September 30, 2005

Other: Well... Maybe Not Everything

Having just read Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good For You, I was quite impressed by his arguement that not only are popular entertainments becoming more sophisticated, but they are actually improving the minds of the general population. At least in the one respect of maintaining complex thought for an extended period of time.

Movies like Momento, for instance, would likely never have found an audience outside of art house theatre, never mind making $50 million. And that's a good thing: the intricate plot demands attention, leading to more cognition than a straight forward shoot-'em-up or simple romance. Comparing plots between Dragnet, Starsky and Hutch, and 24 revealy not only hightened complexity, but also extended plotlines and character development far beyond a single episode. Even the comedies that are out have "hidden" depths that reward multiple viewings: greater knowledge of the story or the references to the world at large reward the viewer with a laugh and the little thrill of getting the joke that others might miss.

The greatest part of what's driven this quality is simple: VCRs and DVDs. A series can appear on any television network, and if the quality is there, then there is a chance for home sales: just ask UPN, or HBO, or Fox, or...

Even (or especially) computer games have become more sophisticated. They are the real reason processing power has escalated to the degree it has. Yes, the military has had a great influence, but profit margin had had more so. I bought a new computer specifically to be able to play Myst, and I'm not the only one. If computer games are directed at violent, atrophying brains, why is one of the biggest sellers of all time based on urban management? Is there anything more boring than fiscal responsibility?

That being said...

The only important question regarding the new DOOM movie is: Does the main character get to use a chainsaw?

I've got a special place in my heart for DOOM. It wasn't the original FPS (First Person Shooter), that was Castle Wolfenstien. But it was so much better! The enviroment was more detailed than anything we'd seen to that point, the perspective was more realistic, the layered sounds were subtle and accurate, the shadows were... well... there (which was a new thing).

Plus, there was (heh heh) a chainsaw!

But there was more than that: the code was released, so anyone could make more levels to the game, or apply modifications so that the demons became giant Barney the Dinosaurs, singing that hideous, twisted song. Or you were in the Star Wars universe. Or used the sound clips from the movie Evil Dead, parts one, two or three. Players became creators or judges of the work of others, and the variety became endless. There are hundreds of sites around the world dedicated to this game, and it's still fun to play, though more for the creativity of the modfiers than the actual gameplay at this point. After all, they still hadn't figured out how to look up or down yet.

But the movie looks like it was done right: without using the gimmick of "3-D", they are going with the first-person perspective, just like the game. This is good: it's a case of admitting that the audience can take care of the immersive nature of the film themselves, thank you very much. After all, their target audience has been doing exactly that with their games for decades now, but never with a screen that could be measured in meters.

I'm going to go see this movie. Will it be any good? Sure, it could be, but it's all about perspective: like Jurassic Park, this is going to be a ride, not a film. They might have screwed it up, but I'm willing to give them the benifit of the doubt (and ten bucks). There's a big, devoted fan base out there wanting them to get it right, so I hope they've been paying attention to it.

For me, it will all come down to the chainsaw.


I have been rewarded for my faith - there is, indeed, a chainsaw.



posted by Thursday at 10:51 am 0 comments

September 29, 2005

Religion: One Kind of Lie

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."
-Mark Twain

Statistics are funny things: we’ve had them with us for centuries, but they’ve really only entered the public discourse with the inspiration of Madison Avenue (“4 out of 5 dentists recommend…”). Everybody hears about them, but no one does anything about them. We know that they can be manipulated, leading to one of Mr. Twain’s famous quotes, but we’re not too sure how. Plus, if they favour our point of view, then hey, it must be good!

Some of the ways to skew statistical findings:

1) Claim turf. Recently seen in the gay marriage debate in Canada, where almost all of the surveys are split one-third opposed, one third in favour, and (this being Canada) one third in favour of a compromise, allowing gays civil unions, but not calling it marriage.

Damn, I love this country.

