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Friday, February 29, 2008

Fiction Fridays: Until the Fever Breaks (part 5 - the end)

continued from part 4

Susie saw the man stumble, legs all wobbly and head hung low. Around him, the orange stuff was falling back in lumps, like it was being blown off his body by a strong wind. Soon, enough had dropped from his face that she could see the dark shine of his eyes. Deep in their depths, she found what she was looking for: hope.

Keeping her eyes on his, she climbed down from the bench, and walked slowly toward the man with the monster falling off him.

Rohit gazed into the brilliance. He felt he could drink it with his eyes, the most refreshing, rewarding, awakening drink he'd ever tasted. It slaked the thirst of his fever. It soothed the burning of his mind.

As he stared, the source of the light seemed to get closer. At the same time, he felt the burden lifting from his shoulders, his back, his heavy, heavy legs. He could feel the air on his hands and face, and he no longer smelled the smoke that once threatened to overcome him completely.

Within moments, the growing light resolved itself, into a distinctly human form. Rohit dropped to his knees, not trusting himself in his newfound lightness, and crawled. As he moved closer, he was sure he could make out the face of an angel in the middle of the brightness. With a sigh, he surrendered himself, giving up the last of his heat to her shining, cooling smile.

Susie's father nearly fell headlong as he raced down the escalator to the lowest floor. He'd finally made it past the rushing crowds, hearing the tremendous crash and shattering glass with his heart full in his mouth. Heedless of the moving stairway, he'd plunged forward, and only the strength born of desperation had held his frantic grip on the rubber handrail.

Now he raced down the main concourse, seeing nothing of the abandoned shops, the faux-wood benches and plastic trees. All he could see was the cloud of dust and destruction that he was sure hid his missing daughter.

Skidding to a halt in front of a massive central beam, he scanned frantically through the thinning haze for signs of Susie. Panic and frustration built up inside him, and he nearly sobbed from the pressure of it, before a movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. In a moment, his worries were gone, replaced with the kind of bewilderment that only comes from seeing the truly unexpected.

There, down the hall, stood Susie. She seemed unharmed, relaxed, even contented. Beside her, kneeling on the hard tile floor, was a man. He was panting slowly, one hand on his knee, the other splayed wide against the cold tiles, and his head hung low between his shoulders. Susie had one hand on the man's head, gently brushing orange dust from his glossy, black hair.

Susie looked up at her father, face as serene as a stained-glass cherub.

"Susie.. what-?" he blurted, lost for words.

Susie smiled. "It's okay, Dad. He's better now."


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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Homer Simpson's favourite toy?

Y'know what's a lot of fun? Play-Doh!

Mold it, shape it, make monsters and space ships and silly faces with it -- you can spend hours and hours, and never make the same thing twice. Play-Doh is the thing that makes even the most untalented among us feel vaguely artistic (and in a good way). Heck, it's even fun just squishing it between your fingers, or pounding it flat on the table, or rolling it out into a long, thin piece (and calling it a snake, to appease the little artist inside you).

The colours are appealing, bright-enough and friendly-enough that you can't help but smile. And who can forget the smell? Wave a little Play-Doh under someone's nose, and they're immediately transported back to the most idyllic moments of their childhood. Heck, they even made a perfume that smelled like Play-Doh once.

(Oh, darling, you smell... you smell... you smell like Play-Doh? Let me squeeze you!)

Personally, when I played with Play-Doh as a kid, I wasn't all that fond of the machines you could get to work with it. I had the basic extruder, with the different shapes like stars and rectangles and such. I once made the American Flag that way, but otherwise, I was more fascinated with the extrusino process that what was eventually produced.

No, my favourite thing to make was monsters. How many limbs could a single creature support? What if it had a whole bunch of eyes? How many teeth can I fit in this mouth? Could I even make the thing stand up with legs that skinny? Yeah, that was me, playing god.

Gods and monsters? Sounds like a movie, doesn't it?


Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Why is it that words said in the heat of the moment are always the ones we don't want to say? How many times have you said something mean when you were angry, or candid when you were feeling close, and regretted it, if not instantly, then soon afterward? If you're like the rest of the humans on this planet, then it's likely far too often.

So what gives? What is it about our intense emotional states that overcome the reticence built into our normal behaviour patterns? What makes us blurt out the kinds of things that we normally reserve for our inner thoughts?

Is it some sort of survival instinct? Or is it just a non-lethal shortcoming of the layers of evolution that constantly war in our brains? Did the lizards from whom we inherited our hindbrain have no capability to filter which thoughts turned to action? (Well, according to Ryan North, probably.)

Regardless of the reason (and I suspect that the capacity for blurting things out when you're emotional has likely been the single greatest catalyst for change in the whole of human history), we're all stuck with the ability to say things we really wish we hadn't. And I'm not just talking about stupid things, like Colin Firth's recent gaffe. It's the "And your haircut makes you look retarded!" when you're angry, and the "I think your sister's pretty hot, too..." during post-coital bliss.

Of course, alcohol consumption can also produce similar results. We've all seen people embarrass themselves after a few too many. Perhaps alcohol creates a short-circuit between the different layers of the brain?

In any case, after the fact, after the words have leapt from your mouth and no amount of biting your lips between your teeth will bring them back, what's a person to do? How do you handle telling the senior who's tutoring you in math that you had a dream about him or her involving white picket fences and two-car garages? Where do you go after screaming at your kid that you can't stand the way they pronounce "thermometer"?

Well, if you're a decent human being, then what you do depends on the effect of what you said. For words spoken in anger, I would say an apology is in order, and if major damage is done, then you follow up with more trying-to-make-it-right. For previously unspoken words of love, you simply blush, and then follow up with whatever seems right based on the response: perhaps a kiss, or just a mumbled excuse and a trip to the lavatory.

And if you were drunk? Well, maybe some kind of lame joke involving lampshades is in order.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Schadenfreude TV

So, I caught a few minutes of this "Moment of Truth" show the other night. It wasn't the first time, but like every time, I couldn't watch for very long. Have you seen it? Yeah, I know. Yeah. No, really.

