2018 in review

Happy New Year
As the year 2018 closes, it’s time for my customary review of what I wrote. It’s also time to thank every reader for participating, for reading my humble musings, for sharing my posts and sending me emails about them. I appreciate your presence and your comments.

Twenty eighteen was another good year for my blog. I wrote almost 180,000 words  and saw one-two percent more visitors than last year (although not quite as many as my best year, 2016). My best month for visitors was May; the slowest was November.

Since Jan. 1, 2012, I’ve written close to two million words on this blog  (about 1.8 million in published posts; nearly  67,000 in draft posts, the rest in pages, cutlines, coding enhancements and comments). I’ve published 1,140 posts since I began (and more than 70 are still in draft form). Of these, 108 posts were published in 2018 (the highest number was in 2014 at 220).

Nine posts were published in January; eight each in February, May, June, July and October; five each in March and April; eleven in May; twelve in August; thirteen in September and December; four in November. I started fourteen other posts that never got published this year, but some may be finished in 2019.

The longest post this year was the Timeline of the original Collus share sale, from July, weighing in at 9,300 words. It was a condensed version of the documentation I provided to the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry this year. The SVJI was a hot topic for me right from the day Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson used it to launch his mayoralty bid even before the official campaign season began. I expect the SVJI will continue to provide me fodder for comment next year as its costs to taxpayers rise and rise and rise.

The shortest post this year was a mere 259 words condemning the nasty attack-robocalls one of the mayoral candidates used in the municipal election campaign. I had once hoped such dirty tactics were beneath local candidates, but I was proven wrong: the ethical bar was set pretty low this campaign.

My most prolific month (in word count) was December at 23,450 words;  my least was November at 7,228. Average number of words per post since I began: 1,544.

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Dictionary vs Dictionary.com

Concise OEDDid you know that doxastic is a philosophical adjective relating to an individual’s beliefs? Or that doxorubicin was an antibiotic used in treating leukemia? Or that doxy is a 16th century word for mistress and prostitute? That drack is Australian slang for unattractive or dreary? Drabble means to make wet and dirty in muddy water? A downwarp is a broad depression in the earth’s surface? Drail is a weighted fish hook? Dragonnade means quartering troops on a population while dragonet is a small fish but a dragoman is an interpreter? That a dramaturge is a literary editor on a theatre staff?

These are words I read when I was looking up the word doxology last night. They all appear close to doxology, either on the same or the adjacent page. Anyone with even a modicum of curiosity opening a dictionary can find these and other words in your search for the meaning of an unfamiliar or uncommon word. In fact, it’s quite entertaining to simply open a dictionary at any random page and read because you are likely to learn something new each time (well, perhaps less so if you use one of the generic no-name dictionaries you bought in the box store).

My bedside dictionary is the Concise Oxford, but I also have several other Oxford editions, a Random House, Merriam Webster, and Chambers, plus some others. I often refer to several for a more comprehensive understanding of a word. And yes, I do keep one by the bed because I read a lot before sleep and sometimes encounter unfamiliar words. Oxford because it’s simply the best, I like the layout and typography, and it’s English, not American.
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Storytelling cubes

You don’t expect Wal Mart to be the source for literary tools, but if you amble into the section crammed with toys, you can pick up a set of Rory’s Story Cubes for just $10 (the base set). Now, I realize these are meant as a creative game for children and/or families (marked ages 8+), but they are actually an ingenious little tool for plot development and ideas in storytelling. And for some exercises in creative thinking.

Wait, you say: they’re just dice with pictures. Can pictures alone make a story? Well, yes: just look at Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: from point to point (I mentioned this in an earlier post) – composed “…entirely of symbols and icons that are universally understood.” And on Indigo’s site as, “A book without words, recounting a day in the life of an office worker, told completely in the symbols, icons, and logos of modern life.”

No words at all. But Xu’s book is not so much a story as a rather detailled diary of a day in one person’s life. Get up, dress, go to work, have coffee… it’s not the stuff of high drama. It’s rather mundane once you figure it out.

And reading it is as much an exercise in puzzle solving as anything else. With each line parsed, you translate each symbol into a reasonable syntax and grammar so it makes verbal sense. Sometimes you have to ‘rewrite’ it in your head to make it scan properly in something that approximates English (or whatever your native language is, because one of the points he makes with this book is that the chosen symbols are ‘universal’). In fact, while there is a clear narrative, it’s not that hard to revision it by giving alternate meaning to some of the symbols. There’s a companion volume I recommend you also get if the original intrigues you.

