02/28/14

Conspiracy Theories: 2014 Update


Conspiracy theoriesIt’s time to update a piece I wrote in December, 2012, outlining the secret deals, backroom negotiations and “barbecue politics” that our council has been involved in since that date, more than a year ago.

So here comes the update, the emperor without his clothes:

  • Secret meetings: none
  • Backroom negotiations: none
  • Barbecue deals: none

Sorry, I know this is a disappointment to local conspiracy theorists and bloggers, coming hard on the failure of the world to end as per the Mayan Calendar, or the failure of any number of predicted ends of the world, coupled with the lack of any substantial conspiracy proof against council despite dozens (hundreds?) of Freedom of Information Act requests filed (sorry if the clerk didn’t tell you what sort of lubricant one councillor uses on his chair, though…).

Aliens didn’t make contact in 2013. Bigfoot wasn’t found. Tom Cruise is still in Scientology. Stephen Harper didn’t quit politics and join a monastery. Council didn’t hold any secret meetings.

It was a tough year for psychics and conspiracy theorists alike.

Back at the end of 2012, I wrote:

I can only offer a glimmer of hope that we still have two years left to go, so there’s still a chance we might fail to live up to our oath of office in future. A slim chance, mind you, but those odds don’t stop people from buying lottery tickets.

I have to say, I don’t think it’s going to happen now. We’re sticking stubbornly to the oath. Not only that, we brought in an Integrity Commissioner to ensure the public knows we stay on the straight and narrow.

I also wrote then:

I understand that from the outside, it may look like we’re doing the double-double-toil-and-trouble routine in the “cone of silence” but all we were doing is just treading the slow path of bureaucracy and legality, under the watchful eyes of staff (who wield a rather mean Municipal Act when we stray). We call it “due diligence.”

Not to mention a rather stern CAO who has little tolerance for inappropriate behaviour by councillors, no matter how well-meaning.

Political conspiracy theories get spun by those who don’t participate in or understand how the process of governance works. And like all conspiracy theories ever coined, despite lack of proof, they keep resurfacing and circulating among people who are sure that their government – any level of government – is up to no good.

Clandestine meetings and secret deals  are more exciting, more titillating to believe in than the rather pedestrian, but convoluted process of governance.

You think the truth is out there? The way to find out is to get involved. Working on a committee or sitting at the council table sure strips you of your illusions about government conspiracies. At the very least, sit down with someone who is involved and ask how things work.
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02/26/14

Time to get serious with distracted drivers


Distracted drivingIn March, the fine for being caught texting,  talking on your cell phone, or tinkering with your MP3 player while driving will jump from $155 to $280 in Ontario.

That’s better, but not good enough.

Distracted drivers are a growing threat to everyone sharing the road – other drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. We are all at risk.

As the CBC reported:

The fine for distracted driving in Ontario will soon nearly double.

As of March 18, driving with the display screen of a phone, computer, MP3 player or tablet computer visible to the driver will jump to $280 from $155. The total includes a $25 victim surcharge and $5 court costs.

Last week Ontario chief justice Annemarie Bonkalo signed a judicial order approving the new fines.

The fines will not apply to GPS screens.

It’s not enough. The legislation needs to be tougher. It needs to parallel the legislation about impaired driving, or street racing, with similar penalties and fines.

Curiously, as The Star notes, the provincial Liberals (an inconsistent and meandering party seemingly adrift the policy sea, but that’s another post…) didn’t support one of their own MPP’s private member’s bill which would have increased fines and added demerit points:

…the Liberals haven’t pushed a private member’s bill introduced last year by one of their own MPPs, Bas Balkissoon (Scarborough-Rouge River), calling for fines between $300 and $700 and demerit points after one of his constituents, a young mother and community volunteer, was killed by a distracted driver.
“This is a serious, serious community safety issue,” Balkissoon said. “One way or another, I’ll get it.”
He said he was concerned any legislation the government introduces could be delayed by a spring election, and also said he was “disappointed” Bonkalo set the fine at $280 and not his preferred level of $500, the Highway Traffic Act maximum.

So one has to question how seriously the Liberals take the problem.

As the Economist calls it, distracted driving is the “new drunk driving.”

THE driver who killed Jennifer Smith’s mother in 2008 by hitting her car at a crossroads was sober and had never received a speeding ticket. But he was talking on his mobile phone. He was so engrossed that when the policeman later asked him what colour the traffic light had been, the driver said he had not even seen one.