Brutal. The word you're looking for is brutal.

People sacrifice their dignity (and I'm not talking just the "ooh, I got all mucky", or "ooh, I just ate a rat" stuff that Fear Factor required) on air, in front of millions of viewers -- plus a group of their loved ones -- just so they can make some money. The worst part, from what I saw, was that the money wasn't all that good: a paltry sum of $100k for answers that tore apart the marriage of the woman on the hot-seat. The only thing that redeemed the show was the seeming justice, the possibly divine karma that made her lose all the money when she couldn't be truthful, even to herself, about whether she was a "good person". (She said she was, the lie detector said otherwise.)

This is game show/reality TV at its lowest. In ways, it reminds me of "The Running Man", and other such SciFi concepts from the 80's and 90's.

I can't help but wonder, really, what could be worse television than "The Moment of Truth". What's next, "Celebrity Nun Whipping"?

I can see it now (unfortunately):

"Watch as D-list celebrities, most of whom you've never heard of, and don't recognize by their pictures, take the leather to the women of the cloth."

"Cringe in sympathy as the nuns grit their teeth and cry out to the Lord for strength, all in the name of their favourite charities, and to purify their souls."

"Call in, or vote online, for the best combination of celeb and Sister. Remember, your votes help decide who goes on to the next round, and who gets left behind in the Pit of Despair(tm)! Don't let your favourites down!"

"And don't forget to go online, at celebnunwhip.tv. Join the forum to discuss the merits of crotchety school-marm nuns versus pretty, young, singing nuns like the ones in the movies. Sign up for the newsletter, with behind-the-scenes photos and facts. And best of all... PLAY THE ONLINE GAME!!!"

You totally know this would be on FOX in an instant if they thought it would get eyeballs. These are the same folks that brought us "Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire", after all.

Heck, Darva Conger could be one of the first-season contestants on CNW!


Monday, February 25, 2008

To hate, or not to hate...

Y'know what I hate? NOTHING! That's right, nothing. There's nothing I hate.

No wait, that's not right. There's nothing I DON'T hate. That's better. Yeah, I hate everything.

Except, when you think about it, while the two statements, "I hate nothing" and "I hate everything", are semantically opposed, in functional terms they're pretty much the same thing. Since the level of affect is flatlined in both cases, there can be no contrast, and no way of providing determination between responses to various elements on the same line.

In other words, it doesn't matter which tone you choose, monotone is monotone. An all-black picture shows as much detail as an all-white one. If everything tasted like distilled water, it'd be the same as if everything tasted like Naga Jolokia peppers. (And, seriously, can you really say that one would be better than the other?)

So, hating everything and hating nothing are, from a emotional perspective, the same. Regardless of which statement is the truth, someone in either state would be unable to actually appreciate his or her emotions and responses, since that person would have nothing to which to compare. In fact, either such person would be considered a psychopath.

Really, I'd be better off deciding to hate only certain things. Even if I took only one thing (or group of things) off the list, I'd be infinitely further ahead. If I decided to not hate, for example, butterflies, then I'd have a reference point by which I could compare my other responses. I'd then be much better equipped to quantify, or least relate, how much I hate clouds, or ice cream sundaes, or politicians. (Oooh, and compared to butterflies, I really hate politicians!)

Note that not hating butterflies is not the same thing as loving them. The jury's still out on whether actually loving something provides a valid response point for comparison against hate levels.

Speaking of love, loving everything is equally as monotonous as hating it all. Again, loving everything sets up a situation whereby you have no method of determining what that love actually feels like. It's kind of like when you're immersed in water that is exactly the same temperature as your body, and when you close your eyes, you can't really tell if you have a body any more. (Kind of, only infinitely moreso.)

So just like it's important to not hate everything, and for same the reasons it's important to not hate nothing, it's also important to not love everything, and not love nothing. In other words, it's okay to love and hate, and not love and not hate, all at the same time.

Oh yeah, and you can tell me I'm full of crap on this whenever you want.

Except, I hate it when people tell me that.

Or do I? It's so hard to tell sometimes.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Fiction Fridays: Hopper's Choice

"So, what you're telling me is that there's no way you're going out there?"

Hopper shifted on his stool. The question made him uncomfortable. MacDonnell was a crafty guy, as crafty as they came, and Hopper never trusted folk like that. Everything they said, every word that MacDonnell spun from his mouth was loaded with layers and meaning -- and every single sound was chosen for a reason. Hopper didn't like that, not one bit. He preferred folks who spoke straight.

"Ah've got mah orders, mister. Ain't no way I'm takin' mah aim off o' you."

To emphasize the point, Hopper raised his rifle a little higher on his shoulder, settling the butt comfortably and flexing this fingers on the stock. He rested his cheek gently against the comb, closing one eye and peering meaningfully at MacDonnell down the length of the barrel.

MacDonnell winked back at the one-eyed stare.

"I suppose that's true. But what if one of your team mates, your friends, gets in trouble. You see as well as me on the screen" -- MacDonnell gestured vaguely in the direction of the closed-circuit display on the wall -- "what's going on out there. Some of my guys are quite well equipped."

Hopper kept his eye locked on target for a few moments more, before glancing briefly at the action on the screen. He was just in time to see a bright streak of light cut through a cluster of MacDonnell's black-clad henchmen, sending them flying.

"Looks t'me like they don't need none o' mah help." Hopper chuckled. "Nope, Ah think Ah'll stay right here, thank ye kindly."

MacDonnell ignored his captor, pressing his lips together as he watched the action. His fingers strayed to the back of his neck, pulling absently at the dark hair that tickled his collar.

"It does look like your super-friends have the upper hand."

Hopper looked over again, encouraged by the villain's resigned tone. He was shocked to see Crusader overcome by a crowd of combatants, dog-piling on the hero to bring him down. In the background, he could see G-Man, normal-sized, slumped over a large crate.

