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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Blogging like a weed

My mother remarked once, when I was but a scrawny teenager, that I "grew like a weed." This isn't a clever turn of phrase on my mother's part, of course. In fact, it's nearly a cliche. Definitely not on par with "tip of the iceberg", or "needle in a haystack", but getting up there.

As uses of near-cliches go, though, she was correct in her statement. I did grow quite quickly in my teen-aged years. Personally, I attribute this to my voluminous consumption of milk, as well as just about any other food I could get my hands on, and my mouth around. I'm sure, at my peak dairy-drinking phase, I was going through nearly two litres a day. (For you imperial-based philistines in the U.S. of A., that's a few ounces more than two quarts.)

I'm also sure that my rapid increase in height had nothing to do with anything even remotely resembling a plant-based physiology. While I grew at a rate reminiscent of those fast-growing undesirables, those ravenous, gluttonous scourges of lawns and gardens everywhere, I certainly did not grow via any method that could be attributed to vegetative components in my genetic makeup.

However, I got to thinking about how cool it would be if you could, literally, grow like a weed. Indeed, that would be some special kind of cool.

Limb removed? Head chopped off? Grow a new one.

Hungry? Spread your leaves and feed off the sun.

Thirsty? Push your roots into the ground, and slurp away.

Need to be taller? Heck, it only takes a day to double your height.

Lonely? Lop off a lobe of root, stick it in the ground, wait a week, and voila! Near-instant clone.

The possibilities are myriad. You'd be resistant to infectious diseases like influenza, the common cold, and any colour of plague. Bind yourself to your clone for a few days, and you'd get to find out what it's like to be a conjoined twin. (Uh, that's Siamese for those of you who haven't brought your vocabulary into the 21st century yet. Heck, I bet people like that still call them "steam shovels". Although, I can't really blame them, because "steam shovel" is such an evocative phrase.)

I could go on, but I won't. I'm not really a weed. Not even a blog-weed. Give me an inch, and I won't take a yard.

Although, I might play in it for a while, especially if you've got a sprinkler.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Into the grinding waters

I imagine there has to be at least one reader out there who wonders where I get my ideas about which I blog. (Yes, I really do imagine it, regardless of whether it has any possibility of being true. I imagine having superpowers all the time, too.) "Where does Hydrargentium get blog ideas?" -- I can see it in a thought bubble over the person's head.

The answer, of course, is, "I dunno."

There's no one place I get my ideas. I don't use any fancy brainstorming techniques to stir up a good blog posting. There are no mind webs, no word games, nothing of the sort being applied, or even considered. Seriously, my brain is enough of a storm as it is without adding to the maelstrom.

(Man, I love that word, "maelstrom". I'm not even using it quite right here, since, technically, it refers to water -- from the Dutch "malen" and "strom", meaing grinding stream. But it's an awesome word, evocative in and of itself, and it looks pretty cool written down.)

Sometimes, I will be thinking about things -- any things, doesn't really matter -- during the day, and take inspiration from those thoughts. Often, this will be during what would otherwise be mental "down time", where I don't have anything specific to think about, nothing to which I should be applying my significant mental capacities. Not unfrequently, though, these extraneous ponderances come unbidden when my mind should be otherwise engaged, like in meetings, or when I'm supposed to be solving a problem, or even when I'm in the middle of a one-to-one conversation with someone about something in which I'm really interested. (Needless to say, I've gotten pretty good at covering for my lapses in attention over the years.) Regardless of the timing of these thoughts, they provide a large measure of the fodder used to feed the blog.

Other times, though, I'll look at the clock, think, "Uh-oh, I'm running out of time. I better start my blog post," and then open up Notepad, with nothing specific in mind about which I could possibly blog. You'd think that having the glaring expanse of white screen would be daunting, without any ideas as to what might fill it, and a deadline looming. Heck, I'd think so, too, normally.

Fortunately for me, I'm a pretty fast thinker. I catch on to what other people are trying to explain rather quickly, often before that person would expect it possible to do. Not only that, I'm the kind of thinker who absorbs information and immediately starts applying it and cross-matching it and interweaving it with all the other stuff under my skull. Hence, the storm inside my head.

All this simply means that, in the time between when I go to open Notepad, and the time where I set my fingers to the keyboard to type the first word, my brain will go into hyperdrive and pop out an idea. Call it the "best" of a thousand. (I put "best" in quotes here because the analysis is necessarily brief. It may not actually be "the best", but it'll be good enough for blogging.)

Still within the same timespan, that idea will generate a sentence. Usually, it's the opening one, a good line that will work to get the readers reading. Sometimes, it's not the kind of sentence with which you (or at least I) would start a blog post. Again, the hyperdrive comes through, and the first sentence will combine with the impetus to blog, and an opening sentence is begat.

After that, I just start writing, part of my brain ranging ahead to pull out the ramifications and arguments for the post's content, and another part pulling the concepts into words and phrases, and organizing those into sentences and paragraphs. (Interestingly, I rarely go back and make changes once I've left a paragraph.)

But wait, the above paragraph implies the potential for other parts of my brain to be doing other things as well. The implication is deliberate, and the potential is actual. Even while I'm racing headlong through the creation of a blog posting, there are other parts of my brain doing all sorts of other things.

Like noticing the blinking advertisement in the web page behind the Notepad window. Or pulling in snippets of half-heard conversation coming from those around me. Or tapping my foot to the Muzak coming from the speaker in the ceiling. Or stopping my foot from tapping, since it's Muzak, and really, that's just pathetic if you have to tap your foot to that.

Or figuring out where to stop the blog.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Growing, growing, gone

I read this article about how Canadians aren't having as many kids as they used to. The article attributes this to the fact that it's more expensive to have kids now than it used to be thirty years ago:

"You can't blame young couples for their decision to have fewer children than their own parents. Over the past three decades, total family incomes in real terms -- that is, adjusted for inflation -- have actually gone down. Statistics Canada says the median family income in 1980 was $58,000. Twenty-seven years later, it's $57,700. (Both figures are expressed in 2005 dollars to remove the effects of inflation.) But stagnant incomes are not the worst problem. A generation ago, it took just one working parent to generate that median household income. These days it takes two."

I've had conversations with coworkers about the super-issue here, the near-extinction of the stay-at-home parent. (Notice I said 'parent' here and not 'mom'. As far as I'm concerned, aside from the requirements for breastfeeding, it doesn't matter which parent stays home with the kids -- so long as someone's there until all the kids have made it past grade nine.) Nearly all agree that it makes sense that having a parent stay home to raise the kids is the best thing for the kids. This is in spite of that fact that every single one of them could cite examples of kids that turned out great despite being in daycare from the age of one, or being latch-keys starting in grade five. I think it's generally accepted wisdom, these days, that a stay-at-home parent is good for the kids. Yet it's also accepted that, these days, that it's very difficult to have half of the money-earners in the family be out of the workforce for so long -- not to mention the sacrifice that the homemaker makes in terms of his or her career progress.

The article, while informative in this regard, also raises what the author feels is another important point: the coming cash crunch of the social programs for seniors, such as Old Age Security and Medicare. Specifically, the opinion is given that "to get all of those nice government payouts... you better hope that people have lots of kids."

