And again, more mis-attributed quotes online

Faux Mark Twain quote, but not by him at all“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.” Allegedly by Mark Twain, but unlikely, and not found in any published source I have of Twain’s quotations. Online sources, of course, don’t count as authorities because they lack all credibility.

As one person commented on Yahoo,

The fact that “Quora attributes it to him” is worthless. Quora is yet another one of those idiotic “quote websites” that misquote and misattribute things all the time.
Note that Quora doesn’t bother to give an actual citation — what book was it from, what page, etc. Without a full citation, you have no assurance that this was said by Mark Twain or Herbert Hoover or some random dude who made it up yesterday.
It doesn’t appear (as Twain’s or anybody else’s) in either the 14th or 15th edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I suppose it’s possible that it comes from the newly released edition of his Autobiography, but I think it’s more likely that it’s just something misattributed by some stupid “quote website.”

These comments are applicable to almost every quote site I’ve found, with rare exception such as wikiquote.org. Most of these so-called quote sites are wastes of electrons because they share without qualification, without verification, without confirmation.

Faux Picasso quoteEvery Child is an Artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up. Pablo Picasso. Again, another unsourced quote that does not appear in any reliable printed source such as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, or on Wikiquotes. In fact, not of the reliable quotations from Picasso I have read ever mention children at all.

Sometimes this comment is noted as “”Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Other variations include “Every child is born an artist” and this one: “Every child is born an artist. The problems begin once we start to grow up.”

I have not been able to identify the actual source of these words; every Internet site I have encountered sheepishly repeats the words or images, without bothering to identify where or when Picasso said them. Personally, I expect to discover they were made by some more modern educator rather than the late artist Picasso. Or perhaps part of it was taken from this Talmudic comment on poem by Isabella McCullough:

Every child is a poet.
Every child is an artist.
Every child is a philosopher.
Every child is a theologian.
Every child is an actor.
Every child is a dancer.
Every child is a nature-lover.
Every child is an explorer.
Every child is a comedian.
Every child is a skeptic.
Every child is a teacher.
Every child is a boundary pusher.
Every child is a truth speaker

Martin Luther King half-quote“Everything we see is a shadow cast by that we do not see. The invisible is a shadow cast by the invisible.” Martin Luther King Jr. This is actually a quote by King, but not the full portion, so it’s misleading. It has been taken out of context and turned into a soppy, New Age bumper sticker slogan.

It is taken from a sermon given by King on April 21, 1957, titled “Questions that Easter Answers.” The full quotation is:

Easter tells us that everything we see is a shadow cast by that we do not see. The invisible is a shadow cast by the invisible.

In other words, King wasn’t making some deep Platonic comment about the shadow-vs-truth nature of the world, but rather a very specific observation on the nature of Christian belief, and even more specifically about what the Christian observance of Easter teaches Christians. It is not a general comment on life, nor was it ever meant to be used as such.

Comments taken out of context like this are as dangerous and stupid as mis-attributed quotations.

Mark Twain actually said, (in a letter to George Bainton, 15 October 1888, solicited for and printed in George Bainton, The Art of Authorship: Literary Reminiscences, Methods of Work, and Advice to Young Beginners (1890), pp. 87–88.
sourced from Wikiquote): “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

Literacy comment A book commits suicide every time you watch Jersey Shore. Also noted as a “reality” show (in quotes because they are not reality but highly scripted works). Just a peripheral comment on the nature of literacy; watching TV rather than reading is one of the reasons people are not critical thinkers, able to actually identify or confirm whether these are real or faux quotations. Most people simply pass them along unchecked because they confirm some sort of existing belief – “epistemic closure” it’s called.

The Oldest Art: 40,800 Years Ago

Paleolithic paintings in El Castillo cave in Northern Spain date back at least 40,800 years — making them Europe’s oldest known cave art, according to new research published June 14 in Science.

Science Daily photoThat’s the lead to a fascinating story about the origins of art. Cave art seems to have been practiced 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. That age could make the artists either the first modern humans or even Neanderthals. That latter possibility is pretty exciting.

We know from burials found in the Middle East that Neanderthal people practiced ritual burial and made musical instruments. This find suggests that may have been artists, too. An earlier story in Science Daily from 2010 noted that Neanderthals have been found to be much more advanced than previously thought.

When I was growing up, Neanderthals were imagined as heavy, stupid, slow and brutish. Now we know they had art, music and burial rituals that suggest religion, and were a lot more sophisticated than we first imagined. A cave full of bear skulls found in Europe dated from that time, suggests they had animistic worship. Which raises the question: is religion, like language, hardwired in humans?

