left.

I'm no wilderness survivalist. I've needed to be rescued from the middle of city parks. In my defense, I was only afraid to climb back down from the statue because those park ducks looked fierce. The razor-sharp bills, the fleet webbed feet... I'm starting to get flashbacks. I'd best move along before I wind up back in therapy.

Anyway, the point is, even I know that the first rule when lost in the woods is stay put. Unless you absolutely need to move for some reason (like encircling park ducks drawing ever closer), find a comfy spot and wait for search-and-rescue. That's doubly true if you've somehow been able to signal your position with a flare, emergency whistle, fire, or SOS sign stamped in the snow. Of course, this may not hold true anymore if Mr. Blackburn achieves his dream of forcing search-and-rescue crews to cease operations. If there's no help coming, you might as well pick a direction and start walking. Personally, I'll be nervous venturing into my back yard without a trail of bread crumbs leading back to the shed.

As I mentioned yesterday, I can't quite demonize Mr. Blackburn. I hold out hope that he's still a victim here, being manipulated by sharks and weasels who see his tragedy as a way to make a quick buck. Who, you may wonder, could possibly be so low? And lo, we have an answer:

The lawyer for a Quebec man who barely survived being lost for nine days in the B.C. backcountry and watched his wife die in the ordeal says she's surprised by the level of animosity being thrust toward her client.

[snip, snip, snip your cares away]

Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, Blackburn's lawyer, says the public appears to have lost sight of who the victim is in this case.

"I think it's important that people be reminded who's being sued here and why," Wilhelm-Morden said.

That's right, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, henceforth to be known as Weasel Number One. I love that she's "surprised" that people aren't falling for this nonsense. Since she presumably graduated law school, probably with flecks of ambulance bumpers already lodged between her teeth, I'm going to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she isn't actually stupid. However, it goes beyond disingenuous to suggest that this lawsuit is about improving services or contributing to public safety. This lawsuit is all about a payday for Mr. Blackburn, and more importantly for Weasel Number One. Those ads during Jerry Springer, encouraging idiots to file lawsuits when their idiocy backfires, don't come cheap.

I can almost understand Mr. Blackburn's lawsuit against the RCMP. I think he should lose it, but there may be an iota of merit to it. The RCMP has an explicit duty of care for Canadians, even when those Canadians are endangered by their own recklessness. However, suing the hotel is very close to the definition of chutzpah, and suing the search-and-rescue group is simply over the top.

I'd like to see the hotel countersue. Mr. Blackburn's actions caused them a lot of trouble, expense, and negative publicity. He should be billed for all expenses that they can reasonably attribute to him. Actually, my ideal scenario would be that they sue him, win, and are awarded a judgement of one dollar. I don't want him punished financially; I just want him to stop blaming others for his own foolishness. If he snaps out of this tomorrow, drops all the suits and publicly denounces Weasel Number One's opportunism, then all is forgiven.

In that spirit, I'd also like to nominate Weasel Number One as this week's Worst Person In The World, a completely meaningless award that I've invented for this blog, and -

What's that, Internet? Someone else already does a "Worst Person In The World" bit?

Huh. I didn't know that. Whoever it is must be pretty insignificant. I've certainly never noticed them saying anything noteworthy. Still, I don't want to rip off anybody else's fake, arbitrary awards. So, never mind, then.

Enough rambling. Here's the other end of Bookshelf # 1, with 12.5% fewer paint handprints! (Some of them are in behind the CD rack. Of course, you couldn't see all of them on the other end either. There was a monkey in the way, which happens a lot in my house.)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Bite The Helping Hand

I'm still alive but busy. I've been sinking a lot of time into learning another language of late. Really.

Today my son, my Dad, and I went bowling together to commemorate Father's Day. It was the first time my son ever really bowled. He'd gone to the alley and chucked balls down the lane at birthday parties, but with no structure, rules, or scorekeeping. Today we kept score. On his first string ever, he rolled a 94. I don't think I've broken 90 more than a couple of times in my life.

I'd think we might have the bowling equivalent of Tiger Woods on our hands, but he declined to roll another string afterward. Dad and I went a second round, but my son only wanted to sit at the score table and keep score instead of bowling any more. He did a pretty good job at that, too. Good addition practice.

On to a news story.

So this guy, Gilles Blackburn, and his wife went on a ski trip. They decided that they were not only expert skiers, but apparently infallible in other matters as well. They crossed over the ski resort's clearly marked boundary lines into the wilderness, ignoring posted signs saying, "Don't go past here or you will get lost and freeze." They went past, and proceeded to get lost and freeze. She died, but he got rescued a few days later.

This is a sad story. It's more of a "too bad" than a tragedy, because these people were victims of their own hubris, but they still went through an experience that couldn't be wished on anyone.

Once Blackburn began to recover and make public statements, he of course expressed his profound regret for his poor judgement, thanked his rescuers profusely, and apologized to all concerned for having caused the situation in the first place.

Oh, wait. That was in Imaginary Utopialand. In real life, he blamed his rescuers for taking so long, demanded an apology from them, and threatened to sue. At this point the word "prick" isn't nearly strong enough, but I try to keep this blog PG-13 or lower. Here are some highlights from the linked article:

"I lived in Alberta and in B.C," (Blackburn) said. "I know the ski slopes."

Blackburn said it is not unusual for experienced downhill skiers familiar with expert runs to ignore warning signs and to go off into unpatrolled areas.