This idea concerns me greatly. To think seriously about encouraging population growth (where the average number of children in a typical family is greater than 2, compared to the current Canadian rate of 1.5 kids per family) seems to me to be a recipe for long-term disaster.

Since people are living longer in Canada, an increase in the procreation rate will have a far greater effect than has been historically observed. In the past, the overall population growth rate was slowed by the death rate, especially as modified by the average life span. Nowadays, with people living longer, we'll have more kids and more adults. Project this over even a single generation, and we'll see a bigger impact than even the Baby Boom produced.

My concern, of course, is the so-called "carrying capacity" of the planet. Surely and not-so-slowly, we (humans as a species) are using up the resources of the Earth at faster and faster rates. If this trend continues, we are guaranteed to overtake the Earth's capacity for replenishing those resources (and I'm not talking about non-renewables like oil and gas, but the basic stuff like food).

So, as a thinking, responsible and empathetic human who is concerned about the looming crisis, I see this desire to support our elderly simply by having more kids as being a perfect example of what my elders would have called "sheer stupidity". How could this possibly be considered a solution? Isn't it really just robbing Peter to pay Paul? (Or, really, robbing Peter, Mary, and the rest of their family?)

Anyway, I have no problems with trying to maintain a balance. If we, as a prominent country in the world, provide an example of moderation by keeping our growth rate level, wouldn't that be a good thing to do?

Maybe none of the other countries would follow our example. Maybe the rest of the governments on this planet would remain with their heads in the sand, thinking that the trickles of grains past their eardrums were whispers of success.

Still, shouldn't we at least try?


Monday, January 28, 2008

I'm in.

Well, I did it. I submitted my four story ideas to Image Comics' "Who Wants To Create A Super-Heroine?" contest. I must admit, I'm a little stoked, a little jazzed, a little, how do you say? Ah yes, "edgy about the spine."

I can't seriously believe that I'll even make it into the top ten with any of my ideas. Let alone making the cut to top five (which is also gonna require a boatload more work). And there's almost no way I will be THE ONE. (And, OMG! Three issue?!?!?! I have to write THREE ISSUES!!!!)

Still, it's fun to imagine. Just like good old Carl Schmidt, I can entertain myself on my walks from somewhere to some-other-where, picturing my life after I win (OMG! I have to write THREE ISSUES?!?!?!?), basking in the glory of success over seemingly impossible odds -- and all based on the merit of my own creative capabilities. The very act of making the first step entitles me to an enrichment of my fantasy life that could not ring with the same potential of veracity without such a pedestrian impetus.

It really makes one think about the whole "making you own luck" idea, whereby adherents believe there is no such thing as luck, only hard work, the willingness to take risks, and the ability jump through the windows of opportunity in the brief moments during which they are open. I'm personally feeling happier and more successful (and really, everyone strives for success only to make themselves happier) for having tried, and I know I will continue to be proud of myself just for having entered. It's much easier, after all, to avoid the sting of rejection by not even trying.

But then my walks would be a lot less interesting.


BTW - Thanks to Frank, T.Mike, Brett and RaZ for their feedback on the ideas. I appreciate every single keystroke -- even the Shift keys!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Fiction Fridays: Until the Fever Breaks (part 3)

continued from part 2

A loud crash echoed through the mall as Susie followed her father across an open concourse. A few shoppers near her shrieked in response, and she heard other shrieks from further away, muffled by the building's clever acoustics. Her father looked around, and then reached behind him to grab his young daughter's hand -- only it wasn't there.

Almost before the crash was heard, Susie had rushed over to the nearest railing. Looking down on the lower levels, her button nose squashed against the glass guardwall as she searched eagerly for the source of the excitement. By the time her father felt the first twinges of panic, realizing she was not where he expected her to be, Susie was already running down the escalator, her tiny voice piping up with "Excuse me! Excuse me!" as she pushed past the other riders.

As he moved, the heat returned. Each pounding step stoked the furnace under his skin. With no way for it to escape past the layer that encrusted him, it continued to build. Rohit wasn't sure how much more of the stifling heat he could stand, but a deeper fear told him not to stop moving. Better to burn up, consumed from within, than to be bound forever, aware but unmoving. He opened his mouth, feeling the crust crumble at the edges, and gulped at cooler air. It made little difference, with the heat inside him overwhelming the relief before the breath ever reached the depths of his lungs.

Frustrated, he roared, a wild and unfocused sound that he barely heard over the pounding of his feet and his heart. With the release of air, though, came a release of the smothering heat. Astonished, he slowed almost to a stop. A bigger breath, whistling through his nostrils, filled him up. Then he pushed, driving the searing air from his chest, past his quivering vocal chords, and out to the world. The focused yell tore away some of the burning inside him, keeping his internal conflagration from blazing out of control.

Susie heard the second yell as she stumbled to a halt at the bottom of her third escalator. While others on the floor were running, screaming, panicking in the face of that massive noise, to Susie it sounded like a cry for help. It reminded her of the lion in that story from the Bible, the one with the thorn in its paw.

She'd made it down to the right level, but the mall was a long range from end to end. She was already winded from her rush down three flights, pushing and squeezing her way past a forest of legs and bums. Now she could see that she'd be going the wrong way from everyone else, as the frightened mob raced to escape the source of the craziness.

A momentary break in the flow got her to a bench in the middle of the concourse. Climbing up, she saw that the row of benches went all the way along. At the end, she saw a quick flash of rusty orange over the heads of the crowd. She'd got her breath back, and now she knew where she was going. With the kind of stubborness that made her mother smile and frown at the same time, she pushed ahead, holding onto the benches and garbage bins for support and protection.

Once his head cleared a little, Rohit's fear of seizing up forever pushed to the fore, and he picked up his pace. A moment later, he was stopped in his tracks, driving head-first into the most solid thing he'd ever encountered. Around him, he heard a faint rumbling, but the fog of his vision made out only a towering darkness. He turned, fearing that this stop might be forever, and kicked hard at the ground beneath him. For a moment he was airborne, then he landed, leaden feet stumbling beneath him as he fought to forge ahead. He heard the scream of shattering glass, sharp and biting in his ears, but felt nothing of the shards that surely must have pelted his skin.

Susie made it to the last bench. Panting, she climbed up onto the seat, and stared. At a distance no bigger than her front yard, a huge lump of crusty, dried out plasticine, orange and red and brown all squished together, slammed into a giant steel beam. Black, glossy paint nearly hid the rivets in the angular pole that rose four stories up to the roof of the mall, far above. She felt the whole building shake, and chunks of concrete fell from the ceiling, smashing into the space in front of her.

Beside the beam, the orange lump, which she realized now was shaped a lot like a person, had stopped. She watched it curiously, squinting against the rising dust. It seemed to look around, and then up at the dark pole, and then down at its feet. Then it jumped, away from what had stopped it, crashing through a glass store front as it landed. Susie turned, following the lump's progress, pulling absently at the front of her shirt.

continued in part 4


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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Geek lesson: refactoring

And now, just to prove that I really do know something about computers, here's a little lesson on refactoring.