"Ah-" Hopper stuttered, catching his tongue before he gave too much away. These crafty types, they're always looking for an angle, a hook into you, to try and grab you and pull you, gasping and helpless like a fish out of water. Hopper wasn't giving MacDonnell any hooks.

Then he saw Soulfire stumble, gagging and holding her throat, before she collapsed towards the camera, and fell out of view. The crimson sparkle in her eyes was gone, replaced with panic, and a frantic plea for help.

He gasped.

"M-maybe ah should go out and help them."

MacDonnell shook his head slowly.

"Do you think that's a good idea, Hopper? You're supposed to stay here with me."

"Ah... Ah don't know...."

MacDonnell stood up, the leather of his desk chair creaking gently from the release. He raised his hands, keeping them up around his shoulders where Hopper could see them.

"I don't know what you're going to do, Hopper. You could tie me up, but I'd be lying to you if I said that would hold me for long."

Hopper tracked the man carefully, keeping his weapon steady, as MacDonnell slowly walked toward the closed-circuit display.

"And we both know..." MacDonnell paused, sighing, at the sight of Gecko falling in a heap, red blood spreading across the green scales of his shoulder. "We both know your knockout darts are only going to slow me down. That would be enough if you were here to follow up, but you can't leave me on my own. Can you, Hopper?"

Hopper started as MacDonnell turned swiftly on a heel to face him.

"But you're a hero, aren't you, Hopper? You're not going to shoot me outright. It would have to be a killing shot -- a mere disablement won't keep me from making my getaway."

"But again, you are a hero. And heroes have to save people. Like your team mates."

Hopper cleared his throat, not trusting his voice.

"Am I right, Hopper?"

"Yeah, you're right," Hopper drawled, the slow movement of his head from side to side belying his words. "Ah- Ah should go help 'em."

"And leave me to escape? Is that a good idea?"

Hopper slipped off of his stool, rifle still trained on MacDonnell's chest, and walked slowly toward the heavy oak door.

"Ah reckon it is." The words came out slowly, heavy with doubt.

"But I'm an important man, Hopper. I'm a big-time criminal. Surely your friends' lives aren't as important as keeping me from doing any more harm."

MacDonnell gestured with his hands, as if weighing an object back and forth between them.

"Needs of the many, needs of the few. What do you think, Hopper?"

Hopper's shoulders slumped as he reached for the brass doorknob. The barrel of his rifle pointed at the floor.

"Ah think ah gotta go... gotta go help mah friends."

Hopper dragged the door open. MacDonnell smiled.

"You've made the right ch- uh!"

MacDonnell's smug remark was interrupted by the dart that zipped through the air into the side of his neck. The crime boss barely had time to react before Hopper was on him, crossing the dozen feet between them in a single leap. Eyes widened below dark bangs in the instant before the heavy walnut stock of the rifle crashed into the base of his skull.

MacDonnell collapsed in a heap on the floor.

Hopper reached with two fingers for the man's throat. Satisfied by the pulse he felt, he quickly removed MacDonnell's belt, hog-tying him with practiced ease.

"Ah reckon if Ah'm gonna let you git away, Ah might as well make it hard on ya," Hopper chuckled to himself.

With a single bound, he was out the door and halfway down the hall, headed for the thick of the action.



Thursday, February 21, 2008

Om nom nom

I was walking back to work from Subway the other day -- I'd bought a six-inch toasted Meatball sub with chipotle sauce and a bunch of veggies -- and was too hungry to wait until I got back to my desk. So, what did I do? I unwrapped the darn thing and ate it.

I really enjoy walking and eating. There is something very satisfying, very, I dunno, right about mastication and perambulation. Your legs are going, your jaw is going, you're taking in calories and burning them at the same time. It's just plain good -- that's why some of the most succesful companies in the history of the planet have a business model based on take-out you can eat with your hands.

Of course, there's also the whole thing about food and fresh air that enhances the experience. Everyone knows that eating outside is more enjoyable than eating inside. Why else would patios and picnic be so popular? It ain't 'cause o' the bees and the ants, that's for sure. The food just tastes better.

Really, though, I think there's more to it than the fluff I just tossed out. Bruce Chatwin (one of my favourite authors -- everyone should read his stuff) writes in his book, "The Songlines", about how humans were meant to eat on the move. Long before McDonald's, and long before fish and chips or meat on a stick, people were taking their food to go. Right back to the original nomads, wandering the African grasslands, we can trace the history of eating and walking. Certainly, there is an evolutionary advantage to not hanging around after you find some food: dead animals attract live animals, the kind with sharp, pointy teeth.

The nomadic lifestyle is by definition one of movement. All of our ancestors were nomads, before they settled down in, uh, well they don't call them "settlements" for nothing. Humans are built for walking. More specifically, unlike pretty much every other animal that's ever been, we're built for carrying and manipulating stuff while we walk. It's that whole bipedalism thing -- without it, there would have been no point in growing thumbs in opposition to the rest of our fingers.

So we walk. And we eat -- a significant part of human culture has to do with food. And if we can walk and eat, instead of sticking around for the competition to show up and try to take our food away from us, we're that much better off.

Walking and eating is primal, a survival feature that keeps us healthy and whole. We've developed physically in a way that facilitates just such a behaviour. We've developed culturally to make it easy to get the kind of food we can carry and enjoy. It's part of our evolution, both physical and sociological -- part of our nature.

No wonder it feels so good.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Poetry Is Dead

That's right, like what it says in the title: poetry is dead. Poetry is a dead man's game, played successfully for last time when Victoria was still Queen.

In ages gone by, one could be famous as a poet -- even so much as to make a decent living off of it. Whitman, Byron, Wordsworth, Yeats, all them biggies, they all did it, and did it well, and did it decades ago. Centuries even, some of them. Even cummings, Frost and Auden have been dead more than forty years. They're all dead, and they took poetry with them.