Blackburn said he is only partially responsible for what happened.
I was going to say "emphasis added" and bold or italicize some of that arrogance, but I realized I'd have to emphasize all of it.

I've been tracking this story since it broke back in March, and there were a few times that I started drafting up articles about it. However, there came a point when I started feeling sorry for the guy and couldn't bring myself to slam his actions. He's been through a horrible experience. He watched his wife die in front of him. I don't even like to think about how traumatic his experience must have been, and the fact that it was his own fault only compounds it.

So, I could excuse his ranting for a while. He's projecting, unable to deal with the fact that he effectively killed his wife. She was, I assume, a willing participant, so she shares responsibility for her own death, but unless he's a completely emotionless sociopath, that's probably of little comfort to him. I couldn't hold him fully accountable for everything he says during his grief.

If I had written about it back then, I hope I would have been compassionate about it, but I suspect not, so I chose not to write. I saw a few other articles and editorials about the matter expressing the position that Mr. Blackburn needs to stop blaming others and start into therapy to figure out how he's going to get through this. This one was my favourite.

Now I find myself wondering how far that sympathy should go. Mr. Blackburn has officially filed lawsuits against the people who risked their own safety to come rescue him when he did something stupid. If I were of less generous spirit, I'd note that they may have done well to wait a few more days before hauling his butt out of the snow. Frozen corpses don't hire ambulance-chasing bloodsuckers with law degrees.

These lawsuits had the results you would expect: search-and-rescue organizations, which are operated by volunteers, are shutting down. It seems that people aren't particularly interested in signing up for arduous, exhausting, hazardous, uncompensated duties. Actually, lots of people are interested in that sort of thing, because they care that much about helping others. However, when the others they help turn out to be ungrateful wretches who file lawsuits because their rescuers don't show upon demand like magical genies, the bloom falls from that rose.

Here's the problem with the whole idea of suing volunteers. There's a contractual concept called "consideration". Consideration is a necessary element in any contract. It means what’s in it for each party. Volunteers with search-and-rescue organizations get no consideration for their efforts. As a general rule, without consideration, there is no valid contract. Without contract, there is no (legal) obligation. One can argue moral obligation, but that’s not what this is about.

As an illustration of the distinction between legal and moral obligations, suppose I'm visiting a public pool and notice a child obviously struggling then slipping below the surface. For whatever reason, the lifeguards and / or his adult supervision haven't noticed the situation, and are far enough away that they may not be able to react quickly enough. I'm a strong swimmer, and there are no life preservers or ropes readily at hand, so I should dive in and help him out of the pool. My moral obligation to do so is obvious, although some would probably (and depressingly) argue otherwise. My legal obligation to do so is nonexistent.

A volunteer organization bears no individualized responsibility toward the beneficiaries of its activities. Those beneficiaries have no basis to sue if unsatisfied with any services – free services, remember – that may be rendered. This does not absolve government agencies or businesses, both of which are compensated for their services, or situations where an explicit legal relationship with according rights and responsibilities exists (parent and child being an obvious example). If you're dissatisfied with the free service you receive from an all-volunteer organization, then by all means feel free to decline their services and take care of the situation yourself the next time around.

For Mr. Blackburn, this means that the next time he ignores warnings and takes a family member out into the woods to freeze to death, he shouldn't expect any help from search-and-rescue (assuming he hasn't managed to chase every volunteer out of the search-and-rescue field with his malicious lawsuits). He should feel free to be out there completely on his own. Well, with a companion, until his arrogant actions kill them too.

I hope that once Mr. Blackburn's mental state returns to normal (assuming and hoping that it does), he'll drop these foolish lawsuits, apologize to his rescuers for having spit in their faces, and condemn the opportunistic sharks around him who encouraged (or even failed to warn against) this shameful behaviour. If he's still holding this childish position, continuing to blame others for his own error and failure, even after his grief subsides... well, then, maybe that's the type of person he was all along. More's the pity.

Enough rambling. Here's the left side of what I'm arbitrarily designating bookshelf # 1 in my house. We saw the stuff on top of it last time out. The handprints up the side are my son's. Unlike his handprints all over the walls, windowpanes, and television screens in our house, these ones were made with parental approval.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Trivial Pursuits

Today’s entry is all about a variety of games. Mostly Magic, but not all.

I recently decided that I was spending way too much time playing single-player games, so I decided to cut back. Other than a minor relapse involving Bejeweled 2, I’ve been doing pretty well. I’ve just had a lot on my plate, and wanted to reclaim some time. I’m down to watching only two television shows (The Simpsons and The Office) for similar reasons. I intend to talk about that a bit more some other time.

I haven’t given up, forsaken, sworn off, or otherwise expressed any intention to permanently quit playing single player games. I fully expect that I will resume at some point. For instance, when Diablo 3 comes out. I intend to buy two copies and do most of my playing on Battle.Net with my wife, but I’m sure I’ll squeeze in the odd solo session as well.

There are two upcoming video games that interest me. First up, there's finally a new Magic: The Gathering game, Duels Of The Planeswalkers, being released on June 17. This looks terrific. It has almost everything I want in a Magic game: computer AI to play against (I don't enjoy playing games online against strangers), customizable decks, and a low price point. I've logged far more hours than I care to think playing the old Microprose Magic PC game, and it's still installed in my older PC, because it meets those requirements.