First, some background. Programming a computer is nothing more than providing a set of instructions for the computer to perform. Granted, the instructions are, in almost all cases, extremely detailed -- to the point that a large majority of people don't have the patience and/or critical and logical thinking skills to do it successfully. Don't get me wrong, though. I know plenty of very intelligent people that could never program computers for a living, and I've known a number of professional programmers who I do not consider especially intelligent. It's not just smarts that make a programmer, it's a particular kind of smarts.

Now, when programmers build up sets of instructions, which taken altogether is called a program, they frequently (for various reasons, including simple organization) group chunks of related instructions into separate units, or pieces of a program. Programmers have various names for these pieces: procedures, functions, subroutines, methods, macros. For the purpose of this lesson, we'll call them functions.

So, imagine you've got a function, a set of related instructions, that finds all of the information (name, address, etc.) for a single, specific person. Programmers like to name functions, usually with more than one word in the name to describe what the instructions do. If the specific person's name was Brenda, then the name of the function that finds Brenda's information might be called "findBrenda". Also, in many programming languages, function names are denoted with a pair of parentheses after the words, like this: findBrenda(). I'm used to that myself, so I'll continue to use this notation for all of the functions I name here.

Later on, as a programmer, you may find you need a set of instructions that finds information for David. To make life easy, instead of recreating all of the instructions included in findBrenda(), you would simply copy those instructions, and then alter the copy slightly so that it looks for David's information instead of Brenda's. This modified copy of the findBrenda() instructions would be put into a new function, called findDavid().

As your program gets more complicated, you find you have to make more of these finder functions. So, you copy and modify the instructions again and again, making findAndrew(), and findStacey(), and findPierre(). No worries, you think, since it only takes a few minutes to do the copy and change.

Then, things change in the overall program, so that the information for the various people has to be found in a different way. This means that you have to modify findBrenda(), so that it looks for the information using the new method. A quick review of the program, though, shows that you're also going to have to make the same changes to all the other finder functions. Still, that's not too bad, since you can just copy the findBrenda() instructions again, and make the small changes needed to find David instead. And then you have to do the same thing for Andrew, Stacey and Pierre.

Man, this is beginning to seem like a lot of work -- especially when your boss tells you to add finder functions for another ten people. And then you overhear a conversation in the elevator about how the way information for people is found is going to change again next month. All of a sudden, you'll be like, "OMG! This is craziness, all this copying and recopying. There must be a better way!"

Well, it turns out there is: refactoring. In computer terms, refactoring is the process by which common sets of instructions are "factored out" into more generic functions. In other words, we can take the instructions that we copied from findBrenda(), and put them in a less specific function, modifying them so that they will work with whatever name they are given.

So, for our example, we would take out the information-finding instructions, and put them in a new function, called findPerson(). This new function is a little more special, since it doesn't do much on its own. In fact, it can't really do anything until it knows exactly which person for whom its supposed to find information.

But what do we do with this special function? Well, we can now change the other functions (findBrenda(), et al) so that, instead of performing their own set of instructions for finding information, they invoke the instructions contained in findPerson(). Part of this invocation requires providing the findPerson() instructions with the name of the person to find. Thus, findBrenda() would invoke findPerson(), and give it the name "Brenda". Similarly, findDavid() would use findPerson(), specifying "David", and the other finder methods would all be changed to rely on findPerson() as well, each providng their own specific name.

How, you might ask, does this save us any work? We still need to change each of the specific finder functions to invoke the findPerson() instructions. In fact, to save time, we likely did it for findBrenda(), and then copied the solution to the other functions, changing the name of the person specified for each copy. That's essentially the same as what we were doing before we refactored, right?

That's a completely true assessment. While we will potentially save a tiny bit of time, since the single instruction to invoke findPerson() is smaller than the full set of finding instructions, which will mean fewer keystrokes to select the instructions being copied (or less mouse movement), the difference is negligible -- even if we end up doing fifty more finder functions for fifty other people. However, we know that a change in the finder instructions is coming. In fact, this will be the second time they've changed, and you know it's likely that they will have to change again in the future. Every time the instructions need to change, you will have saved the time it takes to copy and modify the new set of instructions for each finder function.

Why is this? Remember how you changed all the finder function to simply invoke findPerson()? Well, from now on, whenever you have to change the instructions for finding a person's information, you will only ever have to change findPerson(). The other, more specific finder functions won't need to be changed, because they don't use those instructions directly. Instead, they simply call on findPerson() to do those instructions for them.

Can you see it now? The old way, every change to the way information is found required changes to every finder function. Thus, if you had one hundred finder functions, you would change the first one, and then copy and modify the instructions to use for every other function. That's one change of instructions, and ninety-nine copy-and-modify steps.

Once you've refactored, every change to the way information is found requires a change only to the findPerson() function. That's it. Thus, if you had one hundred specific finder functions, you would change findPerson(), and then not be required to make changes to any of the other functions! That's one change of instructions, and nothing else.

And that's it. That's refactoring, in as simple terms as I can put it. (Well, not really. I could have gone down a much more concrete route, describing stereo components, or assembly lines, or even bakeries. But I don't think you, my clever readers, needed the elementary school edition.)

Incidentally, the XP folks I mentioned two posts ago have a mantra they follow religiously. (Pardon the redundant phrasing.)

"Refactor, refactor, refactor."



Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A passing thought

I passed a woman in the hall today, a coworker with whom I've had a small amount of work-related interaction. She had on a tired, pensive, internal face as she stood waiting for the elevator. When she looked up and saw me approaching, she changed, her smile opening in my direction, light coming into her eyes; her skin seemed like it had started to glow, illuminated from within.

I smiled back, as I usually do (I usually smile to everyone I pass -- and I wonder now if it seems forced or phony), and we exchanged pleasantries as I walked past. I even conjured up some small witticism (admittedly not all that witty, but there are points for trying) as I disappeared around the corner, and she stepped onto the elevator.

The images, though, of her face before and after she recognized my presence, stayed with me as I continued on my way. (Where was I going? Lunch. I ended up getting a slice of pizza at a local joint -- not a franchise like Pizza Pizza.) What was she going through, in her private emotional world, before I intruded, and why did she she put on such a broadly public face for me?

Other times when I've passed this woman, each of us on our way to somewhere completely unassociated with the other person, she's given me a far more neutral facade, a weak, non-committal smile, in response to my usual (and probably somewhat goofy) grin. She frequently seems like a tired person -- certainly her sleeping patterns are written in dark underlines beneath her eyes -- but she's far from lethargic, just not bouncy. And I've certainly never seen her radiate before.

But there she was, stuck in the elevator's holding pattern -- Douglas Adams certainly had it right with his precognitive, self-motivated elevation devices, even if they were a bit too cheery for Ford's tastes -- and for whatever reason, she turned on all the lights when I came along. Was I looking particularly dapper today, dressed in my longcoat for a walk outdoors? Did she find my scarf amusing, or something about my wayward hair? Was I unconciously emanating some sort of joy of my own, to which she could not help but respond in kind?