Dr Pike said: “Evidence for modern humans in Northern Spain dates back to 41,500 years ago, and before them were Neanderthals. Our results show that either modern humans arrived with painting already part of their cultural activity or it developed very shortly after, perhaps in response to competition with Neanderthals — or perhaps the art is Neanderthal art.”

Art is part of what defines us as human. Knowing the Neanderthals made art helps us identify them as human, not just some type of hairless ape, or brutally primitive human as they were seen when I was young. While it’s often debated, I side with the scientists who believe that Neanderthals interacted with early humans, and probably mated with them. Many of us carry some Neanderthal DNA in our genes. Maybe that’s the part of us that creates art and music. Maybe that’s the legacy they left us. It would be interesting to research whether that DNA is present in artists and musicians, .

The Decline of Information Quality

Huff Post 01I’ve been troubled the last year or so by the increasing amount of trivial crap that is being presented on media sites as news, rather than what it really is: shallow gossip, pseudoscience, trivia, anecdote, voyeurism and personal experience.

As titillating as some glitterati’s wardrobe malfunction might be, it is not front page news. In fact, it isn’t worthy of the description news even when relegated to a more appropriate location, buried deep inside the site. Gossip belongs with the horoscope, cartoons and word-search puzzles.

Nor is a cute animal in some anthropomorphic posture news. Kitten and bunny wrestling? Why is there a front page link to such inane pap? But there is was on the HuffPost.

Who a “reality” TV star marries, what she ate, the condition of her dress or how much cleavage she shows is not only not news, it is not important in any sense of the word. It is an insult to the readers’ intelligence to put it on the front page.

Huff Post 02It is, in the dietary sense, empty intellectual calories. It seems to fill a space, but it is empty, void of content, just wasting bandwidth. Like doughnuts, soda pop and candy bars, it fills without fulfilling. It provides no cerebral nutrition. In short, it is material for the hard of thinking.

I never thought I’d say this, but there are actually TV shows with more intelligence than this crap. Not, of course, many; some BBC, TVO, PBS and CBC shows – not the American Picker, Swamp People or Jersey Shores nonsense, mind you. Both History and Discovery channels have become broadcasters of excremental trivia, dropping documentary for mediocrity.

There is, of course, a place for gossip about the haberdashery and sex lives of the glitterati. Supermarkets have racks of such irrelevant tabloids for those who thrive in the shallows of the intellectual pond. But it does not belong on the front page of an allegedly national or international media publication (like the Huffington Post).

National PostNot that the HuffPost is alone in dumbing down its content for a less discriminatory, less intellectual audience, although it is arguably the worst, with more pure crap on its front page than any other news site I visited.

The National Post has a section called “arts” in which it places front page trivial pap about Lindsay Lohan in a car accident, a legal dispute between two actors and an “open letter from Elvis Presley.” Gossip and minor events in the lives of actors is not news and it isn’t anything to do with the arts. Car accidents may be entertainment for some twisted souls, but the majority does not see them as having any cultural or artistic merit.

Canoe 02Canoe, the Quebecor home site, opens with some minor news pieces, but uses a media player to move you quickly to trivia categories like showbiz, movies (why this is not in showbiz is a mystery), swimsuits (an entire category of stories!) and “tearjerkers” where dumbing down is elevated to a new standard. The front page has stories about garage sales and movie trivia. The main news story today is “Man killed in B.C. goft cart crash.” Yes, it says “goft” cart, not golf cart. You have to actually hunt for real news like the latest massacre in Syria.

None of this reduces my impression of Quebecor as the bottom of the intellectual barrel in the Canadian media industry, of course. Just reinforces it. My overall attitude is that QMI is the only news agency that makes the trashy Fox network look moderate, and the old News of The World look relevant.

Toronto Sun 02The Sun newspaper is, well, just what I expected from a newspaper that has more about sports, gossip and sex than it has news or anything important. I’ve never had a high opinion of the Sun ever since it started, mostly because of its uber-right editorial stand. But unlike most traditional media, it hasn’t gone downhill in its content. Of course, it hasn’t improved, either. The Toronto Sun’s website features several irrelevant front page “celebrity gossip” pieces, and more sports than news. Sports may be important to some, but it isn’t news and should not push out real stories.

Huffpost is, unlike the NatPost or the Sun, mainly a news aggregator, so it pulls stories from other sources, and doesn’t create much of its own (blogs are opinions, not news). In that, it can’t be blamed for the quality of the items, but simply for the choice. Similar aggregator sites like National Newswatch and Bourque exist, with varying amounts of crap pretending to be news. Midway down the National Newswatch page is a story in the “E-zone” (for e-diot?) is a fluff piece with the headline, “Stop everything: Selena Gomez is talking about Justin Bieber while wearing a bra,” followed by links to other, similar pap. To be fair, though, the site has a greater news-to-crap ratio than the HuffPost. Bourque sticks to the headlines and pushes the fluff way down to the bottom.