Now the downside. First of all, this game doesn't have nearly enough cards in it. The promotional material says it includes "around 280" cards, many of which can only be unlocked through reaching goals in the single-player game (that part is fine). However, 280 cards is what Magic players call "a nice start". Apparently the cards only go back as far as Invasion block, which to an old-school player like me might as well have been yesterday. Add a zero to the end of that card count and dig further back into the game's history, and you'll have my full attention.

Far more important, though, is the platform. This game has only been announced for the XBox 360. My family doesn't own a console, and if we ever get one (maybe this Christmas, maybe not) it'll be a Wii. A PC version of Duels has been discussed, but apparently those plans are on hold for the time being. In that case, so is any chance of my purchasing this game. If they put it out for PC at a reasonable price point ($20 or under for a retail box, or $10 for a download), I'll give it a shot despite the low number of cards. 280 cards would let me build enough decks to hold my interest for a little while, at least - probably around $20 worth of "while". If they add a zero to the card count, they can double that price and I'll still buy it.

In other Magic news, Wizards have announced some fairly significant rules tweaks. I'm indifferent to some of them (terminology changes, mulligan and token ownership rules), and mildly-to-moderately opposed to others (no mana burn, immediate combat damage, ordering blockers). There are none of them that I can look at and say, "Hey, yeah, that's a good idea!"

I sympathize with their goals of making the game more accessible to new players. I understand that doing so may be essential to the game's long-term survival. The folks at Wizards aren't stupid, either. With very few exceptions (reserved list and power-level-testing-for-Urza's-Saga, I'm looking in your direction...) their tough decisions have been the right ones.

However, my problem with some of these changes is that although they simplify the game, they do so by dumbing it down, removing strategic options that served as opportunities to demonstrate play skill. The elimination of mana burn and the fast effects window during combat damage makes the game easier for new (or less-skilled) players to learn, but the corollary is that more skilled players are effectively penalized. Magic is a game of both chance and skill. Lessening the impact of skill by removing strategic options increases the impact of chance. There comes a point where you might as well just flip a coin at the beginning to determine who wins, and skip all that fussing about with cards. Magic isn't there yet, but this is a toe on the slope.

Sidebar: this utter lack of player input is my problem with many games aimed at children. I can't stand Candyland or any of its myriad clones, or Snakes and Ladders, or any other game where there's absolutely no time where a player can make any decision that affects the game's outcome. I view these games as a necessary evil, a first step toward getting children used to game concepts. Once the kids are used to the boards, dice, tokens, and cards, though, put the mindless games away and move on to anything else that involves at least a little bit of thought. Trouble is a good next step. If you're lucky, your kids will move on quickly. My son, who is in kindergarten, enjoys Battleship, Monopoly, Pass The Pigs, Uno, Disaster, and Heroscape. I'm thinking it's almost time to introduce him to Risk. (I didn't link to them, but pages dedicated to each of those games can be found on Boardgamegeek.) End Sidebar.

The worst of the changes doesn't even make the game simpler. If anything, it has the opposite effect. Under the new rules attacking players "order" blocking creatures when more than one blocker jumps in front of an attacker. The attacking creature's damage is then doled out in order. If there's enough to kill "blocker one", then the rest goes to "blocker two", and so on. Blocker two doesn't take damage unless and until blocker one is dead.

That's apparently supposed to be simpler and more intuitive than "the attacking player chooses how damage gets divided up between blockers." I'm not seeing it. I'm also not seeing how blocking with banding creatures or Furnace of Rath will work. If the Furnace is in play, can I assign half the damage required to kill blocker one, then move on to blocker two, or do I need to assign full lethal damage to each one and let the Furnace overkill them? I hope the Wizards rules team have thought things like this through. Experience tells me they probably have. (They've announced that they'll explain banding under the new system "at a later date", which implies to me that no, they hadn't thought it through.)

I'm well aware that I could simply ignore these rules changes. My Magic playing takes place at my kitchen table, not in sanctioned tournaments. If I didn't specifically tell my wife about these rules changes, she would have no idea they existed. However, that's not the way I like to do it. I like playing by the actual, official rules. I like that if I do happen to go into a game shop and get into a pickup match, we'll all be playing the same game. I've been known to correct people who say that they always play by some house rule that directly contradicts the actual rules - being allowed to play all lands in your opening hand on your first turn is a popular one - by telling them that they aren't playing Magic: The Gathering, but a game of their own that happens to use Magic cards and borrow some of its rules. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but you should understand that you're playing a different game than the rest of the world.

So, my house will be sucking it up and playing by the new rules, effective with our next game (hopefully this weekend). There's no point in putting it off. I'll miss having some of those options, and tune a few decks to account for them (some cards, like Magus of the Vineyard or Power Surge, have been made far worse or completely useless by these changes), but the game goes on.

On to another new video game: The Beatles: Rock Band. As frequently noted on here, I came perilously close to idolizing the Beatles for much of my life. I'm over that adulation, but still a fan. There was a time when I would have scrimped and saved and sold my blood to get my hands on this game. Nowadays, I just think the trailers look cool.

However, as noted earlier, I don't have a console. I like playing games on a machine I can also use to store my MP3 collection, write blog posts, etc. Consoles have enough advantages (primarily simplicity of use) that I may get a Wii someday, but I haven't hit that trigger point yet, and The Beatles: Rock Band isn't going to do it.

There are two major reasons I won't be buying this game anytime in the foreseeable future. The first is the price. A console aficionado friend warned me that it would be expensive. I thought that meant maybe a hundred bucks. Instead, it seems like it's more like $250 to get the game with all the necessary controller hardware. Add in the fact that I'd need to buy the console to run it, and we're talking over $500. Nope, go fish. Simply and absolutely not going to happen.

