Thursday, 28 May 2015


I know it's been a while since I posted.  I was away, then I got sick, and now I'm dealing with lots of family-related stuff.  Anyway...

I've begun to wonder when America's anti-science stance began (and Canada's to a lesser degree).  During the Cold War and the Space Race, everyone put an emphasis on science: in funding, in teaching our children, in general respect.  It's what we used to get ahead of the rest of the world instead of brute force and military boots on the ground.  It created Silicon Valley and the Internet.  It exploded into cell phones, home computers, solar panels, and amazing medical advances.

Now we have people arguing against it 24/7.  NASA is no longer funded, we hate stem cells, talking about climate is banned in places, environmental scientists are muzzled, and fracking plus oil pipelines crisscrossing the country are amazing "job creators".  All GMOs are bad, vaccines hurt our children, and scientists are banned from governmental science committees.

On top of that, why pick up a book on science when you can Google any science-related term, pick the article that supports your beliefs, and then force it on your "friends".  It used to be that if you were legit about it you could talk about it.  Now that article on (insert spurious online source here) means you get to be part of the conversation.

We're slowly sliding into another Dark Age and hardly anyone is paying attention.  It's honestly frightening.  Look at what an advanced society Afghanistan had before radical religion took over.  Pictures of women from the 1960s look exactly like those of women in North America.  Don't think it can't happen here, too.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Non-Idiot Women

A male acquaintance of mine on Facebook, I'll call him "Logan", has some strange (and strong) opinions of women in general and women who are anti-establishment in particular.  I have given up trying to argue certain issues with him because he refuses to see my point of view.

Today he posted an article about a female university student who had allegedly been raped by a classmate; the man was cleared mainly due to his statement that the incident had been 'consensual'.  The woman protested the university's handling of the case by carrying a mattress around with her with several months.  At her graduation ceremony, she along with three friends carried that mattress up on stage as she was about to shake hands with the university president.  The embarrassed president refused to shake her hand or even look at her.

Logan's comment was "Sigh, another idiot graduated."

How is this woman an idiot?  She would certainly know if she had been raped or not.  She had a right to protest a decision that she believed to be unfair.  I will say that carrying the mattress up on stage might have taken it a bit too far. However she did it to call attention to not only her case, but however many other campus sexual assault cases that might not have been handled adequately.

I have been a victim of sexual assault.  I know the difference between consensual sex and rape.  That gives me a particular viewpoint.  Anyone who denigrates a woman for standing up for what she believes in, particularly if the issue is of a sexual nature, will receive a no-holds-barred response from me.

(Unless of course the woman in question truly is an idiot.)

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Where are the Grownups?

This post was inspired by an online acquaintance.

I wonder if society is suffering from a bad case of distended adolescence.  Look at all the flashy movies that have been or will be released this summer: lots of big things crashing and exploding, car chases, destruction, and few romantic sub-plots.  Just like a 15 year old boy might like it.  The same has been happening in political dialog.  "I don't want those icky girls to do icky girl things.  And those icky gay people are icky too.  And I don't want any poverty cooties on me either."

Now I have no qualms about admitting that I'm old-fashioned.  I was brought up to not waste anything.  We fixed things instead of throwing them away, and we went without in order to scrimp and save for something special.  We thought about the future and we helped others.  My school had food drives for the community, and support drives to help poor kids in other countries.  And we learned to work.  We had paper routes and other odd jobs that taught us discipline.  Eating out was a treat.  Most of the time we ate together as a family.
Yeah, we had a lot of stupid stuff too, such as outmoded attitudes about sex and divorce and sexual orientation, and ugly attitudes about race and religion and other cultures.  We're still working on that.  But mostly, our political leaders talked about the strength of the nation, education, jobs, and building a better future for everybody.

Today we still hear the talking but actions seem to be few and far between.  Our politicians don't seem to be doing things in a very adult manner.  There are too many spoiled brats and not enough voices talking about rebuilding our infrastructure, energy independence, health care, global climate disruption, making education accessible, rescuing the working class from economic enslavement, and so on.

Too many of our conversations are about superheroes who are supposed to rescue us from monsters while destroying our cities in the process.  That's a pretty good metaphor for our political situation.  We're portraying ourselves as heroes, the other guys as monsters, and our roads and bridges and dams and schools and other institutions are being destroyed by neglect.

We cannot wait for the grownups to arrive.  We are the grownups.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Walking through Montreal Streets

Montreal has a rich history with its roots as an Iroquois village called Hochelaga to the French colony Ville-Marie.  Its establishment as a prominent location in the Canadian fur trade followed by the British takeover began a gradual transition to becoming the second-largest metropolis in Canada.  Its streets reflect the dual nature of its citizens in the mixture of older and newer buildings, and Mount Royal is visible from almost any point.

