ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms

April 2008

Musings20 Apr 2008

I’m pretty late in my embrace of the RSS paradigm, but I understand it’s how the kids are getting their internets pumped through the tubes these days, and I’m not one to be left behind the times.

For a while I’ve been subscribing to the feeds from various blogs I read using Firefox’s live bookmark capability, and that was fine, but I’m approaching the limits of its usefulness.

Keen to get in on the ground floor of the next bandwagon (to steal a caption from a recent New Yorker Cartoon), I thought I’d employ some “crowdsourcing” to solve my RSS problem. Let me describe my requirements, and perhaps some lurking reader or randomly googling good Samaritan can sweep in make some suggestions.

The feeds I follow fall into roughly two groups. The first group are those feeds that update often, but I’m selective about which entries I read. A good example is the BBC news. In this case, live bookmarks are adequate. They let me see everything with one click and choose what I want to read.

The second class of feeds are those that update rarely (once a day or less) but I read every entry. These are mainly blogs of people I know and/or admire. Right now, I have them grouped in bookmark menus, which means in order to see if there is anything new to read, I have to mouse over each one in turn. This is starting to get unwieldy, especially since I’ve started grouping them by haphazard category (my “Writers” list contains blogs of writers that I read, for example. Incidentally, when does Neil Gaiman get any work done? He seems to blog an awful lot…).

What I imagine as the Utopian solution to my drudgery of menu-mousing is the ability to add several feeds to a single menu and see all of the unread items at once, aggregated together. It would form a list a bit like the BBC’s feed, except from different sources. The key is that I don’t want to put all of my feeds in this menu, just some of them, or else the BBC is going to muscle everybody else around. It would be a global “what’s new” list for my selected favorites.

I tried out a couple of Firefox RSS extensions in the hopes that one of them might do something like this, but no luck. I got close with one that added a “feeds” sidebar, but it didn’t seem to quietly update in the background like Live Bookmark does and tended to slow down my browser at regular intervals. Possibly this is because downloaded the content of each post into a preview window, which I don’t really care for since I prefer to read the actual poster’s page. For the same reason, stand-alone RSS readers don’t really interest me, and lordy I get enough email as it is, so anything that integrates with my mail client is probably a no go. Also, it needs to be well behaved – I tried out one that adds a kind of “stock ticker” to the browser’s bottom bar, scrolling the headlines along. What a distracting mess.

Dear reader, do you know of anything that might do what I describe? And what of your own RSS browsing habits?

Musings17 Apr 2008

Spring is coming, and I can tell because of the smell. It isn’t an unpleasant smell, and I can’t even really describe it, but the Ottawa odors are waking from their slumber. Every once in a while I get a whiff of something indistinct but urban, and I’m transported back six months to my first weeks here, and the strangeness of my new town wells up in me again. I feel like I’ve just left home, and have to remind myself I’ve been here for more than half a year. I’ve even survived a nearly record-breaking Ottawa winter.

The second sign of spring is that it is warm enough to read my book while I wait for the bus. I’ve been spending my daily commute with my nose tucked in pages since I started my job, but until now I couldn’t read at the transfer point between one bus and the next because my hands would be too cold. Since I easily spend 25 minutes a day cooling my heels on the side of the Transitway, this added reading time is significant.

I’ve decided that for all its frustrations and unpredictability and slowness, I like riding the bus to work. If I had a car, I’d get there faster, but I’d still spend time sitting in traffic. In driving, one has to concentrate. There’s really nothing pleasant at all about navigating through rush hour. On the bus, someone else navigates and I can read. I’m reading more for pleasure now that I work than I did while I was at school, and it’s a definite quality-of-life improvement. Since I started sitting on busses 5 days a week I’ve polished off a couple of Hemingways, some Iain Banks sci fi, a biography of Glenn Gould and several things in between. I even read Harry Potter on the bus, though that was a little fraught. I found myself hiding the cover as best I could. I didn’t want the Potter haters to think I was Hogwarts-loving-nancy-boy, and I didn’t want the Potter fans to look down their noses because I was only on book six. I guess you can’t read just anything on the bus…

Musings12 Apr 2008

As if there weren’t enough reasons to oppose the absurd anti-human force that is war, I have lately been possessed by this thought.

We often hear that the Iraq war carries a high cost in “blood and treasure”, but we neglect its cost in history. The loss of life, as monstrous as it is, and the waste of resources, as foolish as it is, are short-term in their detriment to our species. Tanks running roughshod over the birthplace of civilization is not.