I’ve heard the argument that the media only provides what people want. That’s nonsense and one of the bulwarks the increasingly right wing, ideologically-fixed media depends on to continue its war on intellectuals and non-right thinkers. Media provides either what it THINKs the public wants, or what it thinks the public SHOULD want.

No one wakes up in the morning thinking they want to get more stupid. Media corporations provide this trivia not to meet demand, but to create it. Ideologues don’t want informed, intelligent consumers. Informed people make better choices than uninformed ones and are not as likely to follow the script. The right’s entire argument about Medicare in the US has been phrased in terms that make it a hate crime to reason, to think critically and to question the “authority” of the right’s pundits who decry providing public medical services instead of holding people hostage for basic medical care.

Information diabetes. That’s what the right-leaning media has, and wants us all to contract through an obesity of irrelevancy. To be fair, there are well-informed people on the right, but not as many as there are on the left. That’s because of the basic difference in how each political stripe sees information. The left sees it as something to share and exchange. The right sees it as proprietary, private and secret.

A recent Gallup poll highlighted the effect of dumbing down media with tripe: only 15% of Americans believe in the evolution, but 46% believe in some form of creationism. That would not happen with a better-informed public. People are not usually intentionally so stupid, but there are those in power who intentionally try to make people stupid. Rather pointedly, the vast majority of creationists also side with the right, while those on the side of science and fact are mostly on the left.

Dumbing down is done through the media by replacing content with fluff, by pushing pseudoscience and superstition, gossip and salaciousness to the front page instead of science and research, or instead of hard news and empirical data.

Who will pay attention to climate change, the oil sands, or the civil war in Syria when the front page has voyeuristic shots of some almost-dressed starlet showing cleavage, or something salacious about a TV wannabe with a childish name like Snookie? Who will turn to images of civilians being shot or streams awash in toxic oil spills, when you can look at a star in a bathing suit? Thinking people, of course will, but the point of this dumbing down is to hide the real content under a torrent of irrelevant pap, deep enough that the average person – with an attention span conditioned by TV watching to be shorter than a gnat’s – won’t bother looking that deep.

As Johnson writes in The Information Diet, there’s no such thing as information overload; it’s more like an imbalance of information quality. The good data is in shorter supply than the dreck. In the same manner, obese people get that way not necessarily because of the quantity of food they consume; rather it’s the result of the quality of the food-like substances they eat.

Newspapers aren’t alone, of course; it started with TV. Channels like Discover and History promised content only to quickly become broadcasters of unbelievably stupid and anti-intellectual content. Just a look at the crap that TV dishes out daily can give anyone with an IQ over 80 a headache: Natural Born Dealers, Canada’s Worst Driver, Cash Cab, Believe It or Not, Storage Wars, Cake Boss, What Not to Wear, Pawn Stars, Canadian Pickers, Jersey Shore… just a few of literally hundreds of TV shows meant to dumb down the audience and keep people in an uninformed stupor. There are so many truly inexorably bad TV shows like these that I can’t even begin to list them all, let alone comment on how bad TV has become. I’ll have to leave that for another post.

But is there a cure for information obesity? Yes: focus, stop wasting time on crap, turn off the TV, exercise your mind and go back to reading books.

Verify Source Before You Post

I recently joined a small but dedicated group on Facebook. It’s called “Verify Source Before You Post.” Every reader of this blog and my older Mumpsimus Blog will recognize this as a favorite topic of mine. I’ve written perhaps a dozen posts over the last five years trying to correct numerous bad quotes or mis-attributions. It’s a losing battle, it seems.

When I say small, it is, by FB standards, tiny: 17 members right now. But that will, I hope, grow as time progresses. Surely there must be more people out there concerned with fact, with accuracy, and with the quality of information.

Of course, these groups are a lot less interesting to the masses than the usual “I-Love-Snookie” or “Lady-Gaga-Is-A-Godess” fan groups where members can endlessly prattle on about absolutely nothing of merit or importance. In VSBYP, you need to be engaged and contribute something meaningful.

Yes, there are groups on FB that are similarly intellectual, and I don’t want to downplay their importance to creating dialogue and debate in many spheres, from science to grammar. FB plays an important role – as does all social media – in engaging people in all fields, all disciplines, all sciences, all studies and all philosophies.

But as everyone on FB knows, the vast amount of chatter is more of the what-I-had-for-breakfast sort than comments on, say, the relevance of the hunt for the Higgs Boson particle to current cosmological theories.