Anyhow, as a result, you see social conservatives claiming 66% of the nation opposed gay marriage, and social liberals claiming the same number favour it, leaving those in the middle saying “Um, wait… that’s not what I said…”

2) Harvesting. The approval ratings of George W. Bush have seen the most use of this lately. Most opinion polls have three to five options, like so: “Bad”, “Mediocre”, “Average”, “Okay”, “Good”. For the sake of ease, let’s say they each get exactly 20% of the ratings in a freakish result. Those who like President George would say: “Only 20% of people think George is doing a bad job!” While it’s a true statement, it doesn’t reveal that only 20% think he’s doing a good one…

3) Leaning or tilting. This involves manipulating the question before it even gets asked, for instance: “Do you favour the government using the military to enforce smoking bans in privately owned homes and/or businesses?” Perhaps unsurprisingly, you’d soon see that in a survey (conducted by Phillip Morris) more than 95% of respondents opposed smoking bans in “restaurants and other businesses”.

4) Marketing. This is asking only a specific group of people that are more likely to give the result you want. A survey of teachers will show a very strong support for education spending, but if you only asked teachers, you’d come under fire for being too obvious. But if you were to conduct the same survey, say at 8:30 AM outside the building where the teacher’s union is meeting to discuss a strike vote starting at nine…

5) Apples to oranges. Ignoring an underlying trait in the sample group that makes comparisons meaningless. Comparing the ability of the population to speak french in France and Bolivia, for instance.

6) Causality. This is as much a logic problem as a statistical one, where a conclusion is drawn that may have nothing to do with the information gathered. Noting a lower cancer rate in China compared to America, and concluding that the Chinese are genetically superior to Americans, for instance. This ignores diet, exercise, accessability to carcinogens and the notorious underreporting of any bad news by the communist government of China.

So why is this under the heading of “Religion”? Because of this study, released by Gregory Paul in the Journal of Religion and Society, which states, in part:

“In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies. “The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.”

You’d think I’d be happy that someone reached the same conclusion I have, but this time without just observation: this time there’s a report that has hard statistics behind it.

Which is why I hesitate to brag.

Apparently, his method was reasonably sound, being a straightforward collecting of social indicator statistics already known, without asking new questions or gathering opinion: well and good, but I want to see why he reached the opinion he did regarding causality (sure it was religion?) and his methodology (are the comparisons between countries legitimate?) before I accept his conclusion.

In the meantime, though: told you so.


posted by Thursday at 11:08 am 0 comments

September 28, 2005

Politics: Practical Lessons

So Paul Coffin, the first person to be convicted (on 18 counts of fraud) in the sponsorship scandal that has been the raison d'etre for the Gomery inquiry, has started serving his sentence: two years of speaking engagements.

Let's see: steal $1.5 million by overbilling, pay back $1 million, talk to students a few times over the next 24 months.

About ethics.

Wouldn't you want to be paid $250,000 a year for a bit of public speaking? And it's not like this guy is famous for any reason other than his conviction: we're not talking about George Will, here. What I still can't get over how astoundingly stupid the criminals were: if you're paid hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to do a job, then do the fucking job! You'll still make a load of cash, your business will grow, and while folks may complain about government spending (as always), at least you didn't do anything illegal. Keeping the money yourself is just dumb, dumb, dumb. That's a subject Coffin could lecture on.

Of course, you can certainly tell that some of the criticism is coming from economic students rather than English majors:

"I'm really disgusted by justice in this country. The fact that more Canadians aren't disgusted is disgusting me."

Don't get me wrong: I want to see those folks responsible serve jail time and be fined accordingly. I'd rather he pay back all the money, instead of just most of it, and I want the lecture tour (for a reasonable fee) to come after he's been removed from society a little while, say two years less a day. But in my day-to-day life, this really isn't that big an issue for me. Yes, a lot of money was spent, and pretty badly, but it's not a whole lot when compared to, say, the cost of the mad cow scare to Alberta ranchers, or the softwood wars to B.C.'s logging industry, or the disasterous salmon run in the West and the depletion of fisheries in the East, or the cost of maintaining troops in Afghanistan.