Second - here comes the heresy to many gamers - I watched the gameplay trailer, and although the graphics and animation are great, I'm just not sure the game looks like any fun to play. I've never tried any of the Rock Band / Guitar Hero games. I've never taken a good look at their controllers, or touched one. However, I just don't think I'd enjoy the gameplay experience. It may stem from the fact that I actually play guitar (albeit far from well). Rather than tapping buttons on a vaguely guitar-shaped bit of plastic, I think I'd get much more satisfaction from sitting down with my guitar and some sheet music and actually learning to play the songs.

Who knows? Maybe if I tried one of these "pretend you can play an instrument" games, I'd be instantly hooked. Maybe I better not try one. I don't want to get sucked in and wind up eager to pay $500 for the experience of pressing coloured buttons in time to Beatles songs.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the top of one of my bookshelves, Hostage Bunny's captors apparently having gone incommunicado for the time being. This particular shelf holds a bunch of old toys.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Return

I had no intention of letting this blog lie fallow for so long. I haven't abandoned it, at least not consciously. Over the past few weeks I've just had a lot on my plate, and frankly all of it took precedence over sitting here typing. Some of it will continue to do so.

I'm bemused to note that my traffic remains pretty consistent whether I post a new entry or not. I'm not sure what to think of that other than "random reinforcement works". I'm pleased, though, that my most popular article of late is one of the serious Bible study entries, Bible Defense: Of Birds And Bats (No Bees). That kind of article is really why I'm doing this. The other entries are fun (frequently more so for me than the reader), but of no real lasting value.

I'm also well aware that my last entry, about the horse being given to the Queen, was subpar. I'm sorely tempted to delete it or completely rewrite it to punch it up. It had some potential, but needed another round or two of polishing. For now, and probably forever, it stands as a testament to what happens when I phone it in.

If I were to re-do it, here are some of the improvements I'd make. There would be a joke about how the Queen was going to get the horse back to England. ("Can you check a horse as baggage? You'd have to do a lot more than just geld it to fit it into the overhead compartment.") The whole "telling the horse about the name change and gelding" section would be revamped ("Umm, Terror.... I have two pieces of bad news."). The reference to events before the horse was gelded would use the term "pre-gelding", which I find inexplicably amusing. And it should have been called "I Hope She Looked In Its Mouth". So, basically, yeah, I'd tear the whole thing down and start over. But onward.

Here's a very short summary of some of what I've been doing over the last few weeks. Some of these may be expanded in future entries. Most probably won't.

I had a job interview, and the new position is looking like a real possibility. I spent a lot of time preparing for it, which seems to have paid off. I passed the initial screening and some tests to get an interview, and after the interview I was asked for some references, which I take as a good sign. That's where it stands now. If I get the job (and accept it, which is a whole other question), I'll be moving, which makes pretty much no difference to this blog. I won't be any more specific about the new job than my current one. That is, it'll just be fodder for occasional True Stories that could take place in any office.

My son had a birthday, with accompanying party. My house grows ever more full of Transformers.

My wife and I are still playing Magic frequently, when she takes a break from reading the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. She's still playing Thallids almost exclusively. I usually play a black and blue bounce / discard deck, including several cards from the new expansion, Alara Reborn (I got six packs while travelling for the job interview). I love the Cascade mechanic. Deny Reality is a key card in the deck. Magic players - click on that link, and try telling me that card isn't ten pounds of fun in a five pound bag. I still rotate through other decks sometimes, too - we have 19 decks ready to shuffle and play at the moment.

My Bible study series has wrapped up. I miss it already, and may revisit it as an adult Sunday School class in the fall. On the other hand, finishing the series frees up my Wednesday nights and the time I was putting into preparation each week. I'm using some of that time to catch up on, ironically, my Bible reading. I follow the Our Daily Bread devotionals, including the "Bible in a year" reading plan, and I've fallen a wee bit behind so far this year. I'm currently on April 21. I'm catching up slowly but surely, by doing a couple of days' worth at a time. Doing more than that gets counterproductive. Trying to cram too much Bible reading at once leads to poor retention and reflection, thereby defeating the entire purpose. The goal is to internalize Scripture, not to check off chapters on a list like I'm collecting hockey cards.

I've been chasing contractors to come look at my house. I'm not quite sure why people who repair houses for a living don't seem to want my money. I have many stories on this topic for other days. A guy is supposed to be here tomorrow morning for an initial meeting about replacing some water-damaged ceiling. We'll see.

I've been sleeping (not quite enough) and eating (a little too much).

All for now. This was going to be a Quick Notes entry, with several short unrelated thoughts about random things, but turned into something a bit different as I typed. Maybe Quick Notes will be next, maybe not. Oh, and I'm fresh out of Hostage Bunny pictures. I think there will be two more. The second one is going to make Bleeding Heart Barbie (which made me laugh out loud - thanks, RebelAngel!) very, very sad. Know what makes me sad? The fact that this blog isn't the top Google result for "Hostage Bunny". Yet.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of my basement. This is after some straightening up.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I Wonder If She Looked In Its Mouth

So the Canadian government gave a horse to the Queen of England. I can't imagine caring. However, a couple of details stand out from the rest of the story. First, the lead sentence:

First he was a star of the RCMP's Musical Ride, and now George, the black gelding from Pakenham, Ont., has joined the Queen's royal stables...
Poor George. Sure, his other accomplishments and honours get mentioned, but the writer can't make it even one sentence without bringing up the fact that his genitals have been removed. Put yourself in his four iron shoes. Wouldn't it be nice to go even a few minutes without some jerk mentioning castration?