Since then, the perversion of the poetic soul caused by 1960's coffee houses and psychedelic drugs has dimished the appreciation of poetry to the point where no one in their right mind (it was the drugs, remember -- oh, no, you wouldn't, would you?) even attempts to put in the energy and toil required to produce a work of poetic art. Poetry the way the person on the street thinks about it today is lower than karaoke, lower than fan fiction, lower even than the filthy, chewed-up-and-spit-out gum that sticks to the soles of their shoes. Poetry, these days, is nothing: misunderstood to the point of nonexistence.

Oh, sure, I can hear people shouting (and why are they shouting at their screens, anyway?), "No! Wait! I see poetry all the time! I hear it on the radio!"

Sorry, but that's not poetry. Those are just evil bits of fluff concocted by people who want to make cheap, easy money, and sold by Hallmark and their ilk. Or it's all about the commercial, marketing mavens masking a dearth of depth with moronic metre and idiotic rhyme.

And Maya Angelou? Don't get me started.

And yes, there are some great lyrics out there (but please, don't try to convince me any of it was written by 50 Cent -- it won't work, and you'll be wasting your breath and my brain), but lyrics really can't count as poetry. Find me a lyricist who consistently produces verses that can stand as true poetry on their own, without the props of melody and harmony, instruments and voice, and I'll... well, I won't do anything, 'cause it ain't gonna happen.

Don't get me wrong, great lyrics can turn a mediocre melody into a salve for the soul, but a catchy tune or a thumping beat can have the same effect on even the shakiest stanzas. Wooly Bully, anyone?

In fact, I think that, if poetry, in it's trampled-on, put-down, spit-stained senescence, is alive anywhere at all, it'll be, as Paul and Art sang, "written on the subway walls, and tenement halls."

And bathroom stalls.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ah, life

Dang that life! Always gettin' in the way, 'n such! What an annoyance!

Plus, it's terminal.


BTW - Does the title here make anyone else think of R.E.M.?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Fiction Fridays: Until the Fever Breaks (part 4)

continued from part 3

Rohit, through the haze of his mind, caught a glimpse of pure, white light. He ran on, ignoring the distraction, determined to keep moving. A few more pounding steps, another roaring expulsion of searing air -- determined he may have been, but nothing seemed to keep him from focusing on that glimmering radiance.

He closed his eyes, fearing all the while that they might crust over forever, and turned his back to the light. He wanted to charge on, wanted to force his knees into the bend and snap of his haggard stride, but he could still see the light, focusing to a sharp brilliance, even through the back of his heavy skull.

With another searing roar, he shook his head, flakes ablating violently from his neck and jowels. He felt, more than heard, the pop and crackle as he forced his cumbrous eyelids open. The smoke appeared heavier than ever, but as he turned to look at the light behind him, the weight of the air seemed to lessen, as if shrinking back from the pure whiteness of the glimmering beams.

Susie saw the man -- she was sure it was a man now, and not just a man-shaped thing -- hesitate, as if he'd planned to do one thing, and then suddenly had another thought he couldn't ignore. She could almost feel his confusion, the muddle in his head like listening to the radio in a thunderstorm.

She wanted to help this man, who seemed so lost and helpless. She wished she could help him. She could feel the caring, feel it swelling in her heart, like the time she'd lost Blinda, her favourite stuffed animal. It was worry, and caring, and love, which grew and grew as she searched the house, until she found the sleek yellow otter, whiskered nose poking up at her from behind the laundry hamper. Only this time, she knew where the lost one stood: right in front of her.

Standing up on the bench, steadying herself on the garbage bin beside her, Susie reached out to the man. Not with her arms -- they were busy with the bin and her shirt -- instead, she reached out with the feelings building inside her. Her need to help this man, lost inside the orange lump, was almost physical. She was sure she could use it to make him un-lost.

As the light illuminated his surroundings, driving back the haze, Rohit arched his neck. He could feel a coolness, like the most refreshing spring rain, running down his spine, washing away the burning, crusted ash. He gasped, the contrast so intense, and so relieving, that he could barely control himself.

Breathing deeply, the whiteness of the light seemed to fill his lungs, cooling him from the inside. With two more rasping, panting breaths, the acrid tang in his throat had faded to the barest memory, like a fright or a pain long since overcome. The relief and release made him light-headed.

concluded in part 5


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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Love and broken windows

Y'know, it's way easier to be nice to people you don't know than people you do. To be more specific, it's hardest to be nice to the people with whom you have the most contact: friends, family, lovers and loved ones.

Think about it. It's not too difficult to get a refreshing splash of "Hey, I'm a nice person" just by holding the door open for someone. If someone on the street drops a glove, the rush of "done good" is sweet and easy. Yet the people to whom you are closest, the ones with whom you share the greatest portions of your time, are frequently the same people for whom it requires a significant summoning of moral fiber in order to be as nice in such simple ways.

Granted, we tend to take those closest to us for granted, but there's more to it than that. Since our loved ones are, well, loved, we must be emotionally open to them. How could you possibly say you love someone if you're not open to that person, if your feelings aren't exposed and accessible to the person you consider special enough to love?

By opening our inner selves to those to whom we feel the closest, we make ourselves more receptive, and more accessible, to those people's emotions. This is a good thing, since it helps to reinforce the closeness through a positive feedback loop (assuming these people are as open to us).

This is also a bad thing. By opening up, we also expose ourselves to the everyday, casual acts of inconsideration, to the unconsidered emotional responses of our loved ones -- and on a continuing basis. Just like it's easier to be nice to people you don't know, it's also much, much harder to be hurt by them.

Of course, the more we know someone, the more open we are to them, and the more time we spend with them, the more these seemingly inconsequential trifles of misbehaviour add up. It's not even nickels and dimes -- more like pennies and ha'pennies, but they still can build into an overwhelming mountain of loose change. Or loose words and actions.

So, as some wise wag once spoke, "familiarity breeds contempt". Of course, it also begets a closeness, fondness, and interdependence that sometimes borders on the symbiotic. Yet that build up of tiny slights still weighs heavily on the camel's back, and the sheer, unwieldy mass of it can make the smaller kindnesses seem like too much work for the payoff. A low return on investment, or ROI, if you will.