Certainly, it could have been me, but I'd never provoked such a response in her before. As I mulled the exchange over on my sunny, sub-zero wanderings in search of something cheap and palatable, it occurred to me that perhaps I had caught her off guard. Could she have been so involved in her internal state, so absorbed in the life inside her, that she failed to have any warning of my impending intrusion on the outer bounds of her personal space? If so, I must have seemed like a bolt from a clear blue sky, or a sombre movie suddenly turned bizarre.

In such a case, the energy she poured into her facade on the event of her sudden awareness of my existence must have been akin to a hand thrown up in reaction to a sudden flash of light. Without any warning of who or what was coming so close, she would have had to throw her face into a yellow alert, a barely mitigated response of excess cheeriness that would be broad enough to handle whatever had suddenly popped up on the radar, and loud enough to mask whatever lingering traces of the underneath might still be otherwise detected.

Was it DEFCON 7 to protect the inner self? Maybe.

Or maybe I really am that goofy.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Poor old extroverted me

If I'd ever doubted that I was essentially an extrovert, the last two days would have assuaged all my concerns.

To be clear, while Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines 'extrovert' as "one whose personality is characterized by extroversion; broadly: a gregarious and unreserved person", and 'extroversion' as "the act, state, or habit of being predominantly concerned with and obtaining gratification from what is outside the self", I'm really talking about the Myers-Briggs definition of the extrovert (as influenced by Carl Jung), which primarily identifies extroverts by the types of social situations that energize them. Extroverts, according to Myers-Briggs, gain energy from interaction with others, especially in group situations (as opposed to introverts, who are drained by group interactions, and gain energy from quiet self-reflection, or deep interaction with single individuals).

So, what makes me think I'm such an extrovert? What events occurred in the last short while to confirm my self-analysis of extroversion? I'll tell you what: meetings.

Twice in the last two days I've been in meetings at work -- productive meetings that involved a lot of conversation and communication of ideas, both abstract and concrete. Today, like yesterday, I came out of the meeting feeling jazzed, energized, all fired up, not only about the topics discussed, but about life in general. I've taken ginseng, and I've chugged Jolt Cola, and I'll tell you, the feeling is quite similar.

So, I get energy from interacting with others. Technically, that's not a surprise to the people around me. If you described me as "not really all that outgoing" to my coworkers and acquaintances, they'd probably think you had mistken me for somebody else.

Even still, working as a professional geek (the modern kind, not the biting-the-heads-off-of-live-animals kind) forces me to cultivate my introverted tendencies. With the exception of the XP model of paired programming, working on a computer all day is a lonely, solitary endeavour that requires a fair bit of self-motivation. It's nearly impossible to be successful at a job like this without figuring out some way to draw energy from the time spent alone. (Of course, you can always try to overcharge your batteries at night by engaging in hyper-social activities like clubbing, curling, or Magic cards, but if you miss even one night, you're screwed, and that kind of nighttime activity requirement plays hell with your sleep patterns.) As such, I have been forced to grow my introverted side, nurturing it to provide me with the energy I need to perform well at my job. In fact, I do it so much, I forget sometimes that I'm naturally an extrovert.

It's nice, then, to have days where I get to indulge my extroversion. It's like drinking straight from the source: refreshing as all get out.


Monday, January 21, 2008


Thinking about Image Comic's current contest for creating a new superheroine (that's, uh, a superhero of the female persuasion, not a high-intensity injectable opiate, which would be "super-heroin" -- although the similarity is not coincidental, since the word "heroin" probably comes from the German word "heroisch", meaning heroic), my thoughts have wandered onto, among other things, what makes people like a given superhero. And I'm not talking just, "Yeah, I like Cyclops" -- I'm talking about, "Gee, I love Spiderman so much, I'm going to name my newborn 'Peter Parker Wojahowitz', and it's a girl!"

So, what makes people really dig certain superheroes, while others are left languishing in the margins of the illustrated world. I mean, hey, I liked Blue Beetle, but why wasn't he popular enough to sustain his own comic for more than a couple dozen issues? What is it about Wolverine that he gets not only his own comic, but appearances in as many X-mags as they can squeeze him into, as well as being a regular part of the Avengers (well, the renegade ones, anyway), plus being the go-to guy for special appearances any time sales flag in a lesser comic book?

It's not a difficult task to draw up a rough list of the all-time most popular superheroes (at least in North America):

- Superman
- Batman
- Spider-man
- Wolverine
- Green Lantern
- The Hulk
- Iron Man
- Wonder Woman
- Captain America

While I'm sure there are others that readers will vehemently argue should be included, few will argue against any of these being on the list. So, the question is, what do they all have in common that makes them so popular?

I suppose that, in fact, one should precede that question by asking, "Is there anything these superheroes have in common?" (Of course, they're all superheroes, but I think we can dispense with that commonality as being axiomatic, or at least part of the definition of the problem space. If they weren't all superheroes, we wouldn't be asking either question.) Is there an answer to the pre-question? Let's just say "Yes", and get on with our analysis.

Now, looking at these heroes, it's hard to find a commonality. In fact, in addition to things they have in common, we also need to determine what's different about all of them compared to less popular characters. If Wonder Woman wasn't on the list, we could say that they are all male, but there are plenty of unpopular heroes who are also male. Thus, gender is not a mitigating factor in popularity. Similarly, we need to exclude all common traits that are also common to the lesser supers.

In addition, we also have to consider combinations of traits. It could be (and is likely that) there are plenty of traits which, when considered independently, are common to both the "in" crowd and the "out" crowd, but that, when evaluated in combinations, are specific only to the members of our list. Clearly, this is going to be a difficult task.

In fact, this is the sort of task that direct, serial evaluation is not particularly well suited for. If I do this analysis deliberately, drawing up nine lists of traits (one for each hero mentioned), and then finding commonalities, and then identifying combinations of commonalities, and then taking those identity points and comparing them against the larger population, I could be at it for months (years, decades, centuries, millenia). There must be a better way to do this, to come up with a guaranteed popular new superhero based on an analysis of existing creative successes.

Mustn't there?

In fact, anyone who has seriously tried to be creative and successful knows there is currently no good formula for success. Sure, it would be easy to draw up a list of things you think you shouldn't do, but even that might be wrong. Twenty five years ago, most people would have included "make the superhero be a mean-ass S.O.B. who carries an arsenal of military-grade weapons to blow the heads off of anyone who pisses him off" in the not-a-good-idea category. But then came the likes of The Punisher (who many would argue should be on the above list), and that stricture was proven wrong. In fact, while in general the idea is not really a good one, the inclusion of other traits, such as a personal code of honour that makes Mr. Castle go out of his way to avoid harming Law Enforcement personnel, and a giant skull on his chest, and a permanent five o'clock shadow, and a never-say-die attitude, made for a character that not only bucked the trends, but helped redefine them.

As it turns out, though, the subconcious mind (the one that people tap into when they're being creative) is fairly adept at collating this kind of information, taking huge amounts of data, quickly winnowing out the stuff that doesn't fit, and then producing potentially effective combinations. While I may not be able to describe all the things that make for a great superhero, with practice, I can become pretty good at creating some decent approximations.