Later in the article, we learn that the horse used to be much cooler before another alteration. I'm going to assume there's no correlation between the two changes.
The easygoing black horse with a white patch on his forehead was renamed George, in honour of the Queen's grandfather, King George V. But his previous name, (RCMP Superintendent) Peters said, was Terror - a name chosen by a child in the Mounties' Name That Foal Contest back in 2000.
Once again, try to empathize with the horse. One day your name is Terror. You rule the meadow. You get all the mares you can handle on the basis of your name alone (this, I suppose, assumes the gelding hasn't happened yet). Then one day you're minding your own business, swatting flies with your tail or something, and some guy walks over and says "Oh, yeah, Terror - I almost forgot. Your name is George now."

From "Terror" to "George", just like that. Yeah, you might as well go ahead and have that gelding now.

The horrible cynic in me, which is never far from (in fact, rarely below) the surface, loves that they changed the name of this horse after it was chosen by a young contest winner. Screw you, kid. In fact, the article ends with a choice quote from Superintendent Peters:
"We switched the name obviously from Terror to George," said Peters.
Yeah, obviously. Stupid kid, giving the horse a stupid name like Terror. When he's older, he'll understand that George is a much better name for a police horse.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a failed Hostage Bunny rescue attempt. As you can see, Sgt. Pepper's Howling Commandos were unable to overcome the bunnynappers. (By the way, I'm the terrorists are pretty much out of ideas for torturing Hostage Bunny. I They welcome any suggestions. If and when the ideas run out, the end may draw nigh for our long-eared friend...)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

You Get More Of What You Subsidize

Lobster prices are apparently low in New Brunswick this year. The same may be true in other areas as well; I neither know, nor could be bothered to check, whether that's the case.

For those who enjoy eating lobster and live in an area where the price is down, this is a good thing. For my part, I don't care to eat underwater cockroaches, so this has remarkably little effect on my life. I always wonder two things about the first time a person ate lobster. Number one, how did they get one in the first place? Lobsters are bottom-feeding scavengers. They don't, to my knowledge, occasionally poke their eye-stalks above the surface to look around, or creepy-crawl up onto the beach for some sun.

No, it takes effort, and generally a big specially constructed wooden box, to catch lobster. I like to imagine that someone built one of those big wooden boxes and tossed it into the ocean on spec. "I don't know what'll wind up in there, but I'm eating it!"

Yes, yes. Tidal pools, accidental beachings, etc. Things that belong on the ocean floor wind up on the beach all the time. This doesn't help the case of the first person who ate a lobster they just happened to find. Take a good long look at a lobster. It looks like something that escaped from one of David Cronenberg's nightmares. The correct response of the first person who found one, not knowing what it was, should have been to run as far as they could, then dare their friends to go poke it with a stick.

This brings me to my second question about the first lobster-eating. How freaking hungry was that person? A lobster, even disregarding the possible hygiene and disgust factors of finding one lying on a beach, already dead and decomposing, is not an appetizing sight. A lobster is an aquatic earwig.

Of course, my scenario of that first lobster-finder daring their friends to go look (this, of course, assumes that finder was male) leads to another possibility. The first person to eat lobster may have done so on a dare, or possibly when bribed with the epochal equivalent of a dollar. Remember that kid you knew in elementary school who would eat pretty much anything for a buck? The first person to eat lobster was somebody who grossed him out.

Sidebar: at this very moment, somewhere out there a reader who enjoys lobster is preparing an indignant retort about how delicious it is. Save it. If it doesn't nauseate you, then by all means enjoy. The fact that I see eating lobster as pretty much equivalent to scarfing down insect-infested roadkill means all the more for you. You should be thanking me, really. End sidebar.

I have another issue, besides disgust, with eating lobster. I am neither a vegetarian nor an animal rights activist. I understand that every time I eat meat, I'm eating an animal that was killed for that express purpose, and I'm generally OK with that. However, I think that those animals should be killed in as quick and painless a manner as possible. I have a hard time seeing "dropped alive into a pot of boiling water" as humane.

Anyway, all of that was preamble to what I really intended to write today. My actual topic is the economy of lobster fishing (which should be called "lobster roaching" or something - are lobsters "fish" by any definition?).

The low price of lobster is not so good for lobster fishermen. Having learned something from the business acumen in the banking and automotive industries, lobster fishermen have responded to this downturn by asking for government bailouts:

On Thursday representatives from every wharf in the area met to discuss the issue with the hopes they can organize something to get the attention of the government, (a spokesman) said.

"We're not paid enough even to cover costs and we need help from the government."

(The spokesman) said they are hoping both the federal and provincial governments will step in to help fishermen.

Here's the problem with that line of thinking. This applies to every industry, not just fishing. The government cannot help. Oh, they can throw some money (your money and mine, by the way - the government has no money except what it takes from citizens) at a problem to try to put a band-aid on the bloody stump, but in the long term that does more harm than good. Here's how.

Let's assume there are 1000 lobster fishermen in New Brunswick who can't make any money at it this year due to low prices. I have no idea whether that number is remotely accurate, and don't care since it's only for illustrative purposes.

If the government steps in and hands them each a bag of money not to fish this year, or does anything else that has the same end effect of insulating them from any financial losses (regulating prices, etc.), then how many of them will come back and try to fish lobster again next year? Probably about 1000. Maybe more, since a government bailout means guaranteed profits.