While some might see it as an obsessive and pointless task to try to verify and confirm all of the many quotes posted on FB and other sites, to me it’s as important and relevant as trying to confirm scientific data. But it’s also cultural.

And judging by the number of times a mis-quote gets shared, it seems I am in the minority of people who actually pay attention to what they pass along to others.

If someone attributes “She Loves You” to the Monkees or the Beegees in a post, you would get rightfully upset, and question the intelligence of the poster. You would feel compelled to correct the poster and point out that the song was written by Lennon and McCartney, and performed by the Beatles. If someone posted that Plato wrote the Illiad, or Tolstoy wrote The Brothers Karamazov, or Edward de Vere wrote Hamlet, you would likely feel equally compelled to correct them and state the actual author’s name.

I feel the same when someone attributes a saying to Albert Einstein, Shakespeare or Machiavelli that I know is incorrect.

Anyway, if you are both interested in this sort of intellectual activity, and have a Facebook account, I recommend you join the group and help build it into something stronger.

More Facebook Mis-quotes

Facebook imageSaw three images (“posters”) on Facebook today with “quotes” I’m pretty sure are mis-attributions. As usual, I feel compelled to check out their validity.

First is one allegedly by “St. Francis of Assisi.” This would be simply “Francis of Assisi” if you’re not Catholic or don’t believe in saints or canonization. One day I’ll post a blog piece about canonization and its politics, but not now.

The quote is: “What we are looking for… is what is looking.”

That seems one of those gooey, touchy-feely New Age thoughts, and Francis never said anything even remotely close to that. The late 12th-early 13th century Francis said some very profound things, almost all of which are very specifically Christian and very Medieval in tone. One properly attributed quote is:

Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance. Where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor vexation. Where there is poverty and joy, there is neither greed nor avarice. Where there is peace and meditation, there is neither anxiety nor doubt.

A very little amount of digging showed that the quote in the image is actually from a book on consciousness by Stanley Sobottka, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Virginia. Here’s the whole piece:

When we are identified with the thinking mind, there is emptiness, frustration, dissatisfaction, anxiety, and boredom. Our security cannot be found in what is ever-changing. It can only be found in what is never-changing.
What we are looking for is what is looking. We are the home of peace and fulfillment and everything We really want. When we rest in Awareness, We see directly that there is no doer. We are not a concept or object because We are What is aware of them. The activities of the body-mind and of the rest of the world continue but they do not affect Us. The more time We spend resting in Awareness, the more peace We feel. If we were suffering before, we might even forget why we were.

It’s less saccharine and much more empirical when you read it in context. That’s one of the problems of taking comments out of context.

Facebook imageThe next one is a “prayer” attributed to “Queio Apaches.” (That should be “Quero” Apache, but the poster’s creator mistakenly wrote “Queio”). It reads: Looking behind I am filled with gratitude. Looking forward I am filled with vision. Looking upward I am filled with strength. Looking within I discover peace.”

In the sense that a prayer is a supplication to a supernatural entity, this isn’t one. It’s more a meditation. But it isn’t Apache either way.

That’s another one of those feel-good New Agey-style pieces that you expect to read in a poster in a homeopath’s or “psychic’s” dwelling. I have a lot of respect for Aboriginal wisdom, but I’m pretty sure they would not have penned such soppy sentiments. Like the other “prayer” I wrote about last April, it sounds like something a Hollywood writer would have written to mimic stereotypes of native speech.

A little digging and the source is a book by Maria Yraceburu, called “Prayers and Meditations of the Quero Apache.” Yraceburu is described on Amazon as, “…an Apache idealist Tlish Diyan philosopher, educationist, painter and community council.” In a quote from that book, the author writes:
“In Tlish Diyan philosophy, humanity is understood as living in a shared cosmos that is mysterious and expresses profound spiritual evidence of the divine power behind all natural phenomena. While all nature is considered sacred and its mystery and beauty appreciated as a bridge between human consciousness and the Sacred, the purpose or mission of human life is to be that of acting on behalf of ihi’dah (life force), and the understanding of this concept is found through life affirming ritual.”

My New Age Warning antenna crackle when I read something like that. Nothing I read identifies whether this is a traditional meditation or something Yraceburu either wrote herself or paraphrased. I suspect the former.