As the article notes, even hands-free devices add to distracted driving:

The human brain has to work harder to process language and communication with somebody who is not physically present. (Conversation with passengers is much less distracting, apparently because those passengers are also aware of the traffic situation and moderate their conversation.) A study by Carnegie Mellon University using brain imaging found that merely listening to somebody speak on the phone led to a 37% decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, where spatial tasks are processed. This suggests that hands-free use of mobile phones cannot help much. Such distractions, according to one study, make drivers more collision-prone than having a blood-alcohol level of .08%, the legal limit in America. It appears to raise the risk of an accident by four times. Texting multiplies the risk by several times again.

So we need some serious attention paid to technology and its social and cultural impact. One of the reasons our health care costs are skyrocketing seems to be easily found here: distracted drivers are causing an increasing number of accidents and deaths.

Distracted driving sticker

Simply raising the fine won’t change that. Paying $280 may be more of an annoyance to people than a real game changer.

Why don’t we treat it like street racing and stunt driving? That gets the driver an immediate suspension of his/her licence at the roadside, a minimum fine of $2,000, and it can be as high as $10,000. A street racing conviction can mean imprisonment for up to six months. It can also lead to a further suspension of the driver’s licence for up to two years for the first conviction and that can go as high as ten years for a second conviction! A convicted driver’s insurance rates increase 100% for the next three years, plus they get dinged six demerit points!

Now that’s a serious law. Distracted driving law? A slap on the wrist. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s own Road Safety Report for 2010 (the latest published) barely mentions distracted driving. Yet clearly the problem – and threat – is accelerating.

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02/23/14

Lucretius and the Renaissance


WikipediaIt’s fairly clear, even after reading only a few verses, why Lucretius’s didactic poem, On the Nature of Things - De Rerum Natura -  made such an impact on thought, philosophy, religion and science in the Renaissance. It must have been like a lighthouse in the dark night; a “Eureka” moment for many of the age’s thinkers.

For others, especially the church leaders, it must have arrived like a mortar shell among their intellectual certainties and complacencies; shattering walls and window. An act of war that threatened to tear down whole schools of thought and belief.

While today his descriptions of atoms, void, and immortal substance may seem obvious and even a little quaint, they were revelations then, in the Renaissance. They shook the comfortable world picture of the Renaissance and challenged both faith and science.

Yet Lucretius wrote his poem in the time of Julius Caesar, before the Christian church even began. Then it was lost for more than 1,400 years, to be rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. Poggio was hunting lost manuscripts through European monasteries, trying to copy them so he could restore the lost words of the Romans for everyone to read. His discovery of On the Nature of Things was serendipitous in the extreme,* but it opened a Pandora’s box of effects.

Stephen Greenblatt, in his excellent book, The Swerve, about the fortuitous discovery and its impact, opens Chapter Eight with this:

On the Nature of Things is not an easy read. Totaling 7,400 lines, it is written in hexameters, the standard unrhymed six-beat lines in which Latin poets like Virgil and Ovid, imitating Homer’s Greek, cast their epic poetry. Divided into six untitled books, the poem yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty, philosophical meditations on religion, pleasure and death, and complex theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease. The language is often knotty and difficult, the syntax complex, and the overall intellectual ambition astoundingly high.

So it’s a tough, challenging read, as much so today as it ever was. I’m reading it, but have to admit it’s a bit of a slog, even in the modern Penguin edition.

Omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret.
Life is one long struggle in the dark.
Book II, line 54.

It’s astounding how anyone in Caesar’s day could by reason, logical, analysis and inference alone – no highly technical equipment, no advanced mathematics, no electron microscopes, no particle colliders, no Hubble telescope – deduce the structure of the universe was based on atoms. And then to infer that those atoms were constantly in motion, indestructible and timeless.

That’s what the Epicurean philosophers did. Lucretius, perhaps the last of them (or certainly at least the last outstanding Epicurean) put their theories and ideas together into one long, rhetorical poem to teach his fellow Romans what Epicureans stood for.

In doing so, Lucretius deconstructs and dismisses the theories of his contemporaries about the nature of the universe, using the same tools of thought and reason. Those theories – now long dismissed –  fossilized into accepted dogma for many centuries before his book was rediscovered. On the Nature of Things had no less an impact on Renaissance thought than On the Origin of Species had on modern thought.