The same problem will then repeat itself next year. And the year after that, and the year after that, ad infinitum. This is not indefinitely sustainable. At some point, an industry has to be allowed to suffer some negative consequences of economic cycles. Even if we ignore the debatable morality of the government stepping in and interfering (I'm not going there today; this is going to wind up long enough already), it destabilizes the market and leads to much larger long-term problems.

Now, consider what happens if the government doesn't interfere. Yes, it'll be a rough summer for some lobster fishermen. However, what would happen to those same 1000 lobster fishermen next year? I'll expect that by then, some of them would have found something more profitable to do. Let's say 10% of them move on to other occupations, go back to school, move to another region, whatever. That leaves 900 trying to fish lobster next year. That means less lobster on the market, which means higher prices, which means maybe the 900 can make a living at it. If not, then maybe only 700 will try the next year. Eventually, and in a shorter time than you'd probably expect, the market will stabilize and the remaining fishermen will be making money.

Sidebar for those who went to public schools in the last thirty years, or who don't see the problem with the bailout mentality: when the government keeps its nose out of things, the price of anything is normally determined by two factors: supply (how much of it is available) and demand (how much of it people want). This is called the free market, and it's a good thing for all kinds of reasons that we don't have time to go into today. Sorry to complicate this - I know those three italicized terms will be completely new and foreign concepts to a lot of people these days. End sidebar.

So if the government stays out of it, despite some tough times in the interim for a relatively few people, things will work out in the end. If the government gets involved, and they probably will, they'll destabilize the market and foster a cycle of dependency. Bailing out an industry to avoid a down market cycle (or even a long-term shift - if cars were just being invented now, governments would be making guarantees to buggy whip manufacturers) may prevent a little pain in the short term, but it causes a lot more in the long term. It's the equivalent of not teaching a child the alphabet, because that's an awful lot to ask of a toddler, to let them struggle through life as an illiterate adult.

And about that whole dependency thing, here's a quote from a spokesman for the fishermen, from later in the same article. He's talking about the possibility of the fishermen only running their boats for a few weeks this year: "How would you then qualify for EI?"

I'm not trying to belittle their situation. I appreciate how hard it is to find work under the best of conditions, and Atlantic Canada in 2009 is far from the best of conditions. However, I just don't see how it's the government's problem, or mine, if somebody can't work long enough this summer to qualify for EI ("employment insurance", which is what Canada calls unemployment benefits to try to put on an Orwellian happy face). Once again, maybe people should be encouraged to move on from an industry where you plan to collect unemployment benefits every year, and look for something more stable and sustainable.

For that matter, the fact that the I in "EI" stands for "insurance" makes the thought occur to me that planning to collect on insurance is normally considered insurance fraud. The law says I can't insure my house then deliberately burn it down, or take out life insurance on someone then kill them, and expect to benefit. Insurance is meant to compensate unforeseen losses. But this, again, is a whole other topic that I'll leave for today.

As a postscript, that newspaper I linked to earlier has a "public opinion" feature in their editorial section. I like to call it the Uninformed Person On The Street feature (I used to call it "Ignoramus On The Street", but decided that was too harsh). It doesn't seem to be in their online edition. Like Jay Leno, they send a reporter out to ask people in the streets what they think about various issues. The problem here is that most people haven't given most issues a moment's thought. This includes me - as I've noted before, I don't know enough about most things to form an opinion, and you can assume that the things I write about are the rare exceptions.

So the odds are that this feature will consist of a lineup of citizens expressing uninformed opinions about situations they don't remotely understand, and offering untenable solutions. Sure enough, that's almost always what you get.

In a recent edition, the reporter asked about this lobster situation. Several apparently random people were asked whether the government should step in to help the fishermen (without defining what that means - obviously, we all understand that it means "give them a pile of money").

Every single one of them said yes, most with emphatic emphasis.

I can only hope against hope that none of those people vote.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of evidence that Hostage Bunny is being mistreated in yet another way: the use of stress positions. You may notice that in every picture his body has been in precisely the same posture, indicating that his fiendish captors are not allowing him to move. Unless he's allowed to stretch occasionally, cramping is inevitable.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Hunger Hurts. Who Knew?

So Mia Farrow has called off her hunger strike. She did this, because - wait for it - apparently not eating can be bad for you.

I can hear the shock in the voices of the Hollywood elite now: "Oh, so that's why all those people die in places where they don't have enough food!"

I recently wrote about the silliness inherent to hunger strikes, which are nothing more than tantrums for supposed adults. I stand by that piece, especially the Blazing Saddles joke.

At least Rosemary (and her acolyte Richard Branson) was throwing her public tantrum for a worthy cause. The situation in Darfur is horrible, and calling the world's attention to it is a good thing. Although I'm not quite sure what most of the world is supposed to actually, you know, do about it. Prayer is always good, and about the only way I can see to personally contribute.

So in a strange roundabout way, I sort of admire Ms. Farrow's accomplishment. She managed to draw some attention to Darfur, which was her stated goal all along. She even managed to get mentioned on at least one blog written by some Canadian dweeb, thereby getting her name in front of upwards of four readers. She did it in a very silly way, but it worked. It reminds me of John Lennon and Yoko Ono saying they were willing to play the world's clowns for peace.