Let's start with downtown.  McGill College Avenue is Montreal in microcosm: a wide boulevard on which stands steel and glass skyscrapers that are flanked by granite, limestone, and brick buildings.  The road ends after only four blocks at the gates to the scenic grounds of McGill University, but the view continues up Mount Royal to the cross that stands on the northeastern summit.  The original wooden cross was planted in 1643 by the city’s founder as thanks to the Virgin Mary for sparing the settlement from flooding.  The current cross was installed in 1924.  Photo courtesy Denis Chabot, 2004.

Southeast of downtown past the elevated Ville-Marie expressway is the historic district of Old Montreal and the Old Port.  The cobblestoned streets and alleys lit by gas lamps have been carefully preserved to evoke the days when Montreal was the capital of Canada and one of the most important economic communities in North America.  To add to the atmosphere, horse-drawn carriages take visitors on tours, and the area hosts many open-air markets, exhibitions, and historical re-enactments during the warmer months.  Photo courtesy Richard McGuire, 2009.

To the west of the downtown core on a steep slope of Mount Royal is the aptly-named community of Westmount, which historically has been home to wealthy English families since the nineteenth century.  Many homes there stand on narrow streets that climb the mountain in a series of curves and switchbacks, giving residents wonderful views that they protect fiercely with building height restrictions.  Westmount is also notable for its refusal to change the name of one of its main thoroughfares Dorchester Blvd after the city of Montreal renamed its portion after the late premier of Quebec, René Lévesque.  Photo courtesy Montreal Photo Daily, 2011.

We head now to the Plateau Mont-Royal district, which takes its name from the relatively flat terrain north of downtown and east of Mount Royal.  This was one of the first areas to be settled in the 18th century as the city of Montreal expanded beyond its fortified borders.  Originally home to country estates owned by the Montreal bourgeoisie, it became a working-class neighbourhood before gradually becoming gentrified again after World War Two.  Now the Plateau is primarily known for narrow Victorian-style homes, second-floor walk-ups, and a vibrant arts and culture scene.  Photo courtesy Jeffrey Cuvilier, 2002.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Dark Horizons

I haven't been inspired to blog for the past week.  Perhaps it's the glut of bad news from many parts of the world, the rampant political idiocy closer to home, or that my latest job application rejection has pushed me beyond my limit of tolerance.  So today I'm posting a poem that I wrote ten years ago about how discouraging it is to have little support.

I once had a relative who nursed the sick to health,
She did so out of kindness and not pursuit of wealth.
Tending beds and healing folks and helping every day;
But when I asked how I could pursue this gainful way
I was told:
"It takes a very hardy breed to walk among the ill,
They're overworked and underpaid and the time off is nil,
And there's a chance that you might catch some dread disease.
You don't want to be a nurse, so forget the idea please."

I once had a teacher who inspired kids to dream,
Passing on her knowledge and lifting self-esteem.
Reading, spelling, two months off in summer isn't bad;
However when I asked how this career could be had
I was told:
"Schools are filled with hoodlums who do not want to learn,
Rude and disrespectful and getting worse with every turn,
The profession doesn't have the prestige that it once did.
You don't want to be a teacher, so do something else, kid."

I once knew a musician who had the grace of an elf,
A piano or an organ was like an extension of himself.
Then there was the writer whose words leapt to the eyes;
But when I started to plan on these paths to realize
I was told:
"In the artsy world there's no guarantee of success,
Only a very few survive to take their fame to press,
Most have no cash to spend, their lives are revolving doors.
You don't want to be an artist, you'll end up scrubbing floors."

The years passed and one day I realized I had been a fool
To live my life according to somebody else's rule.
All those roads I could have taken I chose to let pass by,
Because of the difficulties I had not dared to try.
I told them:
"I hope that you are now happy that I am in despair,
For your lack of support my field of inspiration is now bare.
I am too old now to start over and find a place midstream.
You don't want to be a person who kills a child's dream."

Monday, 4 May 2015


A long-time friend of mine has a personal reason for changing the Canadian government, particularly the Prime Minister.

The Universal Child Care Benefit was rolled out in July 2006 as a cash payout in an election year: scrap the national child care program plans, and hand out $100/child under 6 years old, per month, instead.  Her son was born in July 2000 and she stayed out of the workforce at first because it would cost more to put both her young children in daycare than she could make in a day, and there was no point in spending money on a paycheque.

After her son was in school full-time, she had to stay home because whenever she did have a job, *something* happened with his behaviour, and she had to quit.  She realizes now this was deep-seated anxiety, because whenever he knew his Mom was at home as his safety net, he was fine.