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02/14/14

Amo, Amas, Amat…. and what?


Wheelock's LatinMy well-thumbed copy of Eugene Ehrlich’s book, Amo, Amas, Amat and More, is dated 1985. It’s amusingly subtitled “How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others.”

It’s still in print, it seems, or was as recently as 2006. I’ve read my copy on and off for the past 25-plus years, but have not been able to effectively astonish anyone with my grasp of Latin.

Possibly the reason for this is that my grasp of Latin is small. Very small. I had a single year of Latin classes in high school; lessons mostly relegated to the dustbin of my mind along with solving quadratic equations. The rest I’ve scrounged from other books and sources. It’s less a grasp than a smattering of random bits.

I’d like it to be better. As in to actually be able to read and understand at least elementary Latin, not merely recognize that the words on the page are in Latin. Which is, at present, Greek to me (if you’ll pardon the inexecrable joke…). And certainly better able to write it than cutting-and-pasting the inevitable Lorem ipsum placeholder into a draft design project.

So last week I took the plunge and ordered a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, 7th Edition, from Amazon with the intention of teaching myself. And hope not get too distracted by other books, baking, computer games, politics, pets and Friday housework… ooh, a new ukulele….

My learning accomplishments in Latin to date include reading the first 40 or so pages (mostly introduction and pronunciation basics) and memorizing the present tense verb conjugations of two -are and -ere verbs in Lesson One. Which means I’m about a hundred years of effort from having enough Latin in my grey matter to astonish anyone other than my dogs.

Laudo, laudas, laudat, laudamus, laudatis, laudant… plus the imperative: lauda and laudate. Impressed yet? Yeah, so were my dogs. But it’s one small step further along this path than last week. A journey of a thousand li starts beneath one’s feet, as Lao Tzu wrote. This is my early footing, then.

I dug my Ehrlich off the shelf this morning, along with a couple of aged Latin dictionaries and every book about Latin I could find in my collection. It’s a fairly thin lot. But I need some extra help as struggle through Wheelock’s Latin on my own – a lot more than I currently have on the shelves.

I need at least one collection of Latin verbs nicely conjugated for my enjoyment, plus grammar guides, workbooks, and some better dictionaries. And maybe some source material (interlinear translations would be nice), like the one I have for the Canterbury Tales).

Ka-ching, the Amazon.ca cash register is singing (hinc illae lacrimae…) (okay, I had to dig that one out of a file of Latin phrases…)

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02/11/14

Feb. 12: Happy Darwin Day


Charles DarwinFebruary 12 is international Darwin Day, the day when we collectively celebrate science and reason. And, of course, we recognize Charles Darwin’s birthday: February 12, 1809 (the same birthdate as Abraham Lincoln, by the way).

If Collingwood made such declarations, I would propose we recognize the day in our municipality. Other Canadian municipalities have done so. Maybe we could raise a flag with Darwin’s face on it outside town hall.

Darwin Day was first celebrated in 1995 and has been growing in recognition and popularity ever since. As Darwinday.org tells us the celebration was:

…initiated by Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Stephens and took place at Stanford University. The first EVENT sponsored by the Stanford Humanists student group and the Humanist Community, was held on April 22, 1995. The famous anthropologist Dr. Donald Johanson, who discovered the early fossil human called ‘Lucy’, gave a lecture entitled “Darwin and Human Origins” to over 600 people in the Kresge Auditorium.

In subsequent years the location and date of the celebration was changed to coincide with Darwin’s birthday and was held on, or near, February 12 each year. The success of the venture is reflected in the list of speakers which include Richard Dawkins, 1996; Paul Berg, 1997; Robert Sapolsky, 1998; Douglas Hofstadter, 1999; Michael Shermer, 2001; Robert Stephens and Arthur Jackson, 2003; Robert and Lola Stephens, 2004; and Eugenie Scott, 2005.

And, as the site also adds, “Celebrating Science and Humanity within our various cultures throughout the world is an idea that is overdue…”

I would hope, too, that people would take some time out of their busy days to read something of Darwin’s, even if only a few pages. He wrote beautifully, albeit rather obtusely at times.

Of course, I don’t expect creationists will break out of their cult mentality and celebrate science today: they haven’t in more than 150 years since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. But while we celebrate Darwin, we should give some thought to creationism on this day, not just to critical thinking, if for nothing else than to remind us that we still have a long way to go to get universal appreciation of science and reason.