There is no “Quero” Apache tribe and it seems to be solely the product of her imagination. I found this piece about the author:

The White Mountain Apache Say She’s a Fraud, July 15, 2008
The White Mountain Apache nation says Maria Naylin (her real name) is a fraud. Yraceburu is not even an Apache name, it’s Yaqui. The White Mountain nations say that nothing she claims is anything close to Apache tradition, and they have no record of her enrolled and no one had ever heard of her until they received many complaints about her. The tribal offices also tried to get her to quit using the White Mountain tribal seal without their permission.
Her main concern is to make money over in California, far away from the people she falsely claims are her own. She also has her partner, a Gypsy woman, falsely claiming to be an Apache healer.
One of the people Naylin says trained her, “Rolling Thunder”, was a white man claiming to be “Chickamauga Cherokee” who sold ceremonies in Europe and set up a commune for white hippies in a Nevada brothel. She claims training by another fraud, Twyla Nitsch, who is a woman with a small amount of Seneca blood kicked off the reservation for being a ceremony seller. Naylin also claims to have been trained in Kahuna. Kahuna is a white exploiter’s false version of Hawaiian traditions.
She falsely claims to be “Quero Apache,” a tribe that does not exist. The Quero are a tribe in South America with many false claims made by them by New Age charlatans, no relation to the Apache.
Think of this book as pure fantasy, not anything to do with actual Apache tradition.

This site calls her a “culture vulture” and reprints a letter from real Apaches:

The White Mountain Apache Tribe then conducted research into the historical and cultural foundations of Ms. Naylin / Yraceburu assertions and publications, including consultations with Apache elders and cultural specialists who are
members of the White Mountain Apache and San Carlos Apache tribes.
The inquiry failed to discover any reliable evidence suggesting the historical or cultural legitimacy or accuracy of the work of Ms. Naylin / Yraceburu. All indications available to the Tribe are that she and her works are among the latest in a long line of misguided efforts to make unauthorized and inappropriate use of Native American culture and history — cobbled-together half-truths and fabrications intended to deceive and derive profit from the hopes and fears of those seeking to understand themselves and American Indians.

More on this controversy can be found here and on other sites.

All of these I sourced with perhaps no more than 10 minutes of searching each. Yet they are repeated tens of thousands of times on other sites without anyone bothering to check their validity or confirm a source. Too many people have too little critical thinking.

Facebook imageFinally we come to something attributed to Samuel Clemens, one of my favourite authors (writing under the pseudonym of Mark Twain): “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” Wikiquote – one of the best sources online for valid quotes – doesn’t list it.

I’ve found several properly attributed Twain quotes, including this one from an 1873 speech titled License of the Press: “The trouble is that the stupid people–who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations–do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper.” Great quote. Today we’d replace the words ‘a newspaper’ with ‘the internet.’

But I have not found anything with the exact wording of the quote with anything more than a generic attribution. That told me it isn’t a valid quote (valid quotes include the source). Certainly it doesn’t read like anything I’ve read by Twain. So I kept looking. This site attributes to author Greg King, as do several quotation sites (some which which also attribute it to Twain). I’d bet on the King attribution.

All of these quotes are repeated ad nauseum on many, many other sites, including those allegedly reference sites for quotations. Which proves (as do all of these mis-attributed quotes) that these sites are NOT authoritative, merely collectors of anecdotal errors.

Diablo III: Hype or Gaming Excellence?

Diablo III gameplayThe hype was huge and long. Diablo III was rumored, hinted at, promised, delayed, and even denied for years. Then it was embraced when it finally arrived after more than a decade’s hibernation since the success of Diablo II, released in 2000 (and 16 years since the original, released in 1996). Good technique for raking in the money: the anticipation meant huge sales initially.

The spammers love it, of course, because it provides a wonderful, accessible platform for scams through its live in-game chat system that allows them to post text ads promising in-game gold and experience points in exchange for real money. This sort of scam has plagued World of Warcraft for years. Electronic Arts has not learned much from a that lesson, it seems.

There are reports (see this article from Forbes magazine) that D3 has been hacked and scammers have stripped accounts of gold and items.It may be that EA’s battle.net is being hacked instead, which means all your accounts with it including WOW are vulnerable. If you read some of the game forums you can find these stories in abundance. Even if you use one of their authenticator dongles, you may still be hacked, as this story notes. The threat is not merely losing virtual items in a game account – but that it will let the hackers into your other services, like email accounts, or other online places where you may use the same name, email or password. Like PayPal, online banking or eBay.

EA has denied widespread hacking. Having had my WOW account hacked, I can testify to the stomach-wrenching sensation of logging on and finding all your gold gone, your stash empty and your character naked (except for some politically correct but underwear). There are unconfirmed reports of players being hacked even through they use EA’s authenticator.

I figure I report at least a dozen spammers every time I play the game. Which is, because of their ubiquitous presence, increasingly seldom. It doesn’t appear reporting abuses makes any difference. It’s hard to tell because spammers change their identity almost daily and their usernames are never the same, although the scam sites they tell you about remain the same.