So why do most people bother to try for the little things in their close relationships, when the payoff seems swallowed by the start-up costs? What makes people strive to overcome the inertia of their bulky bits of baggage, so that they might perform the small niceties for those they love?

It's a lot like the "broken window" theory espoused by those who strive to resist urban decay. Basically, the idea is that the rates of lesser crimes remain higher, and can even escalate, in areas where broken windows are not replaced in rarely occupied buildings (such as warehouses, vacant shops and empty homes). Studies have proven that, when the windows get repaired soon after they are broken (along with the other minor but obvious repairs like paint and trim), the crime rates drop -- rather significantly, in fact. To be succinct, fixing the small things has a direct impact on the goal of fixing the big problems.

Theorists suggest that a lot of this has to do with civic or neighbourly pride. When the area you live in looks nicer, you're less inclined to want to do bad things in it. Also, people are happier.

Bringing this back to small kindnesses, we can apply the same thinking to the question of why people in relationships try despite the weight on their shoulders. The answer is that if the niceties are not maintained, even strived for, then the relationship, like the neighbourhood, will decay. Also, people will be less happy.

Happy Valentines Day, everyone. Go hug somebody -- and maybe hold the door open for them, too.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Does this make you think of a U2 song?

I like looking at the sun. I know, I know, you're not supposed to look at it -- it'll hurt your eyes, or something. (Who am I kidding? Of course I know it can hurt your eyes. In fact, I even have a basic understanding of exactly how it can hurt your eyes.) Regardless of what everyone's mother warns them, I do like looking at the sun. I can't help it. It's neat. It's cool. (Well, actually, it's the exact opposite of cool, but you know what I mean.) It's beautiful.

They Might Be Giants
sing about how "The Sun Is A Mass Of Incandescent Gas". Countless poets have come up with more, uh, poetic descriptions of the great glowing orb that lights our world and is the source of all life. Granted, it's not love, but I'd guess that the sun is up there in the top ten most poeticized things in the history of poetry. No matter how you look at it, the sun's a big deal.

Speaking of looking at it, like I said, that's what I like to do. I remember being a kid, on hot summer days, standing in a field or drifting in a canoe out on the lake. I can call to mind crisp winter days, where the air is so clear and the sky is so blue you feel you could evaporate happily into its emptiness, and it's so cold you can sniff your nostrils together and they'll stick. There are innumerable bright, sunny days in my memories of youth, and plenty of them centre on a view of the sun.

My head's tilted up, hands loose at my sides, and my eyes find their way to the spot in the sky so bright it pokes at my brain through the sockets. I have to widen my eyes, deliberately, to fight back the urge to squint. I know as I'm looking that I shouldn't be doing it, everyone has told me not to, but it's there, and it's amazing, and I know instinctively that it'll only really hurt me if I stare too long.

So after a brief period that seems to last for much, much longer, I look away, blinking to catch the phosphorescent after-image, and watch it flicker against the real world around me. Or sometimes, I'd just close my eyes, still facing the sky, and bathe in the warmth, feeling it flow over the skin of my cheeks and brow.

I knew, even back then, that there should be a chance of causing damage down the road, of weakening my eyesight in some way. Yet that knowledge was superseded by a surety, both instinctive and reasoned, that nothing bad would come of it, that, in fact, it might just make me stronger. So far, I haven't been disappointed. I've always had better than 20/20 vision, my tolerance for bright lights is stronger than most, and my capacity for low-light sight has amazed those around me.

Maybe I've been right all along, and looking at the sun was actually good for me. Or maybe I've just been lucky, and ate a lot of carrots.

Either way, I still like looking at the sun.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Thoughts on apology

Those readers who are even the tiniest bit observant likely noticed that there was no update on Friday. Personally, I'm of two minds in discussing this.

On one hand, it would be polite to apologize to my readers. I had a Grandmother who was a stickler for manners (as well as grammar and spelling), and she would likely have approved of an apology for the disappointment I may have caused. My own personal leanings are toward an explanation accompanying any such apology -- to me, if you apologize without explaining why, it seems hollow, like you don't really care enough to take the time to explain.

On the other hand, the blog-o-sphere is full of blog posts about how the blogger missed one or more posts, spending the whole post doing nothing but giving lip service (finger service?) to the apology. Presumably this is because they either A) feel guilty, or B) don't want to lose any more readers. (Or possibly C) that they don't have anything better to say.) In other words, the whole "I'm sorry I didn't post" thing seems overworn and, dare I say, trite.

So, is this kind of apology worth the reader's time? Do blog readers care if you apologize for missing a post or two? And I'm not just talking about the positive kind of caring -- the "oh, that's so nice" response -- but also the negative stance, as in, "Bla, bla, bla, don't waste my time!"

I suspect the threshold is quiet ephemeral. Depending on the type of reader the blog attracts, and the general tone of the posts, plus a myriad other factors, the correct decision could lie in either zone. In fact, "zone" is a good word to use here, since the possibilities for how the apology (or lack thereof) is addressed represent a continuum, not a binary proposition. The zones themselves also have blurry edges, where it's hard to discern the demarcation between the two camps. Kind of like Kitchener and Waterloo.

A political response to this issue would be to issue some sort of cleverly worded non-apology. A hedgy mollification that talks around the situation while still leaving every reader satisfied in a vague, flavoured water kind of way would certainly be one way to address this concern. I think that there's already too much political blogging going on right now, though, so this idea has little merit, at least on the originality scale.

It seems to me that the best thing to do is to simply acknowledge the interruption with as much brevity as I can muster (and I know, I'm brevitally-challenged, most days), while at the same time expressing some contrition, without comming off as either smarmy or smart-alecky. So here goes:

Hm. Missed the post on Friday. And on Monday.

Life just gets in the way, sometimes.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

Competition and porn

I caught a couple of people talking on the radio today about Roman gladiators, and American Gladiators. Specifically, the host asked some sort of "expert" to explain why people watch other people fight. I wasn't really listening anyway, and I was just about to get out of the car, so I turned the radio off and didn't hear the response.