So go get 'em, guys: jail the criminals responsible, hold them accountable, and use them as examples of wrong doing. But don't expect me to decide that this is the most important issue in my life, okay?


posted by Thursday at 11:40 am 0 comments

September 27, 2005

Other: Ban This Book...?

In honour of "Banned Book Week", I would like to provide two seperate links:

The American Library Association's 100 most frequently challenged books from 1990 - 2000, featuring such standards as Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World, Harry Potter, Where's Waldo, and James and the Giant Peach;


Human Events' list of the ten "Most Harmful Books" of the past two hundred years, with ten honourable mentions, featuring Quoataions of Chairman Mao, The Communist Manifesto, The Feminine Mistique, Democracy and Education, Madness and Civilization, and On Liberty.

I do always find it interesting to see what people fear. I could say "hate", but mostly it's fear that drives people to try banning ideas (like Communism) or images (like the nudity in Maurice Sendak's Night Kitchen).

Now, we had a friend sleep over last night, and she hates spiders, and asked me to get rid of one. Thing is, you can hate them all you want, but banning them from the house isn't going to do much: this is the season for them, the wife and I like them being around (what with her being a gardener and all), and they can't read eviction notices worth a damn. And pretending spiders don't exist is just plain stupid when you've got webs on your porch light and a Boris that climbed the drain into your bathtub.

Learning about them makes sense to me - chasing them outside, even squishing them if you insist, but jumping on a chair, pointing and shreiking "Evil! EEEE-vil!" is a little much, don't you think?


posted by Thursday at 8:22 pm 0 comments

September 26, 2005

Motorcycles: Etymology

TAR SNAKE (n): A repair of cracking on a paved road that involves pouring tar onto the cracks, sealing them. Very slippery until they have been aged, usually about a week.

In trying to sell my bike, and having no joy from newspapers (I live in a slightly out-of-the-way location), I finally decided to sell it in a shop, giving up a commission. The owner took Clover out for a test ride and got about 20 meters before hitting a tar snake and dropping her.


Ah, well. I guess I'll just have to sell bits of my body so I can afford this beastie, eh? Coming out next year...


posted by Thursday at 9:49 am 0 comments

September 25, 2005

Other: These Belgians are CRAZY!

My french is atrocious.

I know, I know: as hard as it is to believe that an Anglo kid from the West Coast of Canada doesn't speak it fluently, it is true. Even is school, after taking French for the mandatory (at the time) ten years, the highest mark I ever received in any term was 49.5%. The lowest, and much closer to the mean, was 9%.

But I do have good memories associated with the language, even if my aptitude was miserable: Asterix and Obelix. The brilliant, simple drawings were enough to let me follow the story, and knowing the propensity for puns the writers had, you could start to pick up some of the slang terms that people actually used. Knowing a little latin helps, too.

A new comic is being released next month, the 33rd of the series. And here is where I start humming "If I were a rich man..."


posted by Thursday at 9:43 am 0 comments

September 24, 2005

Science: Mandatory Viewing

One of the great broadcasts in the world of science is returning to television, updated, remastered and looking good!

Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, is showing Tuesday, September 27th at 9PM. It is a series that is 25 years old, so science has advanced beyond this show, but it is still well worth watching. (If you want an excellent contemporary work on astronomy, I suggest John Gribbin's "The Birth of Time".)

Ever wonder how stars form? What a pulsar is? What life on other worlds might be like? What fills the universe?

One of my favorite aspects of Sagan is his clear sense of wonder, and his eagerness to share that with everyone he spoke to. He was a very gentle man to those he disagreed with, and even the most deluded of cranks could get a fair hearing from him. His "Dragon in the Garage" arguement from Demon Haunted World is one of the defining standards of rationality.