This is Electronic Arts’ fault. You need a constant Internet connection to play the game, even when you’re playing solo. That means the spammers and scammers are there with you, sending message after message after message – often five or six of the same multi-line crap – through the general chat network. No, it doesn’t affect your game, just your perception, as your attention is continually drawn to the part of the screen where their messages appear.

Had EA set up the system so that solo play was local, not linked to the Net, spammers would not be such a huge problem. As it stands, you are deluged with their annoying ads during gameplay. These may not be harmful per se (until you fall for one and go to their phishing site), but they break the immersion, and draw your attention from the game to the bright blue letters of their message on your screen.

Diablo 3Back up a bit. For those of you not familiar with the Diablo franchise, it’s a role playing fantasy game (RPG) with an overhead, third-person orthogonal view. Everything you do – move, fight, trade, repair, talk – you do with the mouse. It’s a clickfest. A typical session is one mouse click after another after another: click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click and then a whole lot more and faster in combat.

Suggestion: buy a good gaming mouse if you want to play D3. A Logitech gaming mouse can withstand the constant clicking. Your typical, cheap $20 mouse will break. Spend the $100-plus on a good mouse if you like this game.

Like the title suggests, Diablo is about demons, evil, devils, angels and their ilk, although not taken wholesale from Christian mythology. It’s more Hollywood than Biblical in its inspiration. The story line is thin, even simplistic, but sufficient to explain most of the action.

The bad guys are caricatures of evil, but it’s a game, not a novel or even a movie. The differences between D2 and D3 are more in the polish, but nothing that can justify a decade’s effort. The scenery is pretty, gritty and gloomy in turn – all good eye candy, if a bit stereotypical and cliched. Particle physics are good; monsters lose limbs in gory splats, and explode satisfyingly.

Diablo was an original concept in the 90s, and, although cloned by many other games, it was still great fun in 2000. In 2012, D3 doesn’t offer much more or newer than its competitors (like Dragon Age). In fact, following a move seen in WOW, D3 is simplified (dumbed down if you’re a hardcore gamer) from its previous versions: skimpier skill trees, fewer character classes (no more paladins…), fewer combat options. However, this allows players to concentrate more on gameplay and less on micromanaging their characters.

Buy a good gaming mouse if you want to play D3. A Logitech gaming mouse can withstand the constant clicking. Your typical, cheap $20 mouse will break.

It’s not a very deep or challenging game, but rather an entertaining time waster. It’s more beautiful than solitaire and it’s more fulfilling to kill monsters than drop a jack on a queen. But it’s not in the intellectual foreground like chess, go, or even the solitaire mah jong. It’s pretty heavily scripted and the paths you can take and means to fulfill a quest are limited and very linear. Some areas are large open zones you can explore; others are fixed paths you are forced to stay within. Each quest has to be done in order and completed the way the game dictates; it’s not an open-ended system with multiple quest-trees like Skyrim.

Replaying it with different characters, even different classes (wizard, barbarian, witch doctor, etc.) doesn’t change the game. Rather it simply changes some of the tactics and weapons available to the character class. It also changes a few, but not all, lines of dialogue you’ll hear. Along the way, you’ll get a companion to fight beside you. There will eventually be three you can choose from: templar, enchantress and scoundrel. The main difference between them is the tone of their repeated comments during play. You’ll want to play in silence after you’ve heard the same lines a few dozen times in an afternoon.

D3 gameplayStill, wiping out a whole platoon of Orc-like creatures, zombies, or demons does give some satisfaction. More than, say, clearing a screen full of cards. D3 is like Cheezies: addictive in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. You want something more cerebral, play Civ 5. Or Fritz chess.

Diablo III has other issues, not all of them EA’s fault. The scammers apparently broke part of the in-game auction system and forced EA to close down the part that used real money to buy virtual goods (why anyone would do this baffles me, but it’s done in other games like Second Life). The real money auction is offline right now, while EA works on a fix. My suggestion: drop the idea entirely and stick to the virtual gold system. That way no one gets hurt.

Auction prices are another thing that bother me. The auction house system works well in WOW but in D3, it seems like insane gremlins have taken over. Items that can be sold for 200 gold at any in-game merchant are being offered for 10,000, 20,000, even 100,000 and more! I’ve seen some in the millions of gold range. Obviously the sellers suffer from some sort of Midas ailment because these prices are not merely unreasonable, they are stupidly, egregiously high. No thinking adult would put these prices that high. Children must be muddying the auction system. Why isn’t there some sort of cap that limits players to auction prices a mere 100 times the in-game sell price, rather than allow it to be posted at thousands?