Of course, this subconcious system relies a lot on what some would call "instincts" -- the ability to throw out the losers and pick out the winners from this giant soupy mess of ideas. This instinct, though, is really no more than an incredibly complex, self-redefining set of rules by which ideas are evaluated. As long as we are subconciously willing to update our evaluation rules, to accept that we can improve the subconcious processes by which we create ideas, then we will continue to create, and make better creations.

And if we don't? Well, I'm sure we've all read comics that reek of stagnation. Mary Worth, anyone?


Friday, January 18, 2008

Fiction Fridays: A Very Bad Thing (part 1)

Here's something I've been working on, on and off, for a few years now. Mostly, I just open it up, re-read it, maybe fix a bit of wording, and then close it again. Every once in a while, I'll extend it by a couple of paragraphs. It's nowhere near finished, but I think it makes an interesting read, what I've got so far. I marked it as part 1, but there may never be a part 2 (or more). Anyway, enjoy.

When I was seven years old, my uncle did a very bad thing to me. He's dead now though -- I made sure he paid for what he did to me. It only happened once, but it made me feel like I was bad, and in my seven-year-old mind I couldn't see that it was my uncle who the was bad one.

By the time I was nine, I had sunk to a level, emotionally, that no child should ever have to reach. With two years of hating myself behind me, I had developed a pattern of angry outbursts, destructive behaviour, and self-degradation that marked an indelible path in both directions of the map of my life. I was well-positioned to become the "problem child" that teachers had already labeled me as.

I started doing drugs in grade seven, when a boy from the high school next to my school offered me a pill that he said would make me "hate life less". It worked, too well, but of course only temporarily. I went back to him for more, and he gave me my next two hits for free, but then he told me I had to pay, "just like everyone else." I gave him all the change I had in my pockets, which wasn't much.

He took the money, and gave me my pill, blue on one end and yellow on the other. Then he pushed me against a tree with his left hand clutching my collar and snarled that next time I had to pay full price, or I'd get nothing. As he walked away, I hated him, hated myself, swallowed the pill dry, and waited for it to work its blue and yellow magic. It worked; I stopped hating for a while.

After two days of not knowing how to get the money he demanded, I stole all the change off my father's dresser before going to school, and paid full price for the drugs. I paid full price for stealing that money too, but not right away. It wasn't until a few months later that my father caught me. He had suspected for a while, but didn't want to believe it at first. Finally, he pretended to leave the house with a loud "Good-bye!" and "Have a good day at school!" call up the stairs to me as I lurked in my bedroom waiting for him to go. He followed that up with opening and closing the door, but instead of going out, he quietly took his shoes off and caught me with his coins cupped in my small hands in the doorway to my parents' room.

"What the hell are you doing?" he demanded, holding his black leather shoes in his right hand, and all his anger in an awkward clench of his left fist. My feeble, sputtered explanations were lost in the clatter of the coins as they fell to the hardwood floor. The noise seemed to shatter him, and his face scattered as he told me in a low voice to clean up the coins and put them back on his dresser. Then he turned away from me, sat on the top of the stairs, and put his shoes back on. He went off to work without another word, and that silence was the beginning of the end of my father's love. I paid for my drugs with my father's love.

After that, my memories are blurry for a while. I gave the drug boy my Walkman, and he told me it was worth ten pills. I tried to make them last as long as possible, but having them all at once was too hard to resist. I was back for more, with my expensive cross-trainers hanging from my fingers a week later. That got me ten more pills, but they only lasted five days.

Backpack, Game Boy, jean jacket, CD's, DVD's -- I told my mother that I had lost the items I traded for drugs. She believed me, but my father wouldn't let her buy me new ones. That made me angry at the time, and I broke a lamp as I raged about the living room, but in retrospect, I can't blame him, or her. Just myself.

After a week, and two more fruitless tantrums at home, I went to the drug boy and begged him for more pills. I didn't think it would work, but he gave me one anyway. Then he told me he didn't want to lose my business, and he knew a way for me to get more money for the pills. That was just what I needed to hear, and the freebie was stirring up my brain again.

I went that very afternoon, while the buzz was still on. I knew I'd never do it otherwise. A twelve-year-old girl in a Wal-Mart by herself has the potential to attract attention, but I just stayed in the toy section looking at Barbies until I stopped getting funny looks. Then I wandered around for a bit until I came to the hair care section. It seemed almost too easy to slip a curling iron up my skirt, one end tucked in my panties to hold it in place against the inside of my thigh, and then casually wander away. I thought I was so clever then, waiting 15 more minutes looking at greeting cards, before leaving -- and it turned out I really was, since no one stopped me.

I gave the boy the curling iron when I saw him the next day, and he told me it was worth two pills. So two days later I was back in the Wal-Mart, and emerged with an electric shaver. After that it was a digital clock, and then another curling iron. But I was getting worried, stealing so much so soon. I wasn't stupid, just addicted -- I knew that someone was going to notice me if I kept it up at that store. So I branched out. I hit the Zellers, then the Bay, then a couple of smaller stores in the mall. I managed to get an expensive pair of suede pants out of a clothing store, under a pair of tear-aways. The store was new, and busy, and they hadn't set up their sensor equipment at the entrance of the store yet. Those pants got me ten pills all by themselves.

Then, one day, in the air conditioned comfort of the mall, protected from the oppressive fever of a ten day heat wave, but not from the all-consuming fever of my year-long addiction, I got caught.



Thursday, January 17, 2008

The inquisitive Mr. Schmidt

A few years ago, I wrote a story (as an entry into Derek Cockram's now defunct Writers Challenge) called The Diary of Carl Schmidt (Air Lord). It was a fun little piece, documenting a few days in the life of the titular character, Carl Schmidt, as he experienced his adventures as the super-hero Air Lord.

On a whim, I also did a Google Search on "Carl Schmidt", and trolled through the results for email addresses. Y'know what I did next? Yeah. I did. Really. That's right -- I emailed each of the Carl Schmidts for whom I found email addresses (four of them at the time), to tell them about a character in my story with the same name as them, along with a link to the story on my website. Honest, I really did.

I know. It sounds crazy. It probably is crazy. But do it I did. (I'd love to show you what I wrote, but I don't seem to have kept the email, even though I thought I had. Oh well.)

I can't help but wonder what these four guys' reactions were when they got the email. I'd be very surprised if not one of the four just deleted the email automatically -- in fact, it's quite likely that their spam filters deleted it for them. However, I like to imagine that at least one of these Carls actually went so far as to read the story, all the way through.

Furthermore, I can imagine that this inquisitive Mr. Schmidt not only read the story, but was secretly (or even subconciously) a superhero fan. I can imagine this Carl beginning to identify with the character, and especially his superheroic persona, Air Lord. Perhaps, for a while, the real Carl Schmidt walked through his life, picturing himself flying through the clouds on breezes of his own making. He could be sauntering down the street, overlaying daydreams of air-powered action and adventure on top of his real life. Maybe, at meetings, he would pretend to shoot breezes into the faces of boring team members as they droned on and on about how "process is king", or "we all have to work smarter", or "data drives development". Bla bla bla, boooooringgggg... puff!

