ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms
News11 Sep 2011

Ten years ago this morning I sat down in Ethics class next to an American friend and asked, “What happens now?”

“Bush goes ape,” he said.

I remember that’s what I was afraid of that morning. Not the attacks themselves, but what the attacks might make us do. Sitting far away in a small Canadian town gave me the luxury of this less immediate fear, and I know that it was a luxury many people didn’t have. But it was on my mind that day, and I think that ten years on, “What did the attacks make us do?” is the most useful question to be asking, because it’s the only thing we have any control over. We can’t change what happened, we can’t prevent extremists from plotting against us, but we can control our response.

Bush turned out to be more calculating than reactionary, and we have come through better than I feared we might that morning, but much of what was done in response to terrorism in the last decade was not graceful or just. And as I read that our government is going to re-introduce the PATRIOT act-style police powers that we rolled back in 2007, I am reminded that September 11th is still making us do things that aren’t graceful or just, ten years later.

Our Prime-Minister-non-elect Michael Ignatieff had a pretty good take on the last decade in the Globe and Mail the other day.

Musings09 Jun 2011

So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand.

Some commentary on the present state of media literacy from Thucydides, the Athenian who wrote the eye-witness account of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC).

News is what people want to keep hidden. Everything else is publicity.

Some commentary on the present state of journalism from Bill Moyers on John Stewart’s show last week (June 1).

Musings01 May 2011

The media wobbles form poll result to poll result; the political parties focus on the coming election at the cost of everything else. It is left to us, the citizens, to look beyond the short term. When you vote tomorrow, think about the future. If the Conservatives hold on to power, there will be implications for our democracy and our prosperity that go beyond however long the next government lasts.

On Democracy

Stephen Harper is the least democratic Prime Minister that I can remember. He’s centralized the government’s messaging in his own office. He doesn’t like to talk to the media, and when he does, he often says things with only the smallest kernel of truth inside. He doesn’t like to confront those who might disagree with him, something that, as the leader of a democracy, is his duty. He prefers optics to substance, appearance to reality. And when he says things like “If you don’t win the most seats, you don’t get to form the government,” (during the leader’s debate no less), a statement that is emphatically not true in our parliamentary system (see: his own attempt to replace Paul Martin’s Liberals with a coalition in 2004) he shows that he a) doesn’t think the voters have paid much attention to his actions in the past, and b) doesn’t mind telling an outright lie about something as fundamental as our constitution in the service of winning this election.

In other words, he cultivates the ignorance of the voter, not the voter’s knowledge, and in a system where well-informed voters are the key to achieving good government, there’s nothing more dangerous than that.

I know he’s in this to win, and I’m not so naive as to think that the other party leaders aren’t trying to win too, but the Conservatives are the worst perpetrators of this any-means-necessary approach. Whenever this politics of noise over substance arises, it must be vigorously opposed. We ignore it at our peril (see: our neighbours to the south and the current nonsense about Obama’s birth certificate as just one example of the politics of noise run amok). Sometimes the only thing we can do as voters is keep our politicians honest. If we reward antidemocratic tactics with a majority government, what kind of message does that send, not only to Harper, but to every party leader in every future election?

On Prosperity

Stephen Harper says he’s the best to shepherd our economy out of the current economic troubles. I’m not sure that claim is true, but even if it is, it’s still an incredibly short-sighted thing to be concerned about. The biggest threats to our continued prosperity are environmental damage and climate change. Harper’s record on tacking this is worse than bad: he’s been actively counterproductive. He’s managed to take climate change out of our daily conversation, and he’s turned us into a laughing stock overseas.

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment-to-moment performance of our economy, but in ten years, or twenty, is anyone going to care about how our economy was doing in 2011? When you vote, ask yourself this: Will my grandkids look back and say “I’m so glad Canada got out of the global recession of 2008-2009 a little bit faster than everyone else”? Or will they say, “Why didn’t Canada do something about climate change back when they had a chance?”*

A Harper majority will mean at least another four years of painting the house while it slowly burns down.

So Vote, and Not for a Conservative

There are three good alternatives to Harper’s Conservative party. Please vote for the one that you think will do the best for Canada. This is not an election where you can safely stay at home: a Conservative majority is definitely possible. Vote strategically if it makes sense for you (but be wary of strategic voting websites). We can do better than Harper.

Thank you. Tomorrow is going to be interesting.

*Don’t take this as an endorsement of the Green Party; while they have the best focus on climate change, they might not be the best poised to do something about it. But don’t take this as a dismissal of them either.

Photos17 Oct 2010

Streaky Pleiades

Or even just a tripod. The Pleiades. A 30 second exposure with the camera precariously balanced on an end table on a beach, on Thanksgiving weekend. Brightness cranked way up in software after the fact.