Find the show on your local stations, record it if you can, and enjoy.


posted by Thursday at 11:36 pm 0 comments

Religion: Pride

Last Friday, President Bush had declared a “National Day of Prayer”. This was immediately followed on Saturday by the “National Day of How the Fuck Did That Help?”

Seriously, was there any change at all on Friday? I suppose some are going to claim at least a moral victory (ha!) for Rita downgrading to a category 3 later in the week. This is probably just as well, as when Rita briefly reached category five, Katrina was said to have gone to her trailer to "drink crantinis until I'm blind... that BITCH!" Battling divas are such a pain on-set, you know?

Anyhow, the question remains as to whether the collective prayers actually did a damn thing to help people that had been devastated by Katrina. There is an appropriate saying here, and it comes from (of all places) Communist Russia: Pray to God, fine; but keep rowing to shore.

For those who do claim that God listened to them, one could ask why He would now, when He didn’t four weeks back, because you can be damn sure there was some ferocious prayers being given up both before and during the hurricane. Well, modesty forbids them from saying it out loud, but apparently, only prayers from the truly devout count. You know, real Christians/Jews/Muslims/Hindus/Wiccans/Scientologists/Flying Spaghetti Monsterists.

There have been various and sundry reasons given by the religious for the assault on the United States by hurricanes this season, ranging from “because of gays” to “because of abortion” to “because of hot, hot horse-on-man sodomy in Washington State”. None of these folks seem to be very bothered by the appearance of very bad aim by their omnipotent buddy, having misses completely those regions in the United States which have the most relaxed social laws. You’d think earthquakes would be all the rage just now in the West, and the hurricanes would be climbing much farther up the coast in the East, but hey, God works in mysterious ways, right?

Now, I’ve been accused by the religious of having excessive pride often enough, and I still can’t quite figure out why. Demanding proof that there is not only a creator is considered hubris, whereas believing that we are regarded as so fantastically special that He/She/They/It in fact created the entire universe just for us, is considered humility.

Am I the only person that finds this just a little backwards? If I ever want to feel humbled, I can walk by the river near my home, seeing where it cut its way through massive amounts of stone; stone that has buckled and heaved into giant mountains, showing its striations in the valley sides. Even getting to the river, I walk through the rainforest and am forced to consider the incredible variety of life around me, and how it all works together, in symbiosis or opposition, in this tiny portion of the world. It was here before I showed up, and it will be here after I leave, always in a state of change, incorporating me as part of that life, reacting to my presence even as I walk in the midst of it.

Anyone that can stand in a rainforest and somehow choose to believe that it’s all there because of them has arrogance in spades.

There is the other side of the religious fervour coin, too: those who see it as their duty to abase themselves before God, to beg favours or forgiveness of Him. Even if you do believe He granted you life, it’s not like you were asked before it happened. Hell, a whole lot of us think so little of this “gift from God” that we end up giving it back, or (more frequently) taking it away from others.


Someone knocks on your door and hands you a set of golf clubs, then stands there mute, not saying a word. What do you do? Well, if you golf, you say “Hey, thanks!” and invite him in for coffee or something. He just stands there, so you end up thanking him again closing the door. If you don’t golf but know someone who does, then perhaps you smile and nod and politely thank them, then you two stare at each other for a while until you (eventually) close the door. If you hate golf, or simply don’t care about it one way or another, you may try refusing the gift that is being shoved into your hands. Whatever the result, you surely can’t be expected to thank this strange person who’s still standing on your lawn days, months and years later, can you? And I can’t imagine listening to him if he started doling out advice on how I should play golf as I was trying to go to work.

So, no, I’m not interested in worshipping any deity, or deities, or saviour or what have you. I’m busy looking at what’s around me, at what my species is and what it does and how it thrives as a part of this world. Considering why we exist is a fine little entertainment, but it’s nothing when compared to the fact that we exist.