Especially, it seems, in the USA, where 43 percent of Americans believe in young-earth creationism. Not entirely bad news, given that figure has dropped from 54 percent in 2009. But still very, very scary.*

On Facebook today there were a couple of links to articles about creationism worth reading on this Darwin Day.

Creationism museum displayFirst is a cutely risible piece on Buzzfeed called “45 Things I Learned At The Creation Museum.” For those who don’t know it, the Creation Museum in Kentucky is where Bill Nye recently successfully debated creationist Ken Ham. It’s probably the most strenuous effort to rationalize away science ever constructed.

If I ever get to Kentucky, I will pay a visit, but I expect I’ll get escorted out for laughing too loudly at the exhibits. And if you’re like me, you will probably enjoy the virtual tour in the Buzzfeed article more than actually being there, because you don’t risk being ejected. After all, how can you keep a straight face when confronted with a sign that claims all dinosaurs were vegetarians before Adam?

Uh, and those razor-edged, pointed, cutting, slashing teeth were for… broccoli? Okay, stop snickering or they won’t let you in the museum either.

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01/26/14

The Mac celebrates 30 years


MacintoshA recent article on Gizmodo shows off some previously unseen (or perhaps just forgotten) footage of a young Steve Jobs unveiling the Macintosh computer, back on January 30, 1984.

Thirty years ago, this week.

Seems like forever ago. But I remember it, and reasonably well. I remember where I was living then, what I was working on, and who I was with (I’m still with her…)

The video clip also includes the famous Orwellian “1984″ TV ad Apple used to launch the Mac. That’s worth watching for itself. It was a really cheeky ad, and generated a lot of chatter about marketing at the time. The clip includes other Mac ads you should watch.

I had a Mac around then, bought, as I recall, in late 84 or early 85. I had had a Lisa – the Mac’s unsuccessful predecessor – on loan for a few months in 83 or early 84. I wasn’t impressed with the Lisa, but the Mac really captivated me.

I also had an IBM PC, from 82 or 83, and never quite understood the anti-IBM sentiments Jobs and Apple promoted among users. But then PC users fought back just as adamantly over the superiority of their platform.

As a computer geek from way back, I just loved having any – every – computer. When I started computing, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment; the second (the Iarger of the two, of necessity) bedroom became a workroom filled with computers, books, manuals, printers, modems, tools, chips, soldering irons, cables, and printers. As a technical and documentation writer, I always had extra hardware and software on loan from manufacturers and distributors. I once described my room as looking like a “NASA launch site.”

When we eventually bought our own house, I had a room for my books and computers, too, although they tended to escape and overrun the rest of the house. Same thing has happened here, although the amount of hardware is much reduced from the glory days (more ukuleles today than computers).

But ever since my first computer, I have not been a day without at least one computer in the house, usually several.

By the time the Mac was released, I had been computing for more than six years. I bought my first computer in the fall of 1977, a TRS-80, and soon had several machines (an Apple in 79, an Atari 400 in 1980 and then an 800 in 81). I belonged to user groups, subscribed to at least a dozen computer magazines, and wrote for several, including one of the earliest columns on computer gaming (in Moves magazine). I attended many computer fests and exhibitions in Canada and the USA – in fact, I helped organize a microcomputer fair in Toronto, at the International Centre, in the mid-80s.

As you read this, in 2014, I’ve been at it for almost 37 years.

So I take some umbrage when I read this condescending snippet on Gizmodo:

30 years ago the landscape of personal computing was vastly different. That is to say, it hardly existed.

Hogwash. It was alive and well – thriving in its entrepreneurial glory. Only poorly-informed journalists who have not done their research would make such a claim. Or perhaps they are too young to know of the rich history of personal computing prior to their own acquisition of a device.

By 1984, we had seen the TRS-80, Commodore Pet, Apple II, Kaypro, IBM PC, Atari 400, 800 and 1200, Sinclair, TI-99, the Acorn, Coleco Adam and many others. Apple’s own IIc would be released later in 1984.

We would soon see both the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST 16-bit computers launched. Of which I had them all, and a few others passed through my hands in that time, too.

In the 80s, CompuServe dominated the field of online services with millions of customers as it spread. I was a sysop on CompuServe for many of those years. I even operated my own BBS for a while.

CompuServe was challenged – aggressively, but not very successfully – by several competitors in that decade including The Source and Delphi (I was later a sysop on Delphi, too, before moving to Collingwood).

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