Links and Movies30 Sep 2010

Sixty Symbols is a collection of short videos on topics in physics and astronomy, presented by various faculty members from the University of Nottingham. I’ve been enjoying them thoroughly. I liked the one on dark matter quite a bit.

They’ve been around a while, I gather, but I just found ‘em, so maybe they’re new to you too.

Links31 Aug 2010

My new favorite CBC program is The Late Show, and it kind of snuck up on me. Each episode is a thirty-minute obituary of a recently deceased Canadian, in the form of interviews with people who knew them, and narrated by Gordon Pinsent. Getting Pinsent was a bit of inspired casting: his steady stage actor’s voice creates just the right tone.

I can’t say I expected to be an avid listener to a show about the lives (and deaths) of “deceivingly ordinary” people, but I’ve caught three or four episodes now and each time I’ve been riveted.

News and Photos04 Jul 2010

Remember those bean plants that we’ve been growing? And how I wasn’t sure if they’d actually produce anything? It turns out reproduction was the least of our worries.

Indoor Bean Fecundity

Not long after my previous bean post, we noticed that the bean leaves were suffering. It appears that the bean plants attracted what google informed us are are spider mites. I started spraying the leaves regularly with a mixture of soap and water, and that seemed to slow the invaders down. I figured that the beans plants would survive until harvest time, and then we’d pull the plants out.

What Spider Mites Will Do To a Leaf

Unfortunately, the mites spread to the rest of our little indoor garden. They annihilated our thai basil before it really got started, killed the thyme and mowed down the oregano. Our sweet basil and parsley are also affected, but seem to be soldiering on.

Today we picked the beans and turfed out the troublesome bean plants. Unfortunately, the rest of the garden is looking a little thin. While I’m happy that my crazy bean idea actually produced some edibles, I don’t think it was worth the cost in other plant lives. I should probably have responded more aggressively at the first sign of mite trouble. Oh well. The neophyte gardener learns a lesson.

A Snack

The Survivors

Musings and Photos and Travel12 Jun 2010

I have an iPad.  I got it last week at the Apple Store in Montreal, where we spent the weekend being tourists.  I would have picked one up sooner, but they sold out pretty quickly in Ottawa.  I’ve had it for a week now, and figured I’d post a little review here on the old blog.

In short, I like it.  It’s definitely a luxury item, and doesn’t replace an actual computer, but I’m finding it useful and fun, and will probably continue to do so after the initial novelty wears off.  I have one of the 3G models, which carries the added cost of a monthly data plan, but the iPad really shines as an “always connected” device.  I understand that most folks use their smart phones for their Internet-on-the-go, but I’m a telephony Luddite and my phone is categorically “dumb”, so the iPad fills that role for me.  I like that you can adjust your data plan month by month, and so can save some money when you don’t actually need cellular internet access.  While we were visiting Montreal, the 3G came in handy for checking email and finding our way around the city.  Since the trip I’ve pretty much just used wifi at home and at the office, except for browsing the web on the bus a little bit (more on that later).  I think during normal operation I won’t bother to buy the 3G data, but it’s great when traveling, and is much preferable to paying for hotel wifi, not least because you can take your connectivity with you when you leave the hotel.

It’s while traveling that the iPad really shines.  At a pound and a half it’s much easier to lug around than a laptop, it can always get online (unless you’re beyond the range of the cell towers), and it fits comfortably in a backpack or shoulder bag.  It’ll even download and beautifully display photos directly from your digital camera, which we would have made great use of on the Montreal trip, if only the Apple Store hadn’t run out of camera adapters.  Oh well, I’m looking forward to using the  iPad for in-the-field photo viewing in future.  In the mean time, I’ve contented myself with loading the photos of our trip via iPhoto on my Mac after we got home.  There are also some great on-the-road apps, such as the excellent Urban Spoon, which shows you nearby restaurants along with reviews and ratings, and the built-in maps app, which told us which subway line to take and how much it would cost to get to the Montreal Biodome, where I took this and many other pictures of penguins.

I’ve taken the iPad on the bus everyday this week, where I’ve mostly used it as an ebook reader.  Canadian publishers haven’t got their act together and so new books aren’t available on the iBooks store yet, but I don’t mind, because there is a ton of public domain material on Project Gutenberg to be downloaded and read.  I’m half way through The Three Musketeers and am enjoying it immensely.  I wasn’t sure how I’d like reading on a lit screen, but I’ve found it to be just fine, especially with a bit of daylight to counteract the screen glow.  It looks not unlike an actual book, and flipping pages with a finger feels natural.  And the iPad is more portable than the copy of Anna Karenina I lugged around for a month a while back.  I’m also quite curious to see what iPad magazine issues turn out to be like.  I’d ditch my paper New Yorker subscription for an electronic one if the experience is right.