In July 2006 she got her "welcome" letter, a cheque, AND dismissal from the program all on the same page, because he had just become eligible, AND had just aged out of the program.

Then in April 2015 she received a letter from the Canada Revenue Agency. The Universal Child Care Benefit had been extended to families with children UNDER THE AGE OF 18.  If the information given was correct, there was no need to contact CRA, the money would flow starting July.  Please correct any errors before May 1, however, so that she could receive the money she was eligible for.  BUT... the one who really could have benefited from the help was dead - her son had committed suicide in January.

According to her, that money could have helped defray the cost of his weekly psychotherapy for the last four years.

This was typical of everything in her son's life: too old for this, too young for that, too rich to qualify, can't afford that...  She even created a Lego club at his school so he could have something social that interested him, and the school board aged him out of it the following September.  He Beta-tested the Lego Universe MMOG, and it fizzled the next year.  The archery club where he and his sister went to day camp closed the year after.  He got the twilight of everything good.  This just HURT.

To her it felt like the government waited for her son to die before saying "Okay, let's get this ball rolling again."  Yes, she knows that this is classic narcissism - there was no way any politician could know that her son even existed, except by social insurance number.  But it still hurt.

And the Prime Minister still has earned a swift boot to the buttocks for everything, from the Alberta Tar Sands to reneging on the Kyoto Accord.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Many Sides to the Argument

I've been experiencing the gamut of emotions concerning the events in Baltimore and similar situations in the recent past - Ferguson MO, Oakland CA, and others.  In all the chaos it's hard to tell fact from fiction.  There's so much in the media, including the Internet, about racism, Democrat vs. Republican-run cities, why people are rioting, the mindset of the police, etc.

Two friends of mine put it this way: What if the wrong questions are being asked?

Perhaps the rioting itself is not relevant.  It is the end result of a catalytic action: the killing of Freddie Gray.  Mr. Gray's past interactions with the police became completely moot once he was arrested and placed in custody.  The political party running the city is not relevant.  The living conditions, social programs, unemployment, disenfranchised youth are not relevant.

What is relevant?

A man was arrested.  His arrest was illegal: although he had a knife, it was legal to carry and it was not a switchblade.  Even if he was in violation of the law, his rights upon arrest should still trump all.

His Fourth Amendment rights were violated.  How?  Under the rule of law, the actions of government officials are prescribed by the principles and laws that make up the U.S. legal system and do not reflect the arbitrary whims of the government officials themselves. Freddie Gray was killed because of the whims of the arresting officers. He was not given due process. As an American citizen he deserved that. He was killed because a group of individuals who should hold themselves to the highest standards of professional conduct decided to invent their own rules for dealing out justice.

It was vigilantism, plain and simple.  And the fact that the people entrusted with this power over other humans wielded it for their own ends should make your blood run cold.  Six police officers murdered a man because they could.

But at the same time one can feel sorry for them.  Just like all the other cops who happen to take suspects on "rough rides", or the cops who prolong the choke hold, or use the taser a tad too readily.  Even the ones who arrest and detain and abuse and batter.

You know why?  They're a part of the dirty machinery.

We want a certain kind of society, both in Canada and in the U.S., where we can look in the mirror and see what we want to see: a caring and supportive culture that gives everyone an even chance and helps out the little guy.  We want that, but a sizable portion of the public doesn't want to PAY for it.

So instead of funding social programs that target inner-city lack of opportunity, instead of redressing generations of institutionalized oppression, instead of funding a medical approach to drug dependency, instead of examining the effects of such things as for-profit prisons and the effects they have on policy, we fund police.

We give them shiny new toys, new uniforms, and salary increases even when we're cutting back on other public sector salaries.  And we hire too many of them, because they have to be the under-trained substitutes for the social workers, mental health workers, community outreach workers, recreation and parks programs, drug counselors, and others who are not being funded.

And we're not funding those for a very simple reason.  When the anger and fear and hopelessness get too much for inner city working poor, they riot and do destructive things.  What do suburban, middle class people do when they are scared and angry?  They do something even more destructive: they vote in tax- and service-cutting ideological idiots.

So who is truly deserving of punishment here?

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Violence Sells

Over the past few weeks we've seen peaceful protests turn violent in Montreal, rioting in the streets of Baltimore, and war in various countries in Africa and the Middle East.  The media has been eating it up and spouting back their opinions on the what, who, when, how, and why.  It seems to me that violence is so ingrained in us that when push comes to shove we can't do otherwise.

Think about it - how much of our pop culture is about violence?  Almost every movie, TV show, and comic book is about someone fighting someone else.  If it happens to be the good guys, that makes it all right. However the flip side is that few of these show how much it hurts.  People get bruised, bones get broken, bodies get crippled.  And then there's the post-traumatic stress.  There are hardly any action films that I can think of that take the time to show the recovery that the hero must endure. Instead, we make violence look like fun.