When we think of the great library of Alexandria, we lament the burning of its books, not the deaths of Alexandria’s citizens in the accompanying invasion. I wonder if someday, when the oil fires are long burned out and the desert dust has finally settled, our descendants will lament the looting of the Baghdad museum in the same way. Five years ago this week the US troops marching into Baghdad did nothing to stop the plunder of some of the world’s oldest artifacts. Although museum staff took precautions to remove and secure most of the collection before the war, as many as 15,000 artifacts were carried off or destroyed, and about half are still unaccounted for. More disturbingly, the plunder of artifacts from museums and archaeological sites in Iraq continues in the chaos today, beyond the power of anyone to stop [see this article]. I do not mean to trivialize the death and suffering of people in Iraq, but in 500 years George Bush’s name could well be most closely associated with this stupid loss of our history.

I happened on this passage in Alberto Manguel’s “History of Reading” that puts the looting in focus:

In 1984, two small clay tablets of vaguely rectangular shape were found in Tell Brak, Syria, dating from the fourth millennium BC. I saw them, the year before the Gulf War, in an unostentatious display case in the Archaeological Museum of Baghdad. They are simple, unimpressive objects, each bearing a few discrete markings: a small indentation near the top and some sort of stick-drawn animal in the center. One of the animals may be a goat, in which case the other is probably a sheep. The indentation, archaeologists say, represents the number ten. All our history begins with these modest tablets. They are — if war spared them — among the oldest examples of writing we know.

It is through the writing that the people of the past communicate with us today and with the future; writing endures. If the history of our species may be thought of as the life of a person, then these tablets represent our own first words to the wider world. If we lose them, we lose the roots of our memory, of our very identity.

An exhibit called “Catastrophe!” opens at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago this week, commemorating the looting in Baghdad five years on. I fear we’ll be commemorating it for a long time to come.

Books and Movies10 Apr 2008

April fools! I’m not really in Nebraska.

I have only a weak affinity for the undead. Some people apparently think vampires and zombies are the Coolest Thing Ever, but not me. They can be a good device when done properly, but proper handling of them is rare.

I was quite disappointed when I discovered Halo’s single player campaign eventually turns into a ho-hum zombie hunt. Tactical battles against clever aliens gave way to leaning on the “fire” key and hoping my shotgun wouldn’t run out of ammo at an inopportune time. Endless faceless hordes are scary at first, and then become repetitive.

I caught the movie “I Am Legend” a couple months back. It’s about the last man alive in a world overrun by vampire-like plague victims who only come out at night. It’s notable for its scenes of people-free New York City and it’s fun to watch Will Smith crack up from loneliness, but ultimately failed to deliver on its premise and suffered from an absolutely idiotic ending.

I liked it enough that I subsequently read the 1964 novel of the same name by Richard Matheson. The book offers a more interesting take on vampire-plague dystopia, one in which the title actually makes sense. It’s tough to say a lot about without giving away a lot of the plot (and if you think you might want to read t, for god’s sake stay off google). Compared to the movie, the undead are a little less terrifying and a little more pathetic (though still dangerous), the protagonist is even more deranged, and the ending does a nice job of turing all the vampire folklore on its head. It may seem a bit predictable to today’s (metaphorically) undead-plagued reader, but it actually pioneered the “zombie as plague victim concept” and so is a notable part of the Undead Canon. What it really does well is paint a portrait of a man driven mad by the mad world he’s been thrust into.

Worth checking out. Your local library probably has a copy with Will Smith on the cover.

News01 Apr 2008

See you later, I’m moving to Nebraska. Canada has been good to me, but it’s time for bigger and better things.

I say “see you later” (though I really mean “see you never again”) because this is the final entry I will write on Scrimisms. I’m moving to Nebraska illegally, and now that I’ve admitted that here on the public record I need to change my identity. I’ve always liked the name Rufus. Or maybe Adelaide. Can you see me as an Adelaide? You won’t see me as an Adelaide though, for once I become he, I’ll be gone from my old life and from you. So long and thanks for all the biscuits.

I’m going to drive out to the prairies in a rented car, perhaps a large black ford SUV, and then abandon it with the keys inside in a bad neighbourhood of Winnepeg, I will walk across an undefended stretch of the American border, an illegal immigrant. We got William Gibson in much the same way, it’s time for Canada to give something back.

I shall enter America on foot, just as the founding fathers did, and then hitch-hike to my ultimate destination. Maybe I will meet a stray dog and share my lunch with him and we will become friends. I will name him Washington and we’ll travel the dusty American highways together. If I’m really lucky we will find a freight train and jump on board, two hobos.

I confess that I don’t really know where Nebraska is. I can’t find it on a blank map. It is the very unknown quality of Nebraska that draws me there. It is a blank place in my head, a void, an emptiness. The Nebraska border is, to me, an undiscovered frontier, beyond which anything is possible. Novelty lurks in the lakes and deserts of Nebraska. Nebraska is the source of all new things, and I must go to that source.

I wonder if Nebraska has a baseball team…