Well played, Hanna (or possibly one of the Sisters - haven't actually seen the movie). Well played. No longer will I think of you only as Woody Allen's girlfriend and / or mother-in-law. Now I also think of you as a canny publicity hound, in addition to being Woody Allen's girlfriend and / or mother-in-law.

But hunger strikes are still a stupid idea.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of Hostage Bunny, taken by an unmanned aerial reconnaissance drone. There are unconfirmed reports that a rescue attempt is in the works, but even if I had details, I wouldn't report them because doing so could compromise the mission. What do you think this is, the New York Times?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Kodak Customer Service Is Good

Way back when, I bought a Kodak Easyshare 5100 printer. It gave me a lot of trouble, but I eventually got it working. These three posts tell that story.

Over the months that I've used this printer, it's proven itself a finicky beast. I've often had to randomly remove and reinsert ink cartridges, cycle the power, run nozzle cleanings (which suck back a lot of ink), and recalibrate to keep it chugging along. I take all of that in stride. I've been a PC user since the days of dot matrix printers that were the size of suitcases, were loud enough to annoy neighbours, and printed at speeds measured in minutes per page rather than pages per minute. I've wrestled with printers for many years, and I expect a certain amount of trouble from them.

That being the case, I shrugged off this printer's quirks. It was hard to get running in the first place, and needs more assistance to perform than Hugh Hefner without Viagra, but I can live with it. The fact that I only print once or twice a month probably doesn't help. (Another Hefner joke could easily be placed here. One could argue the greater comedic potential of either drawing a parallel or a contrast. Discuss.)

However, I hit a whole new problem not long ago. Colour was printing fine, but no black ink was making it to the page. The printer was reporting plenty of ink left in the cartridge, and I even tried a new cartridge, but the printer would only produce occasional faint grey lines where black text should have appeared. Since colour appeared as normal, as a workaround I printed the handouts for my Bible study sessions in red or blue, then photocopied them.

After accepting that this wasn't just another of the printer's quirks that I could talk it out of, I began Googling the problem. I quickly learned from sites like this one that my problem was not unusual, and indicated that the printhead needed to be replaced.

I used the contact form on Kodak's site to report my problem on a Monday morning. I outlined the diagnostic steps I had already taken, and advised them that I thought I was having the same printhead problem that others had reported, with a link to the site above (i.e., "My symptoms are just like this."). I told them my printer was out of warranty because it was over a year old, and asked how I could go about buying a new printhead, since they don't seem to offer that part for separate purchase.

I got an automated reply within a couple of minutes. More impressively, I got an actual human reply about four hours later, saying that if I would send them some info (my name, address, and "Kodak service number" from a sticker inside the printer), they would send me a new printhead free of charge, no further questions asked. I replied, and after one more quick and polite exchange because in my infallibility I forgot to include the Kodak service number, they said the printhead would be shipped out ASAP. I got that message just after midnight on Tuesday morning, less than 24 hours after my initial inquiry.

They said it would probably take 3 to 8 business days; it arrived Thursday morning, less than 72 hours after I first contacted them. It was very easy to swap out the old printhead and put in the new one, and in case it hadn't been, they included both written instructions and a link to a section of their website that explains the process in so-clear-Grandma-could-do-it detail with lots of pictures.

Their service is a lot faster than mine. It finally occurred to me over a week later to let them know that I got the part, it worked (more on that in a moment), and I was impressed with their service. I got another human reply early the next morning, thanking me for letting them know how it turned out.

There's lots of good news here. My printer works again, although it's still as temperamental as ever. Whenever I use it now, it gives constant warnings that my black ink is below 30%, even though I just replaced the cartridge. This has trained me to deal with that warning just like I deal with the Check Engine light that's always on in my car: by ignoring it.

I wanted to write this up for the same reason that I sent that last "attaboy" e-mail to Kodak: their service was superb, and I think it deserves recognition. They were amazingly fast, and each of the reps I dealt with was polite, friendly, and knowledgeable. They never questioned my need for the part (although, having been a tech, I spelled out what I had already tried pretty thoroughly in my initial description), they didn't give me any red tape, and they offered me the part freely despite my explicit inquiry about buying one. I couldn't be more satisfied with the service I received.

Kodak met my definition of good customer service perfectly with this incident. I don't define customer service as never having a problem with a product or service. Every company in the world is run by human beings, and every one of them makes mistakes. Every assembly line produces an occasional lemon. Customer service is measured by how well a problem is handled once brought to the company's attention. By that standard, Kodak gets a perfect score from me.

Incidentally, one of the forms included with the printhead was a packing sheet showing its retail price: $70. At that price I wouldn't have purchased one, since that's rather close to what the printer cost brand new. This is why Kodak can sell their ink so inexpensively. Many printer models have the printhead component attached to the ink cartridge. When you replace the ink, you're also replacing the printhead. That increases the cost of the cartridge dramatically, but has the side benefit of preventing some printhead-related problems.

However, I'm not here solely to praise Kodak. Their customer service is phenomenal, but the actual product is mediocre at best. As you can see from this article and the other ones I've written about this printer, it's been quite a headache at times. If you aren't willing to nurse a printer to get it working and don't get your onsite tech support for free, then I can't recommend an Easyshare 5100, despite their low cost of ownership. I've also never - not once - printed a photo that looked nearly as good as a professionally produced print. On the rare occasions that I want prints, I still take a jump drive to a kiosk and pay a quarter each.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of Hostage Bunny surrounded by his captors. Note the rare glimpse of evil mastermind Shirtless Dr. Zaius, who could also use a belt.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Insert Your Own 'Snow' Joke Here

A Canadian snowboarder has been busted for trafficking cocaine. Allegedly, of course.