But his point is that we can communicate with something other than words or writing. I agree, albeit not as well or as richly as we can with words.

Anyway, I bought a set of Story Cubes for my grandkids, and snuck one into the cart for myself. Only this month, on a trip to Toronto, did I get a set of the company’s “action” cubes and finally get around to tinkering with them (in part because I started re-examining William Cook’s bizarre, intriguing book, Plotto) and the nature of procedurally-created narrative (here’s an excellent piece about that, by the way…)

First a brief description of the base set: nine six-sided dice, each with a simple, different image engraved on each side (a total of 54 images – you can see them all on Pinterest). There are instructions for three types of games: one person to make up a ‘once upon a time’ story from the results of rolling all nine dice; one person to make up a theme-based story from the dice and one in which multiple players contribute to a collective story.

The packaging copy promises more than ten million combinations, based on the simple calculation of 6^9. That seems a bit over-stated, but perhaps that suggests combinations from the dice being laid out in any order, not simply based on the order of throwing.*

The images on the faces are fairly obvious, but a few might cause some confusion depending on your cultural experiences. The letter “L” inside a box is the British symbol for Learner (as in learning to drive – the company is from England). There’s a scarab beetle, an abacus and what seems a compass rose of sorts (see it in the picture of the package, above). Then there’s that slightly creepy shadow monster (in the topmost picture, far right bottom) and something that may be a demon or dragon (see left image).

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Imperialism and razors

Weishi razorI’m looking at my recently-acquired, matte black, Weishi adjustable, TTO (Twist To Open, aka butterfly-head) razor. Quite attractive, smart even, and a solid heft in the hand. Chinese-made, Amazon-sold. I am still bemused by my ability to buy products – especially household items, things I use daily – from half a world away with a simple click. Especially when I can’t find any of those items locally (and, yes, I’ve looked…).

Convenient, yes, but also a symbol of the new imperialism: the transnational corporate empires.

Most (all?) of the safety razors I’ve purchased in the past six months since I switched to these devices have also been made in China, despite their companies being located nominally elsewhere (executive offices, anyway). And these razors are all pretty damned good. As good as those made in Europe or Canada (well, okay, once made… as far as I know, no one makes them in Canada, precious few are made in the USA these days, and the Europeans seem to be making most of theirs offshore, too…).

A few years ago, I wouldn’t have said that about a lot of Chinese products – I had numerous experiences with poorly built, low-quality control items. That seems to have changed for the better. But it’s hardly surprising.

Look at the history of offshore manufacturing: after WWII, American (and some European) manufacturers opened (or took over) plants in Japan, in part to restart the Japanese economy, in part to develop lines of low-cost consumer items to feed into the growing western economies, and to take advantage of the cheap Japanese labour. The Soviets did this in Eastern Europe, although their results were very different.

These factories were initially designed to build low-end lines of products. And the phrase “made in Japan” signified low quality for many postwar years. But the Japanese steadily improved their production, designs and quality. The Japanese first progressed by copying, then innovated and improved Western designs. They created products that instead said quality, dependability and luxury. Made in Japan became a boast, not a liability.

And as they did so, the Japanese consumer market itself grew. Workers became more skilled, demanded higher wages. Japan’s economy accelerated and the costs of production rose with it. On a side note: Soviet-managed factories in Eastern Europe produced crap from the start to the end of their regime with little to no effort to improve or innovate.
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The sharp edge: razors and rituals

Four razorsSince I switched to using a safety razor, as I wrote about last spring, I’ve continued to pursue my explorations into razors, blades, technologies and techniques about shaving. I’ve learned much, but still want more hands-on experience. Nothing teaches like hands-on.

I followed up that post with another one on shaving, a month later, about what I’d learned since that first piece. Now, four months later, I come back to the topic with new discoveries to relate. And some new razors to describe.

But let me interject a comment on why this matters. Shaving is something I do if not daily, then almost every day, and I’ve been doing it since I was in my late teens. Ablutions are not neutral acts: they are personal rituals which in some cultures and religions are actually sacred acts. They should not be performed unthinkingly, but rather with focused intention and attention. Something which, I admit, I never appreciated when I was younger. I don’t think it’s a silly obsession to pay some attention to it now.

Ablutions should be done with a sense of reverence. These rituals have a deep symbolic meaning and help validate our lives. As Sigal Samuel wrote in The Atlantic last May:

Although there is no single agreed-upon definition, a ritual is typically a deliberate action performed in a set sequence that improves our emotional state, by reframing an experience in a way that feels meaningful.