Diablo 3Non-player characters are generally as stupid as auctioneers when they fight with you. They can be inept or ineffectual during a battle (why do they have such a hard time killing a single monster that I can dispatch with one hit?). Sometimes they get stuck in rooms or at other points outside the action (poor path-finding programming I suppose). They say inappropriate things (like shouting wildly about a battle success when only one enemy was slain).

Static characters like merchants have a limited, series of lines they repeat every time you visit them (which gets stale within minutes of your first game). The repetition of lines makes players like me avoid all but the essential NPCs after the first hour of play. You must, however, visit merchants often, because your main source of income is selling the weapons and armour you pick up along the way. Since you can’t expand your packsack as in WOW, you can only carry a small number of items. That means frequent trips back to town to sell the crap you’ve collected. You get between 2 and 150 gold for a find, but mostly between 2 and 10. It takes dozens of hours of play to get 100,000 gold this way. So why would you waste it all on on weapon that you might as easily find falling from some chest or dropped by a monster?

Going back and forth between battlefield and town every 10 or so minutes to unload your pack gets old fast.

When you quit and start again, the monsters are back in the areas you just cleared out, respawned so you can kill them again. This is good for dungeon crawlers and grinders who play the same field, ruin or cave over and over to build up experience points and collect loot, although returns diminish as you gain levels. However, the ‘big bosses’ don’t respawn, so you can’t rake in massive loot and XP by killing them again. Too bad. However, on the plus side, most of the dungeons and fields change when you restart, so the geography is somewhat different, if not the result.

Diablo 3 wizardOnce you’ve taken your character through the basic (normal) level of play, you can replay it in harder modes. That means you deal less damage, and monsters are tougher, and loot may even be better, but the game doesn’t change otherwise. It’s just more of the same.

There is a multiplayer mode where up to four people can play in a public game online in co-op mode. Not sure how loot and XP work, but I always like co-op games. Not sure if public games give hackers and scammers any advantages, though, since they can discover your username in co-op mode.

Is it worth $60 (plus taxes and monthly Internet charges)? Without the spammers, I’d say yes, if you want a fast-paced, mindless, time wasting game. No if you’re looking for depth, high replayability, serious challenges or intellectual stimulation. But for basic fun and a month or two of entertainment, it’s not bad, assuming you are willing to risk being hacked and don’t mind taking frequent breaks from the action to report spam. I’d give it five stars if it didn’t require a constant Net connection for solo play, but with it, I’d give it 3.5 out of five.

It took me about 30 hours to finish one character on the basic level, so at $2 an hour, it’s not a great per-hour expense. Figure spending at least twice that time on the game, solo, if you want to try all the character classes. If you’re a fan of online MP games, you will probably play that much in coop mode. Value for the cost is good when weighed solely in playable hours. Throw in the spammers and the threat of hackers, and it’s worth somewhat less.

So to answer the question posed in the headline: it’s a more hype than excellence, but that hasn’t slowed sales. D3 doesn’t set any new standards or break any old ones, but it manages to be sufficiently entertaining nonetheless.

Patronage: Canada’s Shame

Political patronagePatronage is the dirty secret behind most nations and governments. It’s a shameful, embarrassing, corrupt and very undemocratic practice in which friends, supporters and benefactors get plum contracts, jobs, appointments, cash, perks and bonuses.

These are usually parcelled out not on the basis of achievement, ability, or talent, but rather simply because of political cronyism.

Canada is no better, and probably somewhat worse than most Western nations in how its governments practice this loathsome act of onanistic rewards. But unlike many more democratic nations, Canada maintains an official, government-sponsored body for patronage: the Senate. Our patronage Senate is something you’d expect from some developing Middle Eastern nation where friends of princes get fat rewards for their support, not a so-called Western democracy.

Well, because of our unelected Senate, we’re really an oligarchy. Given the salaries, unrestrained perks and benefits and expense accounts of our MPs, we might as easily be described as a plutocracy. Just look at the sense of grandiose entitlement of some of the foremost snouts in the trough – like Minister Bev Oda and tell me it’s not a government of plutocrats. (Oda is ostensibly the Minister of International Cooperation, but that appears to be a pseudonym for the Minister of the Most Entitlements).

The unelected and unaccountable Senate has authority to change or even reject legislation that elected officials craft. This, of course, means Canada is not a democracy, but rather an oligarchy where the ‘good old boys and girls’ in the Senate who have benefited from the patronage scheme can run the country without having to face the rigours of democracy or have their worth challenged in an election. When governments change, it gets stacked with party faithful whose sole qualification seems to be obsequious affection for the current prime minister.