Isaac Asimov from one of his 1984 essays:

So there you are. I stand four-square for reason, and object to what seems to me to be irrationality, whatever the source. If you are on my side in this, I must warn you that the army of the night has the advantage of overwhelming numbers, and, by its very nature, is immune to reason, so that it is entirely unlikely that you and I can win out. We will always remain a tiny and probably hopeless minority, but let us never tire of presenting our view, and of fighting the good fight for the right.


Apologies for the long absence: I'm fighting a running battle with my computer right now, and losing. It's randomly rebooting on me, and I don't want to compose a piece online only to lose it after an hour of writing, so no links for the longer pieces until next month.


posted by Thursday at 11:31 pm 0 comments

September 10, 2005

Politics: George's End?

One problem with criticizing president Bush is that it's so samn easy. His white house has been a veritable orgy of nepotism, cronyism, incompetence, and sociopathy. But worse than that, there's a whole lot of competition about, most of it professionals.

So I'm going to have one more little snark about the Hurricane Katrina response (which has involved, astoundingly, all the above) and leave it at that:

How could Bush announce aid to tsunami relief (to the tune of $15 million) so quickly, yet delay before announcing relief for Americans from the Southeast?
Well, what did you expect? The Americans were darker.

So, that'll be enough "beating on hte bush" for now... Until he does his next massive blunder that's too big to ignore.

I figure two weeks, three tops.


posted by Thursday at 9:47 pm 0 comments

September 09, 2005

Other: Novel as Game Show

Well, I think I can look at a keyboard again without having my fingers convulse...

Writing a complete (if short) novel from Friday midnight to Monday midnight is a strange, strange experience. Make plans next year to do it again, starting right now: it's worth it. This is my fifth year, and there's certain patterns I've noticed:

Day One: Far more thinking that actual writing, but it's the most frustrating time to be inturrupted. You're working out your plot, and still have to decide if it's going to be that or character that gets priority. Focus is good, your plan of attack is ready.

A CSI Marathon is on right now? CSI is a really good show. I think Grissom is my favorite character on television right now...

I think that the only writing that shoult get done after midnight Friday should be a title page and perhaps the first couple pages, and that's it. No shit: it gives you a place to start the next morning, you get some sleep, and you skip some of the hallucinations. After about twenty-two or -three hours without sleep, if it's the middle of the night, I start hearing things. I start seeing things in shadows at about 30 hours, but they go away when it's light again.

Day Two: There's some time to reflect on what you're doing, and some of the caffine twiches starts today. If you have a loving Signifigant Other who has prepared food for you, you should still be reasonably healthy, so long as they don't expect to see you at a table to eat it. Other inhabitants of the house walk on tip-toe: you won't notice until you take one's head off for letting a heel touch down, making some kind of recognisable noise.

Jesus H. Christ on a popsicle stick! Would you look at what's happening in Louisiana?

It's entirely possoble that the book stops working. Completely. It just flat-out stops, and there's nothing you can do about it. So you kill the main character, add another, create a shocking revelation: we're not talking about a good book at this point, just a finished book. Some turn to philosophy, in desperate hopes of creating a South American surrealist style tract. It's about the best you could hope for, really.

Day Three: Oops. There's all of one day left. You think you might be half way through, and the clock is ticking. You start walking tight little circles around your chair, bacause you've been banned from the rest of the house. Your eyeballs are burning, your wrists sound like bubble wrap, and you're not sure how long that plate of food has been there. Perhaps some single malt "Hemmingway Inspiration" will get you over the hump? Spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and rambling senentces fill the page. Fuck it, need a break.

Hey, right: the Labour Day Classic is on. Both of them. Ahh... What? Six hours?

Okay, no need to panic. Proofread tomorrow, write now. Finish by 10:30, do a quick re-read to make sure that you can explain why everyone's suddenly happy/sad/dead/alive again, then crash out at the stroke of twelve.

Funny thing: you'll be so buzzed that you won't be able to sleep until three or four AM, and you'll be a little spinny for the rest of the week. Next year, try to get at least Tuesday off, too.