This little bit of talk radio, however, was an audio aperitif for the hungry maw of my data-digesting brain, and it got me thinking. Why do people enjoy watching other people fight? What was it about the action on the blood-soaked sands of the Coloseum, and what is it about the much more sterile activities of the American Gladiators television show, that makes people want to watch?

It is easy to assume the cynical pose, and call upon that lovely, awkward German word, "schadenfreude" (literally, "damage joy"). The cynic says that people enjoy watching other's pain, that man's inhumanity to man is inherent in the human psyche. I think, though, that such a summation is highly oversimplified -- the philosophical equivalent of shrug and a "whatever..." before attention returns to the ongoing Halo 3 or NHL 2008 game.

For a deeper perspective, we'll have to broaden the scope of inquiry. It seems to me that, in many ways, the gladiatorial games (both ancient and modern) share much with other spectatorial diversions: namely, the competition. Be it American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, baseball, soccer, polo, chess, cheese throwing, 100m dash, bowling, or anything involving two or more people trying to pound the crap out of each other (which obviously includes hockey and football), all of these forms of popular entertainment have one thing in common: competition.

(Incidentally, did you know that the word "spectator" not only refers to "one who looks on or watches", but also to "a woman's pump usually having contrasting colors with a perforated design at the toe and sometimes heel"? Spectators are shoes? It boggles the mind.)

People like watching competition. Why else would anyone sit through three straight days of the same cricket game? Humans derive pleasure from the observation of competitive endeavours. It doesn't even have to be other humans competing: greyhound races, robot battles, cockfights, anything that pits something seemingly self-willed against something else will do. (In fact, some people even enjoy the kinds of competition that have nothing to do with self-willed actions, such as watching water droplets roll down a window pane. I remember, in my youth, many enjoyable hours spent watching two sticks tossed into a river or stream, as they raced from their splashdown to some arbitrary finish line.)

So, what gets people off about watching competition? Well, a lot of it seems to boil down to a form of projection, the ability of humans to imagine or project themselves into a situation in which they are not actually taking part. Daydreams are an obvious form of projection, putting oneself into a scenario cut from whole cloth. But people project all the time, into all sorts of situations, both desirable and un-.

Pornography is a perfect example. Clearly, viewing pornographic images has absolutely no reproductive value, in and of itself. So why do representations of reproductively-suggestive situations arouse people? It's that darn projection stuff -- viewing sex is just like thinking about sex, and both required projecting yourself into a situation in which you are not actually involved.

Projection itself is a function of the human brain's ability to plan for the future, to make predictions about what may or could happen and take appropriate actions to effect or avoid those predictions. This is a crucial survival skill, one that sets humans apart from just about every other animal, and one of the four primary adaptations that allowed humans to gain such a stupendous global dominance. (What are the other three? Language (and the generalization capabilities that our language capacity engenders), opposable thumbs, and walking on two legs.)

Needless to say, this makes projection a very powerful part of the human mind. No wonder, then, that this same ability gets linked into our pleasure centres (as well as our pain centres) in such an integral manner.

But wait, how does projection tie into the enjoyment one gets from viewing competions? Simple. By identifying with the competitors, we get to share in the thrill, the rush of adrenaline and endorphins, that the actual participants experience. Why do you supposed people get so excited when "their team" wins, and so bummed out when they back a loser. I mean, really, the Superbowl, the Stanley Cup Finals, the season finale of American Idol, none of them really matter, except to the winner(s). Yet I sure was disappointed when Clay Aiken and Bo Bice came in second, and I felt pretty awesome for having backed Fantasia Barrino and Taylor Hicks.

Who knew that such wholesome entertainment as Skating With The Stars had so much in common with smut?


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

All folked up

Daniel C. Dennett, in his book, "Brainchildren", talks about a concept he calls "folk psychology". The idea behind folk psychology is simple. The "psychology" part of the phrase is generally comprehended -- just about everyone knows that psychology is the study of how and why people think. (Okay, it's likely that the majority won't really describe it that way, but however they put it, that's what they're actually trying to say.) To put the qualifier in perspective, Dennett first explains the "folk" part by explaining how the adjective is used in a more concrete frame of reference: "folk physics".

Folks physics, as Dennet describes it, is the kind of physics that the average person understands intrinsically: if you hold a stone in your hand, and then let go of it, it will fall to the ground, for instance. There are countless examples of physical laws that people understand perfectly well, with an intrinsic grasp of their workings based on their unconscious perceptions of how the world works.

There are, however, a great many examples of the laws of physics at work that seem to defy what people unconsciously expect to happen. And I'm not talking about far-out quantum level physics, or even electromagnetic effects. I'm talking about simple, Newtonian-type physics, used all the time, easily implemented -- the kind used by Roman engineers two and a half millenia ago. The classic example is syphoning.

Syphoning, when observed for the first time, always brings out the oohs and ahhs. It's cool enough that elementary-level science teachers feel a bit like magicians every time they demonstrate the effect. Why? Because, for all intents and purposes, syphoning looks like you're making water (or some other liquid) fall up instead of down. Think about it. If you put water in a tube, it falls out the lower end (assuming the lower end has any sort of hole in it). Furthermore, water in a bucket doesn't leave the bucket, because it falls to the bottom of the bucket, instead of up and over the sides. Yet all it takes is a properly primed hose, and you can get the water to flow up over the sides of the bucket, and down onto the floor (or another, lower-placed bucket, if you don't want a mess), without any kind of pump or other device. Seriously, it's kind of freaky.

Of course, anyone who understands the actual physical principles involved (pressure differentials, viscosity, the density of water, and the suction effect they produce when combined) understands how this can be possible, and the more jaded of scientists even fail to find it cool anymore. But syphoning is not something that people observe on a regular basis as they are growing up and learning about the world. It's not something that happens to them, personally (unlike gravity, inertia, heat, light, vibrations and other waves, or even leverage). So, syphoning goes against "folk" physics, the kind that everyone inherently understands.