Heheheheh. So it appears I can stroke my ego a little by thinking I've added a little more fun to someone else's life. Stimulating other's imagination, and the use thereof -- not such a bad thing to be proud of, now is it?


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On helping Nunavut

Okay, so after yesterday's blog entry, I've been thinking about what, exactly, I can do to make a difference in the quality of life for the people of Nunavut. (Incidentally, I have no idea what the people of Nunavut call themselves? Nunavutians? Nunavuters? Nunavites? That's what Wikipedia is for: "Its inhabitants are called Nunavummiut, singular Nunavummiuq.")

Basic musings and brainstorms have come up with this:

- Contact my local MP, and ask him what his party, and the government in general, plans to do about the Nunavut situation.

- Raise awareness of the plight of the Nunavummiut through local programs, letters to the editor of national newspapers, contact with other media, viral marketing, and creating a one-stop website for anyone who wants to know more about the issues facing our northern brethren.

- Raise money to assist with Nunavut daily life through fundraisers such as raffles, charity concerts, collection boxes at local businesses, etc.

- Contact major businesses and corporations who could directly assist the people of Nunavut, such as those involved in transportation, food production and distribution, health care, pharmacology, and technology, and urge them to provide as much assistance as they can.

Some of these ideas are easy to follow up on. Contacting my MP is just a phone call, or an email, or a letter (or all of the above). Contacting the media is almost as straightforward. Contacting the business sector is a little more complicated, since it will require a plan of action, a lot of doors closed in my face (or emails ignored, or phones hung up), and a convincing argument as to why providing such assistance would be good for their business. (Remember that whole thing about reward I wrote the other day? It applies to businesses in spades.)

The money thing, though, is by far the most complicated. I'm not talking about actually raising the money -- I have talents, and friends, and how hard is it to make up collection boxes anyway? No, the problem with money is that it requires special handling. I can't just go and collect money, stick it in an envelope, and mail it to "The People of Nunavut, Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada", and hope it ends up in the right hands, and is used in the best manner possible.

Money has to be administered, and accounted for, and protected from taxation by the formation of a charitable organization. Significant planning has to be done to best determine how the money is spent, and how to spend it with as little overhead as possible. In fact, ideally, the spending of collected money would be done in conjuction with the cooperation and assistance of the aforementioned businesses. There's a lot to consider, before I can responsibly collect money on Nunavut's behalf.

Clearly, I'm going to start with the political route. I don't actually expect much out of it, but it's the logical place to start.

Oh, and if anyone has any ideas, please let me know.



Tuesday, January 15, 2008

47.8 years

I read in an article today that the average life expectancy in Canada is now 75.6 years. Whoo-hoo! The article also stated, to my shock and horror, that, by region, the territory of Nunavut has an average life expectancy of only 47.8 years.

Shock. Horror. I'm not using these terms lightly. This little tidbit of trivia from Statistics Canada appalls me! How is it possible that, as Canadians, living in a country that is consistently rated as one of the top five to live in, we can stand by and allow a portion of our citizenry to live the kind of conditions that produce such a shortening of lifespan?

Make no mistake, this horribly truncated survival rate is directly attributed to poverty and quality of life. While Nunavut is, admittedly, a much less hospitable place to live than, say, the Niagara Peninsula, most of these Northerners' woes come from poor food supplies, poor health care, and limited access to any health care, poor or otherwise. Just about everything that the people of Nunavut eat is either hunted, or shipped in from the wealthy south. Due to shipping costs (and perhaps a large portion of apathy), only the cheapest, poorest quality foods end up on Nunavut tables.

A life expectancy of 47 years is in line with that of your typical third world nation. In fact, it's not that much higher the the life expectancy of your average fringe citizen of the Holy Roman Empire -- y'know, from a couple thousand years ago? If I'd heard this at a party, and not already had a general notion of what Nunavut life was like, I would've thought the speaker ready to be cut off from imbibing any more alcohol, lest he heave his stomach contents onto my shoes. It's nearly unbelievable, except for the fact that it's completely true.

47.8 years. Think about it. How many people do you know who are past their 47th birthday. Okay, now take more than half of them, and pretend they're dead. Does that make it seem more real now?

There is no way, as a conscientious citizen of this country we like to call the Great White North, that I can just sit here, and twiddle my thumbs, and hope that the problem gets fixed by someone else.

And the next time someone complains to me about how their taxes should be lowered, and they should get free X-Box in a private room the next time they end up in the hospital, I'm going have a very particular reply ready for them:

"47.8 years. Maybe you should be dead already."

Just keep thinking about it.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Meta-blog: motivation

Today's blog is about blogging. I'd like to examine the whole "I want to write stuff and have people read it" paradigm that seems to push so many people to blog. (And really, "so many people" is an understatement -- we're talking millions and millions of people.)

So, why do people blog? More importantly, why do I blog? What is it about blogging that offers up enough emotional reward that I keep coming back to it, five days a week? Because, really, if I wasn't, at some level, getting something out of it, I wouldn't do it. Nobody, and I mean nobody, does anything without some kind of payback. Even the most altruistic behaviour has pay-off for the person doing it: at some level, it makes them feel good about being so altruistic. You know, some people get off on eating chocolate, and some people get off on doing good things. Both actions generate a response in the pleasure centres of the brain, so both are self-rewarding actions.

(Thinking about this makes me wonder about the truism that the best motivation comes from within, rather than relying on external rewards to keep you going. It always sounds like a a good idea. However, eating large amounts of chocolate -- or frequent doses of any of a number of illicit chemicals -- is only rewarding at the internal level. No one is telling you what a great person you are, or loving you more, or giving you money or expensive things. Chocolate does not generate fame or power. The entire reward system for chocolate is self-contained. You eat chocolate, dopamine gets released into certain parts of your brain, and you get the message, at a very primitive level, that what you are doing is right, and good, and pleasing. So maybe this idea about internal motivations being the best kind is not quite as universally applicable as the sages try to make it out to be. I'm just sayin'.)

Now, what's my reward for blogging? I'm thinking it's a rather complex chain, and it must rely heavily on the concept of delayed gratification. By posting a blog, I certainly don't get much of an immediate reward (well, aside from the cheap thrill of seeing my words on a computer screen, knowing they're there for the world to see, which, quite frankly, pales pretty quickly for someone who works with computers and Internet technologies for a living). Rather, my anticipation of the response I may receive ("may" being the important word here) generates its own pleasure effect, as I dream (even if only subconciously) about the readers' responses to my thoughts, and to the craft I have applied in writing them.

Additionally, I get some small thrill at the thought that the practice I put into my writer's craft when I create a blog entry will improve my writing ability, that I may become better, and gain greater rewards because of my improvements down the road. This part is, of course, even more ephemeral, as it relies on probability projections of future rewards for work I may never perform. The weirdest part of it is that, in many ways, this is really an externally-based reward system, since it relies on my perception of possible future rewards from external sources: the classics, money and fame.