And what of the other iPad capabilities?  As mentioned, viewing photos is great.  I watched an episode of Doctor Who on it the other night, and found that to be quite acceptable.  I’ve used it as the world’s largest iPod, and while the iTunes-like-but-not-quite-iTunes interface is a bit confusing, music via headphones is just fine.  The built-in speakers are understandably not super.  Except for some online chess, I haven’t done much gaming on it yet, but it seems like it could be a good gaming device.  I am looking forward to exploring that aspect.  

Typing with the on-screen keyboard is pretty good.  My one quibble there is that it takes two taps to get an apostrophe.  I typed the bulk of this blog post on the iPad, and while it took a bit longer than it would have on a real keyboard, it wasn’t unpleasant.  Unfortunately the included notes app with its cartoon felt marker font and lack of wireless syncing is a bit of a letdown.  I wrote this using the free version of Evernote, which syncs to my Mac via the cloud.  I’m not sure if Evernote is the answer to all my iPad writing needs, as the free version won’t save notes on the iPad so you can access them when you’re offline (so forget looking up the grocery list from the grocery store, for example). Also, it crashed on me at one point while writing this and cost me a paragraph. When my current month of 3G runs out I’ll either shell out for the paid version (5 bucks a month or 45 for the year) or ditch it for some other app. Maybe I can write my own notes app, I am keen to do some programming for this gizmo at some point…

Surprisingly, given Steve Job’s assertion that the iPad is the best browsing experience ever, I’m only feeling luke-warm about the web in the iPad.  I find browsing a little constrained.  Perhaps that’s because I normally open a million browser tabs at once, and the iPad’s browser doesn’t really allow that.  This is also the one area where the lack of multitasking hurts the iPad: it’d be nice to be able to go do something else while waiting for webpages to load in the background.  On the whole, one doesn’t really notice the lack of multitasking most of the time, as apps load quickly and remember state very well.

I don’t know if the iPad is quite the “magical and revolutionary” gizmo that Apple’s marketing department would have us believe, but it is pretty slick, and using it makes me feel a little like a character in science fiction.  I think I’ll probably discover more uses for it the longer I have it, too.  I’m not running around recommending it to everyone, but I like it a lot.  

Be warned: an iPad is surprisingly hard to put down once you pick it up.

News and Photos29 May 2010

This summer we decided to grow some herbs in our apartment. Sweet and Thai basil, oregano, parsley, mint, and… beans?

Guess which one isn’t a herb

I chose bean seeds on a lark. I wanted to try to grow a few bean plants, even though beans are not too space-efficient when it comes to indoor gardening. Realistically, the best I can hope for is that my harvest will provide a fresh side-dish for one meal later this summer. People tend to laugh when the see our little bean patch, but I am undaunted.

From past experience we have found it is better to grow the plants entirely indoors, rather than putting them on the balcony periodically where they can be exposed to wind, hungry birds, and punishing afternoon sun. For herbs, this is fine, but urban apartment-dwelling vegetables face certain challenges that their rural cousins don’t have to worry about. I mean that delicate issue which might be metaphorically referred to as “the birds and the bees”, or, in this case, literally referred to as “the bees.” In other words, sex. Vegetables grow from flowers, and flowers require pollination, i.e., the male flowers have to send their magic dust to the female flowers. Outdoor veggies enlist friendly insects to help with this vital transfer, but there are no insects where my beans live.

When flowers started appearing, I realized that I’d have to midwife my little beans into existence. I googled for “manual pollination” and started reading up on how to play floral match-maker. However, it turns out that I needn’t have worried, because indoor beans are randy little creatures capable of pollinating without extra help from q-tips or delicate paint-brushes. All I need to do is stand by and wait.

And lo: the bean patch has produced its first bean.

I’m following “Junior’s” progress with great interest

If that bean is the only one I manage to get, I’ll still be happy with the indoor bean experiment, ridiculous as it may be. Growing things is fun.

Links20 May 2010

(Title stolen from Dan Bern’s song about the baseball pitcher Cy Young.)

And the subject of this post is certainly small. Eri Yoshida, 18 years old, 5 feet 2, is about to make her American professional baseball debut in the west-coast Golden Baseball League for the Chico Outlaws. She’s a pitcher. She throws a side-arm knuckleball that floats in at 55 miles per hour. And apparently, putting the Japanese teenager on the squad wasn’t just a publicity stunt by the Outlaws: the word is that the girl can pitch.

From this article about her recent two-inning performance in a pre-season exhibition game:

She retired six batters on two pop-ups, two fly balls and a grounder, walking one but then picking him off immediately. The 5-foot-2 pitcher drew a walk at the plate, stole second and later scored on Mikael Jova’s two-run single.

She picked someone off! She stole second base! She’s clearly a competitor. I’m rooting for her. I think I’m going to be looking at a lot of box scores from the Golden Baseball League this summer.

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