Perhaps the appeal is that it has become a substitute for actually putting ourselves at risk to accomplish something.  It's like watching a football or hockey game from the safety of your couch while the pros get their brains scrambled a little more with every impact, then walking around saying "we won" like you had the least amount of effort in the accomplishment.  We still have the base instincts of hunter-gatherers. Taking risks had to have some kind of mental reward to encourage us to take on a mammoth, or fend off a pack of wolves.  The thrill pushed us to do something that would be dangerous because we were communal and taking that risk meant the community got to eat.

That is also why we still need to feel like we are part of the team, because our willingness to take a risk has to have a benefit, even when we know it could be fatal.  So do we really have to ask why our culture is so warlike, why we see often war as the first alternative instead of the last?

If only we could encourage the communal instincts as easily as the bash-each-other's-brains-out instinct.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Z is for Zappa

The final installment in the A to Z Challenge will be the musician Frank Zappa.  He was born in 1940 in Baltimore and raised in an Italian-American household.  For a time his father worked at a nearby chemical warfare facility and the family kept gas masks in their home; this as well as his many childhood illnesses were referred to in his works.  For health reasons, the family relocated to California in 1952.  During his youth Zappa was made to attend a Catholic school, which he hated, because he believed that religion only promoted ignorance.

He joined his first band as a drummer while in high school; at the same time building a large Rhythm and Blues record collection and becoming interested in Classical music also.  His later style would be influenced by avant-garde composers such as Varese, Stravinsky, and Webern.  In 1957 he was gifted his first guitar and he developed a close friendship with fellow musician Don Van Vliet; by his senior year he was composing and arranging music for the school orchestra.  He dropped out of college after only one semester, and thereafter had a disdain for higher education.

His early attempts at earning a living as a musician were fraught with difficulties, although he had more commercial success at recording soundtracks for several low-budget films.  An infamous television appearance on Steve's Allen's late night show in 1963 had him using drumsticks and a bass bow to create sounds on a bicycle.  Following the breakup of his marriage in 1964, Zappa committed himself full time to recording and formed his own studio.  Unfortunately a turn of phrase in a newspaper article led to Zappa being set up and arrested for conspiracy to produce pornography, and the incident was the basis of his anti-authoritarian attitude.

He was persuaded by Ray Collins of the band Soul Giants to join them in 1965, and upon gaining attention in the Los Angeles underground music scene, they secured a recording contract and renamed themselves Mothers of Invention.  Their groundbreaking debut album "Freak Out!" established Zappa as a "radical new voice in rock music".  1967 saw the band's second album "Absolutely Free" and Zappa's second marriage, as well as a successful contract at the Garrick Theatre in New York.  The next few albums varied widely in style and concepts, but were enough to cement the group's success.  However in 1969 their fortunes declined, and Zappa was fed up with creative interference by both the musicians and the record company, leading him to dissolve the band and go solo for a year.  After this he reformed the band with new members to accompany his work.

Zappa suffered some serious setbacks in the 1970s.  While performing in Switzerland, the band's equipment was destroyed when a flare set off by a fan set the stage on fire.  At a London show a week later, Zappa was attacked by an audience member and fell off the stage onto the concrete floor.  The injuries he sustained forced him to convalesce for over half a year, and afterwards he was plagued by chronic pain and was unable to stand for long.  He toured with smaller groups and managed to continue a high rate of production, until in 1976 he discovered his manager had been skimming profits, which led to costly lawsuits and prompted Zappa to switch record labels.

Once his finances were settled, Zappa released his most successful album to date, "Sheik Yerbouti" in 1979; the single "Dancin' Fool" was nominated for a Grammy Award.  Throughout the 1980s he remained as productive as ever and constantly experimented with new composition tools, despite the occasional hiccup when some labels and radio stations refused to play certain songs because of questionable lyrics.  He would dismiss such events as evidence of the authorities being too stereotypical.  His music was often described as "challenging" and "satirical".  In 1986 he embarked on an ambitious project to re-master and re-release his vinyl recordings for the CD medium.  His final tour in in 1988 had a repertoire of over 100 songs, but his accompanying group split up before the tour was completed.

In 1990, Zappa was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.  He devoted his remaining years to completing modern orchestral and synclavier works, and managed to perform at several concerts in Europe despite his illness.  He died in Los Angeles in 1993, having earned widespread acclaim that would continue after his death.  He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, granted a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and named one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.

Here is a clip from the Steve Allen show where Zappa plays the bicycle.
Steve Allen Show March 4th 1963