Writing in general, it seems, is a much lonelier, and more patient art, than performing. As a musician, I can get up on a stage, or pick up a guitar in someone's living room. Even before I actually produce a single note, I get real-time feedback from the people for whom I perform. Every single second of my performance gives me more feedback, and I can modify my performance on the fly to try to elicit a greater positive response. Making music, even for a quiet, reserved audience, requires zero delay of gratification. Everything is instantaneous. (Perhaps Belkar should train a level or two with Elan. Hard to imagine, but it does seem to fit. Obviously, the two have more in common than the angry halfing would ever care to admit.)

Thus, in part, my blogging is a study in delay of gratification. That in itself is also rewarding, as I anticipate greater self-rewards in the future as I contemplate an increase through repitition of my capacity for self-motivation.

Of course, I still wouldn't mind if someone posted a comment every once in a while. Those things feel good too, y'know.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Fiction Fridays: Until the Fever Breaks (part 2)

continued from part 1

Sometimes, it seemed to Susie that the mall was tiny, one narrow store leading to the next, until it seemed she was already at the other end, two stories down. The whole experience was like a blur, punctuated by sharp memories of a red blouse on a mannequin, and a new toy that talked to her, and the sizzling smell of New York Fries. Other times, the mall seemed huge, with enormous distances between each end, and a maze of ramps and stairs and escalators between each sprawling floor. Today, following her father on his aimless search for "just the right thing for Mommy", it seemed like there was so much mall it had swallowed up the rest of the world.

Also, her father had a tendency to forge all the way to the back of every store they visited. Most stores had meager fronts, but delved back into greater depths than she imagined could fit in such a cramped space. Way at the back, the rest of the mall was forgotten, as Daddy searched through racks of bathrobes or winter coats, pulling out a dozen at each store to ask the exasperated saleslady her opinion.

"Would you wear this?" Her father's voice was infinitely deep, but on this shopping trip, it held a less firm timbre, and more uncertainty than she'd imagined a voice like his could express.

He turned and squatted, coming down to Susie's level as he brandished a shiny wrap with fluff along one side. "What do you think, Susie? Is this Mommy?"

Out of love for her father, Susie held back her rolling eyes. "It's pretty, " she mused, running her fingers along the sleek fabric, "but I don't know about Mom. I don't think it's her thing."

Hobbled by his ungainliness, Rohit struggled to regain his feet. The spinning in his head made it hard to find his center, so he dragged his knees up under him, and propped his torso up on his outstretched arms. He took two breaths, dimly aware of the frantic, high-pitched noises that shattered around him. Another breath seemed to clear his head somewhat, and the world reduced itself to a gentle turning. A brief flash of memory put him on the round-about in the park near his house, with the older kids towering and laughing as they casually spun the platform. Then he wondered how he could ever have been so small.

With a heave, he pushed himself upright, driving his feet into the ground beneath him to plant them more firmly. The stiffness that had captured his limbs served a better purpose this time, keeping his legs locked steady, his back upright and firm, even as the world around him started to rock and sway.

Rohit opened his eyes, trying to peer through the smoke and haze. Everything was still a blur, but at least now there was no pain. Slowly turning his head, wary of the swinging sensation that pulled at him, he looked around, trying to find something, some landmark he could target. To his left, he spied a pale glow, brighter than the swirling dimness around him.

He felt sudden elation, having found a point of reference on which he could latch his mind. Forgetting his other concerns, he turned sharply, stepping quickly toward the light.

At least, that's what he tried to do. His legs, still stiff, on soles jammed inches into the hard ground, did not respond as quickly as the rest of his body. Overbalanced, with the great weight of his burdened torso continuing on its own inertia, he barely got his feet beneath him, knees cracking as he stumbled along. It was all he could do to keep from toppling over, but the light beckoned. Rohit clenched his jaw, and pushed forward, not willing to lose his newfound goal.

continued in part 3


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Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Love Iron

Okay, so I've seen some freaky comics in my time, but this one totally freaks me out. It's by the same guy, Ryan Armand, who does Minus, which I love, but not like this freaky comic.

So, what freaks me out about it so much is not that the first part doesn't make any sense to me whatsoever, or even that this guy in the comic seems to think that irons are the solution to anyone's relationship problems. No, it's the part that comes afterwards, where the two potential lovebirds use said irons to melt each other's faces off, and then toss the irons away, still covered in face gunk, and squish the pliant, gooey remnants left on their heads together to make a huge, fleshy, dripping approximation of a heart between them. Freaky. Freaky. Say it with me: frea - ky!

But really, why is this freaky? Is it the depiction of facial deformation, the awful, gangliated mess they make of themselves? Is my freak-out a basic reaction to disfiguration in any form, an intestinal aversion to gross deviation from a perceived norm -- the same sort of thing that lead our ancestors to commit infanticide rather than waste precious resources on an expression of bad genetic combinations?

Perhaps it's something deeper: a fear of the true commitment, the loss of single self that must come out of a true union between two people. Is this whole tale a symbolic representation of the loss of individuality, the voluntary throwing-away of that which most represents how we think of ourselves, for the sake of a true love? Is that what I'm reacting to? Is my sense of discomfort truly indicative of my inability to give up enough of myself to fall completely in love, and to love someone wholly?

Of course, it could also just be that the final image reminds me too much of the big nasties from Tremors. Yeah, maybe that's it.

Or maybe I just don't want to look too hard at this, and I'm avoiding the issue by making it look like I'm not. Wouldn't be the first time I've done that either. But does it really matter? It's just a comic, after all.



Wednesday, January 09, 2008

It's a repeat of the real thing

Here's a piece I wrote for an old blog I used to have. It's been a couple of years now, so I'm guessing most readers won't have read it (since that blog no longer exists). If you have, my apologies, but I really like what I wrote, and I've been dying to share it again.

The other day, I was craving a Coke. This in itself is not unusual -- I drink three or four cans a day while at work, more if I'm in the mood. However, in this case I was craving a Coke because my tummy was a little upset (which is unusual, since it's been referred to as "cast iron" by those around me since I was a wee lad), and I was thinking that, maybe, a cool, fizzy Coke would be just the thing. Unfortunately, it was late at night, I was in the middle of unloading the dishwasher, and I couldn't justify going out to the store just because my tummy felt funny. I figured I could just sleep it off, and wake up fine in the morning (which is what I did, with the expected results -- cast iron stomachs are great). However, craving a swig from the shiny red can put me in mind of what I like to think of as my Favourite Coke Moment.

Once upon a time, my basement flooded. It had rained really, really, really hard, and for some reason, this meant that my always-dry basement filled up with a half foot of water from the sewers! Yes, indeed, I watched in horror as the toilet in the basement bathroom and the floor drain in the laundry room worked in reverse, regurgitating brackish water and waterlogged bits of leaves and twigs. Somehow, the rain had got into the sewers, and backed up into my basement. (To be fair, the rainwater also backed up into lots of other people basements, but fer cryin' out loud, this was my basement. Apparently, this is more common than one would suspect, although it had never happened to me before.)

Anyway, to make a long story short, I started cleaning up. First with the shopvac and a submersible pool pump, later with a mop, and later still with disinfectant for every surface that got sewer-contaminated water on it, I cleaned like a fiend. Actually, it was a bit more like a robot. I wasn't frantic, just methodical, plodding along, one step after another until the job was done. Clean-up started around two in the afternoon. I finally stopped to go to the Swish store for some industrial deodorizer around noon. The next day. Uh-huh. 22 hours, pretty much non-stop.