Ryan Wedding was a hopeful for the 2010 Olympics -- a promising snowboarder who placed 24th in his first Games in Salt Lake City in 2002.

But now things have gone downhill for the former Olympian, who's in a California prison awaiting trial for cocaine trafficking after two Vancouver co-accused pleaded guilty to their role in the massive smuggling ring.

[snip-a-dee-doo-da, snip-a-dee-ay]

Wedding, 27, is fighting to have the case against him dismissed because of "outrageous conduct" by the American government, which he alleges used a violent former KGB agent as an undercover operative.
I suggest a new entry in the record books, in the category of World's Easiest Job: prosecutor in a drug case against a professional snowboarder. The Crown's opening statement, exhibits A through Q-17, and closing argument should all be the fact that this guy is a 27-year-old snowboarder. The only way your case could be any stronger is if he drove around solving mysteries with a Great Dane.

No, not all snowboarders are druggies. That's an unfair generalization. Not all Magic: The Gathering players are huge nerds who live in their parents' basements, either. Just look at me. I'm hardly ever in my parents' basement these days. I pretty much only go down there to fix their computer.

Waitwaitwait. Something else from this story just filtered all the way into my brain: snowboarding is an Olympic event now?

If snowboarding gets a thumbs up from the Olympic committee, why not Ultimate Frisbee, or Synchronized Hacky Sack? How about Following Phish Around In A Van Full Of (Other) Smelly Hippies? (That last joke was originally going to name-check the Grateful Dead, but that's a bit dated now. On the other hand, many Deadheads remain blissfully unaware that Garcia is gone; they just occasionally notice that these days it's a little quieter in the parking lots where they live.)

Finally, I love that this guy wants his charges tossed on the grounds of "outrageous conduct". I'm pretty sure that's not a technical legal term, and judges generally like to hear terminology that actually means something before they'll throw out a case. However, his original motion to dismiss on the grounds of "total bogosity" was denied, a fact which is in itself totally bogus.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of Hostage Bunny being waterboarded. I'd like to point out that this surveillance footage was obtained by our double-secret operatives before TB's reference to "apple-boarding" a couple of entries back. Many toy Bothans died to bring us this information.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Quick Notes

It seems like everything I've written on here of late has been epic-length, which contributed to the dearth of entries for April. Time to shake that pattern. Some of these will be jokes, some will be a bit more serious, some will be pure self-indulgent diary entries. Onward.

My wife and I are playing a lot of Magic again lately. Our current deck count stands at 20 decks built and ready to shuffle and play. Several of them are untuned beyond all the mana bases having been checked to make sure all the cards are playable, but they're all ready to go in a pinch. And that's after I tore two decks apart over the last week ("Odyssey & Grab Bag Green" and "Odyssey & Grab Bag Black"). Since my wife almost always plays the same deck (Thallids), I rotate frequently between all the others.

She's dividing her spare time between that and reading the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. Since she won't be writing any Reading Log entries, that's probably the last you'll hear of them around here.

I was looking through a German cookbook, and I noticed that every recipe starts the same way. "Step 1: round up all the kosher foods you can find and stuff them in the oven."

My son is a creature of habit, to put it mildly. I call him obsessive-compulsive, although the more accurate technical term is "rigid". Here's a list of his current fixations.

Breakfast - a waffle. He went through a phase of eating nothing but (toaster) French toast for breakfast for months, and before that it was oatmeal. The waffle must be plain. Don't dare offer him a chocolate chip waffle, and blueberry is right out.

Lunch - A cheese sandwich, non-grilled. He insisted on a grilled cheese sandwich for a long time before that, and a Fluffernutter (peanut butter and viscous marshmallow goop sandwich) for weeks on end before that.

TV - Teletoon Retro is now the only channel that matters. I agree with him wholeheartedly. He's arrived at some insights about Looney Tunes that probably deserve their own entry.

Current play fixations - 3-D jigsaw puzzles, Transformers, and online Flash games. As I write this, he's a few feet away playing something called "Twang".

My walk to work takes me along a set of railroad tracks that run parallel to the road. Recently I noticed some odd litter along those tracks. Hundreds of unopened bright yellow artificial sweetener packages were scattered all over the ground, for about fifty feet. Then, in the middle of that, a single, opened, presumably empty Viagra box.

What sort of party went on down there?

Actually overheard at work: "I have to try that new exercise equipment at the gym. I don't know what it is or how it works, but Madonna uses it."

Those two sentences encapsulate much of what is wrong with our society.

That lady is in for a surprise when she arrives at the gym to find that this "exercise equipment" is a pair of Dominican baseball players.

When I was very young, my family moved and were assigned a new phone number that used to belong to a dentist who had long since retired or moved away or died or something. We would occasionally get calls from people who didn't know this, and my parents (I was too young to answer the phone) would politely explain that this number was no longer the long-closed dentist's office.

Most callers understood that, but there was one guy who was persistent. He kept calling, over and over, trying to book an appointment. My parents would explain that this number now belonged to a young family in a tiny second-floor apartment, but this guy just wouldn't get it.

Finally one day when he called, Dad said, "You're in luck! We just had a cancellation. If you can be here in fifteen minutes, we'll get you right in!" The guy was thrilled, and said he'd be right over.

He never called again.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of Hostage Bunny being menaced by a guard Hey Bulldog.