Rituals help keep us connected to our daily lives – important in an age when we are increasingly disconnected from real life by the virtual life within technology. Even for a secularist such as myself, there should be a sense of awe and thankfulness at simply being alive and able to perform these acts. And I increasingly believe that as our societies become more and more secularized, we are losing our sense of connectedness and community that religious rituals helped create.

Recognizing the ritual in shaving helps me appreciate that what I’m doing isn’t just about myself: it’s bigger, much bigger than me. I am only the recipient of the end result of generations of effort to get to this point. And I try to recognize that.

When I turn on the tap, I can give silent thanks to the engineers and technicians and workers who worked for the previous century to provide the pipes and the the facilities so I could get easy access to clean water every day. I can thank the designers, the manufacturers, the sellers of the products I use – razors, soaps, brushes, toothpaste, shampoo – who make my ablutions convenient and efficient. I can thank architects and builders for the house, for the very bathroom in which I stand. I can marvel at the ingenuity of everything I use, from a simple toothbrush to the gears and springs of my razor.

I can sip from my tea and think of the workers who picked and dried the leaves, of the centuries of planters and growers and merchants who make it possible for me to drink a brew from leaves grown half a world away. Or of the farmers and herders who produce the milk that softens the tea. Everything we use, we touch, we throw away is the result of the efforts of thousands of others.

I can think of the towels and the cotton growers and pickers and cloth dyers and manufacturers – and even of Susan, who washed them and hung them on the racks for us to use. There are creators and designers and sellers involved in everything around me. I should not take them for granted or simply conduct my life as a consumer alienated from the things I use. As I get older, having a sense of community matters more.

I can also think of my parents and grandparents and the family lineage that stretches back into the haze of time who lived and worked all their lives so that I could stand here, wrapped in a towel, leaning towards the mirror, shaving or brushing my teeth in the latter part of my life.

And if I focus, if I pay attention and practice mindfulness, in all this I can glimpse a sense of the connectedness of everything. We are, none of us, an island. And if shaving helps me remember that, if making it a personal, daily ritual that means a bit more than just the act itself, then it’s worth being thought of as an obsessive crackpot.
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The arts of politics and baking

In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert Prisig wrote about how dealing with the small things of daily life  – like fixing his wayward motorcycle – could teach us about the world at large. A sort of microcosm-becomes-macrocosm perspective, with the vagarities of motorcycle repair to colour the learning. What we learn in one we can apply to the other. *

Baking bread, too, offers a meta-window into other arts and crafts, in particular (for me), politics. Bakers and thinkers have oft cited bread as a metaphor for life (listen to master baker Peter Reinhart’s comments on that topic here or watch his TED talk here).

As an opener, I love making bread. I find it relaxing, rewarding, stimulating and challenging. And sometimes incredibly frustrating and disappointing. Like life. It’s both a creative process and an experimental one. When I bake, I transcend the politics, the worries, the noise of daily life and concentrate on the act itself, a focus I only rarely apply to my daily activities.**

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from making bread I feel apply to politics. They’re not necessarily in the order of importance.

Lesson one: start simple.

You can make bread with four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. Everything after that is chrome. You can make some pretty spectacular breads by adding more, but if you can’t master the four, you can’t make anything. And you can make stellar breads with nothing more – if you understand how they work together.

In politics, you have to master the basics of procedure and process, of legislation, of policies, and of budgets. These are the superstructure on which you will build everything else. If you don’t have a firm grounding in these, you cannot build anything.

Lesson two: start small.

I have a terrific textbook (Jeffrey Hamelman: Bread – A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes) about baking with recipes for commercial bakeries and restaurants. These produce from half-a-dozen to dozens of loaves. But I’ve learned to make one loaf at a time, scaling back every recipe – even many of those online that are intended for one or two loaves. If I do it properly, I’ll have a small, single, good loaf to enjoy. But if I make a mistake or try something that doesn’t work out well, I’ll probably end up tossing most of it out. I don’t want to waste bread.

Many municipal projects are grandiose dreams. But often smaller, less ambitious or even phased projects over a longer term are better and more efficient. Things change, public needs change, tastes and demographics change – what might seem a great project today in a few years might seem outdated and inefficient. Better to be conservative now than end up with an expensive white elephant in a few years. And politicians should never waste taxpayers’ money.

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