For the entire time, I had forgotten to consume any food or beverage. Not a drop to drink, aside from the sweat I licked off my upper lip. This, folks, is called irony, embodied by the classic quote, "water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink." (Incidentally, I spent much of that time with a single song running through my head. I was fortunate in that it wasn't some annoying spit of pop drivel, but was instead what I have come to consider one of my all-time favourite songs: Wicked and Weird by Buck 65. I didn't know all the lyrics at the time, but I had fun trying to figure them out while I worked.)

So, twenty-two hours of constant labour with nothing to eat or drink. Not to mention the fact that I was about thirteen hours past my bedtime. Well, here's where the Coke Moment comes in. I pulled into the Swish parking lot, and there in front of the entrance was, you guessed it, a Coke machine. I looked at the price, shading the pathetic red LED display against the bright, harsh noonday sun, and saw $2.00. Two bucks a bottle. (I suppose it might have been cooler if it had said $1.65, but this is a true story, not a fairy tale.) For a moment, I felt near panic, wondering if I had the change. Fumbling through my pocket, my hand clumsily withdrew an assortment of small coinage. Trying hard to remember how to count, I experienced a moment of pure anticipatory pleasure as I squinted at a loonie, three quarters, two dimes and a nickle -- and not much else besides pennies. Whew!

Okay, so I knew a Coke would go down pretty good right about then, but really, I had no idea. Money in, a bottle comes out. Twist off the cap, and I stood there on the sun-baked stretch of asphalt. Head tilted back, bottle to my lips. I chugged. I felt the cold acid burn, welcome and familiar on the back of my throat. But more than that, I felt... better. Much better. Better than I figured I could ever feel. If epiphanies can be physical, this was one. Relaxation and relief spread across my shoulders, down my back, out to my fingers, and down to my feet. Oh. Wow.

That $2.00 plastic bottle of Coca-Cola, there in the hot Swish parking lot, twenty-two hours of constant labour after the flood -- that was my Favourite Coke Moment.

So now, I'm hoping that others will chip in. If you read this, leave me a comment. I'd love to hear your Favourite Coke Moment. Thanks.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Science Fiction: Golly vs. Gloom

One of the things I like the most about Science Fiction is the speculation about new technologies. This comes in two parts: 1) look at all the cool things you could do if only such and such were real; and 2) look at what would happen to the world if only such and such were real. Both are equally valid views on the subject, and both are worthy of serious contemplation -- at least to me. Ideally, good Science Fiction will tackle both.

Certainly, there are have been plenty of examples of Science Fiction throughout the years that have handled only the first part, the "cool" factor. A significant amount of "space-opera" and various other forms of science fiction adventure has been written over the years, targeted specifically at people (primarily males) who wanted some golly-gee escapism. Buck Rogers, John Carter of Mars, Star Wars -- they all exist primarily as a mode of providing fun and adventure to the consumer with little consideration to the real impacts of science on our everyday lives. Even Isaac Asimov was guilty of it, with his Lucky Starr series, but at least he tried to sneak in a bunch of education along the way.

There have also been produced a number of examples of Science Fiction that only satisfying the second part of the equation, the "here's what would happen" speculations. Dean Koontz has written numerous novels about the horrors of technology gone awry, and he's just one of the latest in a crew that can trace its roots at least as far back as Mary Shelley. While some of these works can be considered classics, all of them take a doom-and-gloom approach to the march of technological progress, and all of them suffer, Science Fiction-wise, from their omission of the other half.

Of course, even Science Fiction that contains a well-measured balance of both sides of the technology is not guaranteed to be good. I've personally read thousands of Science Fiction stories -- novels, novellas, novellettes, and the classic Sci Fi shorts -- and a goodly chunk of those that look at both sides of the coin still do not make their way into my list of worthwhile reads.

I recently read a couple of novels by Greg Bear, considered one of the modern masters of Science Fiction: Slant, and Blood Music. Both take a hard look at the effects of technological progress, with Slant examining a world transformed by nanotechnology, and Blood Music probing the impact of advanced biotechnology left unchecked. Both provide some very cool golly-gee moments in relation to their technology of choice, with Blood Music showing how the technology improves the health (and love life) of one of the main characters, and Slant offering up countless examples of how cool the world will be once nanotechnology really catches on. However, the action in both works also devolves into sordid tales about how technology run amok will corrupt us all: in Slant, at a societal level, and in Blood Music, right down to the very fabric of space-time.

Interestingly, while I enjoyed reading both of these novels -- Mr. Bear is an excellent writer -- I can't say that either of them will make it into my "Top Science Fiction Stories Of All Time" list. Perhaps it is their resolutions that limit them in some way, or perhaps they are almost too effective in their pursuit of speculation.

Or maybe it's just because everything I read gets compared to Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson. Them's some tough competition to be up against.


Monday, January 07, 2008

Sometimes, I build walls.

Sometimes, I build walls. Not literal walls, although I did build a small wooden one, of the retaining variety, for my backyard. Construction of that wall included a four-foot trench filled with gravel, a drain pipe buried behind the dirt side, pressure-treated chunks of wood cut to mimic railway ties, and steel rebars sunk two to four feet deep into the gravel and through all but the top couple of inches of the wood. That wall, despite my best efforts, is crooked, leaning on its highest end by a good four degree off the vertical -- not so much that you can see it flat on, but enough that it looks quite skewed if you peer down the length of it.

But, like I said, that was only one wall. The rest of my walls have been personal. They surround me, usually on all sides, providing a buffer, some distance from the rest of the world, from the people around me.

I built some rather impressive walls, solid, with deep foundations and high ramparts, to get through my teen-aged years. They proved their worth as I found myself subjected to the war zone of high school life. Even my closest friends really only had portcullised windows through which they could communicate, seeing only glimpses of the me that hid inside.

I withstood numerous lambastings and personal blasts from females who felt I'd done wrong. (Why did guys never try to tell me off? What was different between the males and the females in my life that the guys never felt the need?) In times like that, I could stand there, secure behind my fortifications, peering down from the ramparts at the noisome railings below. I knew that what they said, the feelings they lobbed my way, couldn't touch me. I simply waited out the storm.

Eventually, I took down my all-encompassing barriers. I wanted to -- I no longer enjoyed the isolation. Still, though, I continued to build walls. The great practice I'd had over the years meant I could hastily erect a barrier when required, buttressing and reinforcing as I went until whatever it was I felt I needed protection from had passed. This seemed to work, like I had a good system. Unfortunately, it also meant I cut myself off from a lot of people, and a lot of experiences, that might have fostered greater personal growth and development.

Nowadays, I try to find other ways of dealing with life besides piling up rocks against the slings and arrows. There are other ways -- understanding and acceptance certainly come to mind. Sometimes, too, it is better to let the pain in, let it hit you, and learn to work through it, fight it if need be, rather than never feeling it at all. There's a quote I misremember about it being better to be wounded in love than always to walk in armour. It almost seems counterintuitive, but I'm sure the idea's not wrong.

Still, sometimes I build walls.