Now that we understand what the "folk" modifier to physics represents, we can easily apply it to psychology. Thus, "folk psychology" is the intrinsic understanding people have about how and why other people (or they themselves) think. By using the adjective "folk" in regards to psychology, we automatically exclude those aspect of the science that run counter to our unconscious comprehension of the way people think.

So, what are some examples of folk psychology? Well, how about jealousy? Kids understand jealousy from an early age: brother or sister gets something that you don't get, so instead you get jealous. (And somewhere along the way, you "get" jealously.) It's straightforward cause and effect, based on the desire to get at least as much everyone else. (The root of this is, of course, a survival instinct -- jealousy drives you to obtain the same advantages as your societal competitors, so as to not be left behind. This survival analysis, however, doesn't count as part of the folk psychological understanding of jealousy. But then again, you don't have to understand how gravity works -- and no one really does -- to understand the effects of gravity in a folk physical sense.)

There are aspects of jealousy, though, that seem to run counter to our "intuitive" understanding of the emotion and the behaviours and responses it drives. For example, why do people get jealous for things they don't need, or already have? I've seen people display jealousy over punishments that other people receive. I've seen people be jealous of things that are way below their station: "I've got millions of dollars, but that poor person just got a second-hand pair of shoes, and that makes me jealous." To the folk psychologist (that's the everyday you and me), such exhibitions of jealousy seem petty and incomprehensible. In fact, it takes a deeper understanding of the workings of the mind, one that requires significant activity in either the studying or introspection departments, to understand that such behaviour is actually driven by a personal unhappiness, and what the person is really jealous of is, in the first case, the love that underlies the application of the punishment, and in the second case, the happiness evident on the poor person's face when they get something they really need.

In life, of course, you get much further when you strive to go beyond the folk-level understandings of the world around you. Be it physical or psychological, most of what we experience is far more complex than what can be understood via the framework we've built up from our subconciously absorbed observations.

And as an aside, consider what conclusion a combination of the physics and psychology described here begets:

Jealousy sucks.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Are there too many?

I was going to write a blog post today about how "there are too many..." something-or-other. I liked the phrase, and thought it would make for a strong introduction to the piece. When I think about it, however, I find it hard to say there are too many of anything.

Sure, it would be easy to argue that there are too many wannabe's, poseurs who wrap their self-worth up in the blanket of some pop-culture icon or another. One could make a perfectly valid statement that there are too many smokers, polluting our personal spaces, littering the landscape with bite-sized tidbits of toxic filters (that don't degrade for thousands of years), and driving up health care costs (topical more to Canadians than Americans, although I'm sure the HMOs include smokers when deciding their overall rates, so maybe not). It certainly would be far from far-fetched to declare there are too many people killing each other in the world. I can't imagine anyone would really argue against that.

The thing is, though, is that, in some ways, none of these ideas are wholly valid. Wannabe's help drive the economy, and it's better to have someone with a sense of self-worth, however misdirected, than someone with no self-worth whatsoever. Smokers, too, help the economy (ask any of the struggling tobacco farmers in Southwestern Ontario, where farms that have been in the family for generations are now being forclosed, and no one wants to care, because it's tobacco), and plenty of research into treating the ailments of smokers has its use in other, more worthy fields. Even the whole people-killing-people thing must have some use, in the grand scheme of things -- it's how we evolved, right? I mean, how could ten thousand years of violent history be completely wrong?

Okay, so maybe I'm stretching things a little on that last point -- but you have to admit that the threat of violence, a concern for one's well-being in the face of reaction to one's behaviour, definitely has a moderating effect on society. And if it didn't actually happen once in a while, then the whole homeostatic system would fall apart, a victim of boy-who-cried-wolf syndrome.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that, from a logical perspective, it's impossible to make sweeping, generalized statements either for or against anything that cleaves to the realm of humanity. Every story has more sides than even the wackiest coin.

Also, I really like diversity, and if we did away completely with any one thing, the world would be that much less diverse.

And butterflies. I like butterflies too.


Monday, February 04, 2008

20... er... 17 questions with Hydrargentium

Well, we have a very special opportunity here at Hydrargentium's Weblog today: an interview with Hydrargentium! Hydrargentium has graciously granted us an opportunity to play twenty questions, and what follows is a transcript of the excitement!

Q: So, let's start with something frivolous. Favourite Julia Roberts movie?

A: Hmh. Notting Hill.

Q: Really! That's surprising. Why's that?

A: Well, not because Julia Roberts is in it, that's for sure. It's got a great ensemble cast, and plenty of laughably funny bits -- like the part where the Japanese businessman leans over the counter to kiss the clerk at the Ritz on the cheek before asking if there are any messages, based on his observations of the two other characters' reaction to the clerk's generosity of information. Lots of funny bits. The writing's pretty smart, and most of the dialogue isn't all that trite. Hugh Grant is quite believable in his role (even if the role itself is unbelievable) -- he does a good job. Of course, it's not my favourite Hugh Grant movie, but that's another story. Julia, however, is quite wooden throughout the film, and I could easily ignore her in most of the movie, except for her great scene at the dinner party when she tries to convince the others she's had the hardest life and therefore deserves the last piece of cake.

Q: Ah, I see. You've clearly given it some thought.

A: Just now, yeah.

Q: Uh, right. So, on to question number two-

A: Three.

Q: Pardon?

A: Question number three. You've already asked me two questions.

Q: No I haven't. Just the one about the Julia Roberts movie. Granted, you were quite verbose in your response, but still-

A: No. I answered two questions. My first answer was short and to the point: Notting Hill. Then you asked me why I chose that movie. That's where the long answer kicked in. In response to your second question, "Why".

Q: But-

A: You think I'm kidding? Play back the tape. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Q: No, no, that's okay.

A: Honest, I don't mind.

Q: No matter. Let's just forge ahead with question number tw-... uh, three.

A: Forge on.