Everyone has got to try this. You know you want to...


posted by Thursday at 10:28 am 3 comments

September 02, 2005

Other: Bad Craziness

To steal from Gazeteers Friday Night Hunter Thompson theme, starting tonight at the stroke of twelve I'm beginning this years Three Day Novel.

Those who believe, pray for me.


posted by Thursday at 5:13 pm 2 comments

September 01, 2005

Other: Quick Conversion

New addition: From Fox News, of all things. Need a sense of the desperation here? Hannity and Colmes, with Riveara and Smith reporting (be patient - it's going to take a while to load). Hannitys best effort at positive spin doesn't impress, well, anyone.

Okay, I can't sleep so I'll say one thing about some of the looting in N.O. and those other regions worst hit by the storm: I'm actually okay with the looting of grocery stores in energenct conditions. Some of these people aren't going to be reached for days, and there is no clean water coming out of taps right now, nor has there been for four days now. Food and drink are needed NOW, not "when the bank machine comes back online". Likewise basic survival stuff like bleach and medical supplies.

Depending on where you live, guns and ammunition may be just as needed.


posted by Thursday at 10:26 pm 0 comments

Other: Off We Go!

Everything in my household seems to be back in working order for now (mostly - the wife is going to need a little longer). So, with all the things in the world, let's start with the biggest:

New Oleans has never been what one might call a "refined" city - sophisticated, yes; civilized, yes, but in a very mean way. Throughout it's history, the Big Easy has been a legendary haven for smugglers, thieves and whores. Decadence and passion have always been simmering low on the streets, just below roof height, languidly stirred by the movements of passerby. It's a primordial swamp of human interaction, a cauldron that stirs itself. Life is thick and rough there, and always has been.

Without walls, a zoo becomes a jungle. The walls fell five days ago.

With much of the National Guard ("One Weekend A Month, My Ass!") training to be in Afghanastan and Iraq meaning it will take 3 days for 30,000 guardsmen to arrive, money cut from regional services to help fund the war in Iraq (and tax cuts), the president of the United States playing golf and guitar during this astounding disaster then giving a dead-eyed, emotionless reading to a prepared speech (and yes, he ends it with "God Bless You"), the head of FEMA (Federal Emergncy Management Agency) blaming those who can't afford cars for not leaving their homes, and RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman vitally concerned with estate taxes, will there be any questions about the state of emergency preparedness in the United States?

Michelle Malkin has one: What is taking so long for the professionals to get it together and help these people? The down side, of course, is that she was talking about celebrities doing this, not actual government agents. She sometimes gets it right, but of late she has been an unmitigated cunt. Don't like that word? Tough. It fits.

Here's a better one: why did president Bush refuse help from Russia? Canada is also ready with military teams and DART to provide aid the instant it's asked for, and we've conducted an invetory of medical supplies to send, but why the delay? The police have been overwhelmed: riots have broken out in at least two prisons; looting is rampant; violence and rapes have happened inside the Superdome where people originally went for shelter; hospitals are getting looted and coming under sniper fire; gangs are literally roaming the streets... Martial law was declared days ago, but without the ability to enforce that law, it's meaningless.

One from Tim Naftali over at Slate: after the 9/11 attacks, shouldn't there be far better response time to sudden disasters by now? The levees that broke were considered prime potential targets for terrorist strikes, so why was no one ready for this possibility? And terrorists wouldn't have warned people on the Weather Channel first. For a chilling read, check out their just-started (August 20th is the first entry) Weblog and read it in chronological order, if you can stomach it. Or this article written in June about New Orleans' vulnerability to flooding ("New Orleans could no longer exist.").

Parting shot goes to Anderson Cooper, talking to Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu after he's spent four days in the region. This man is pissed, and isn't taking platitudes well.

Almost three thousand miles away, I'm going to see if I can sleep.


posted by Thursday at 7:54 pm 0 comments