Q: Right. So, uh, movies behind us. Tell me, what makes you blog?

A: I'm pretty sure I've answered that question already-

Q: Oh no you don't. You did not. There's only been two questions, remember? Two. We counted.

A: Ahem. As I was about to say, I've already answered that question in a previous blog post.

Q: Oh, ah, aheh, right.

A: Yep. Check out "Meta-blog: motivation" for the full answer to that question.

Q: Um, okay.

A: ...

Q: So, where do you get your ideas? The ideas for your blog?

A: Been there, done that one too.

Q: Oh.

A: Just the other day, actually. It's titled "Into the grinding waters" -- lovely title, isn't it?

Q: Hey, I'm the one asking the questions here!

A: That you are. Ask away.

Q: Right. Ahem. What's in your music player, right now?

A: Buck 65. He's awesome. There are two tracks showing in WinAmp right now, Side 1 and Side 2, from something called "Strong Arm - Mix Tape". Each track is over fifteen minutes long. I think I downloaded it off his website a while ago. Didn't get a chance to get into it when I first got it, but now I've been playing nothing but for the past couple of months. I could listen to Buck 65 for hours. Ever since he won that East Coast Music Award for Best Newcomer, or something like that. He beat out Joel Plaskett, so I checked him out. Downloaded a song called "Wicked and Weird", and never looked back. Awesome, awesome tune. One of my all-time favourites.

Q: What did you eat for dinner last night?

A: Steak. Salad. I made Tomato Basil soup, but it's not quite right. I'm gonna try to adjust it, perk it up a little. It's good, but not great.

Q: And how do you like your steak?

A: Medium rare. Last night I put it under the broiler with a sprinkling of Montreal Steak Spice. Great to have in the cupboard when you don't have time to do anything else. Better, though, is to mix up a bit of olive oil with some crushed garlic, maybe a bit of rosemary, plus salt and pepper, and smear it all over each side. Yummy yummy!

Q: Ah, yes, you can, uh, stop drooling now.

A: Oops, sorry.

Q: No matter. Like most of your readers, I'm curious to know if you'll get to the ending of "Until the Fever Breaks". Is an ending in the cards?

A: Oh yes, definitely. I can feel it coming (in the air tonight -- great song), and I know how the thing's supposed to end, so it's just a matter of time, really. One, two, maybe three more posts. Depends on how productive I end up in any one sitting.

Q: Good to know. So, what do you do to relax?

A: Mmmm, nothing special, really. Read, watch some TV, listen to music.

Q: Read any good books lately?

A: Oh yeah. Just finished one by Gregory Benford, called "Tides of Light". Really well written, very engaging. He manages to get you, among other things, inside an alien mind, and caring about its (her) motivations. It's a sequel to a book called "Great Sky River", which I haven't read, but stands well on its own anyway. The way it ends, I suspect there's a third book, but at the time of printing for my copy -- I bought it second-hand -- there's no third book listed in the "Also by this author" section at the front. I've just started into a collection of Robert Silverberg short stories (well, long stories, really, since they average about 40 pages each) called "The Feast of St. Dionysus". I love Silverberg -- he wrote one of my all-time favourite Science Fiction stories, "Dying Inside".

Q: Interesting. So, let's just cut to the chase. Who the hell are you, anyway?

A: Excuse me?

Q: "Hydrargentium". It's just a name, a pseudonym. Not a pen-name, call it a key-name. But who are you really?

A: ...

Q: No answer?

A: Here's your answer: I think we're done here. In fact, I know were done here.

Q: What?! But I've haven't asked you twenty questions yet! It's only been, like, half that.

A: Eleven, to be exact.

Q: Right! But I thought we had a deal. Didn't we have a deal?

A: That's twelve. Now leave.

Q: What? Are you kidding me?

A: That's two more. Out.

Q: But-

A: Out. Move it.

Q: ...

A: Go. Now!

Q: Have I touched a nerve?

A: Git! Scram, before I toss ya!

Q: You wouldn't... would you?

A: ...

Q: Okay. Okay! I'm leaving. Look, don't touch me. Here I am, picking up my stuff, going out the door.

A: ...

Q: Are you sure you don't...? Uh, nevermind.


Friday, February 01, 2008

Fiction Fridays: Once Again

Something a little different for Fiction Friday today. I was struck yesterday, unbidden, by a tiny bit of song. Now, I've told people I write songs and poetry, as well as stories and programs, but I've yet to really prove it online. So here's the proof.

What happened, though, is that I somehow found this half-formed phrase in my head last night:

Sandwiched in the hmm hmm between hmm hmm hmm hmm hmmmm...

Far from complete, by any stretch of the imagination, but it came with a melody (also out of nowhere, although I suspect it had something to do with hearing Counting Crows' A Long December on the radio a few days ago -- a song that I've always liked, but haven't heard in years). I have a hard time ignoring song ideas that inject themselves into my frontal lobes, so I started playing with it over the course of the evening's duties.

What I came up with, I really like. So far, there are two stanzas, along with the beginning of the chorus. I hope you like it. I also hope too much is not lost with the melodic limitations of a textual blog posting.

Sandwiched in the waiting room between Nervous Dave and John the Meltdown,
I can't keep my eyes off of the writing on the wall.
Imitative sagacity, derivative philosophy,
Plus some light graffiti: "It's the Nuts'll save us all."

We all know a little bit of everbody's story here.
Told to Group the incidents that made us who we are.
Not about the origins that raised up above our kin,
Shared instead the tragedies that brought us down so far.

Once again, I am talking to the doctor.
Once again, he is writing down my dreams.

I'm also toying with changing "writing down my dreams" to "jotting to my dreams", partly because it's alliterative (at least, it is when spoken), and partly because it seems to denote a lesser sense of caring on the part of the doctor.

Also, since this song tells a story, some of the words of the chorus will change as the song moves along. I've pretty much decided that the second chorus will be:

Once again, I am lying in the blast field / Once again, I am listening to the screams

Like I said, there's definitely a story in here.