It is the least credible, least transparent government agency, but it runs the country. The Senate stinks like an overripe corpse, but so does every patronage appointment.

A recent story in the National Post asked if patronage was “the oil that keeps our democracy turning.” Nice metaphor: patronage is as slick and slimy as oil. The article opens:

OTTAWA — Pork-barrel politics. Nepotism. Feeding at the public trough. Cronyism.
Call it what you will: Every government participates in patronage.
Jean Chretien appointed his controversial public works minister, Alfonso Gagliano, as ambassador to Denmark just as the sponsorship scandal was unfolding.
Brian Mulroney appointed his deputy chief of staff, Marjory LeBreton, to the Senate.
Stephen Harper appointed his former foreign affairs minister, Lawrence Cannon, ambassador to France.
And a recent Postmedia news analysis showed about 25% of failed Tory candidates from the 2011 election landed government appointments or jobs of some type.
But while Mulroney may have scandalized purists when he famously said, as opposition leader: “There’s no whore like an old whore” in reference to patronage plums, not everyone believes patronage perverts democracy.

Sadly, the self-described reformers of this toxic practice have succumbed to its lure. Stephen Harper promised to clean it up and create an elected Senate. Instead he has perpetuated the abuses by keeping it as a trough in which Conservative snouts can feed. His credibility as Prime Minister is tied to Senate reforms, which he has refused to institute.

The lack of transparency has fuelled a belief that it’s not what you know that lands you a patronage post, but who you know in the government.

But where is the will in Ottawa to end this system of buddy rewards and Senate appointments? Certainly not this government. As this story pointed out last December, Harper’s patronage appointments have become a holiday tradition in which the party faithful get their rich plums from the PM:

As reported by the Canadian Press Wednesday, Harper slipped through a rash of Conservative patronage appointments just after the pre-Christmas exodus from Parliament Hill. The recipients included failed candidates, ex-caucus members, members of Conservative riding executives and long-time party faithful.
Looking back, it seems that Harper’s Christmas appointments have become somewhat of an annual tradition.
On December 20, 2010, Harper appointed two new Senators – Larry Smith and Don Meredith.
On December 22, 2008, Harper made a record number 18 senate appointments…

What’s ironic is Harper’s history of denouncing the slimy practice of which he has become the undisputed king:

In opposition, Harper denounced the practice.
“(Canadians) are ashamed the Prime Minister continues the disgraceful, undemocratic appointment of undemocratic Liberals to the undemocratic Senate to pass all too often undemocratic legislation,” he said in the House of Commons in 1996.
Then, in 2006, after opposition MPs rejected his choice of a patronage watchdog, he vowed to one day stop the appointments of friends and insiders…
Harper now has his majority, yet the patronage appointments continue.

Funny how that evangelical zeal to reform a bad system has been lost since he has been in power. When will Canada get a government or a leader bold enough to break free of the patronage system and finally make Canada a democracy?

The Tin-Foil Hat Brigade in the Lab

Tin Foil hatsYou have to admire science. Nothing is beneath its inquiring eye. When I read that students at Berkley U had seriously investigated the nature of the ubiquitous-in-the-wingnut-community tin foil hats, I had to smile. Once again, science saves the day.

Bad news for the wingnuts. While research didn’t prove tin foil hats will stop the aliens from eating your brain, it did suggest that the hats may amplify certain frequencies that may be in the control of either governments or corporate interests.

According to the researchers at berkeley.intel-research.net/arahimi/helmet/,

The helmets amplify frequency bands that coincide with those allocated to the US government between 1.2 Ghz and 1.4 Ghz. According to the FCC, These bands are supposedly reserved for ”radio location” (ie, GPS), and other communications with satellites (see, for example, [3]). The 2.6 Ghz band coincides with mobile phone technology. Though not affiliated by government, these bands are at the hands of multinational corporations.

Then with what can only be tongue-in-cheek seriousness, the authors of the study conclude,

It requires no stretch of the imagination to conclude that the current helmet craze is likely to have been propagated by the Government, possibly with the involvement of the FCC. We hope this report will encourage the paranoid community to develop improved helmet designs to avoid falling prey to these shortcomings.

Gawds, I love this sort of thing. Unfortunately, the video of the research and results has been taken off YouTube. I can only hope someone restores it.

In the mean time, any creationists or self-described psychics among my readers should be concerned that your tin foil hats are actually allowing the evil government spy agencies access to your thought waves… better turn on the microwave to scramble their signals…

Thanks to Haggle for posting the link!

A Pyramid Hoax Reappears on Facebook

Ain't Photoshop wonderful?This Facebook headline caught my skeptic’s eye right away: “Energy beam coming from the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun.” After I finished guffawing at the gullibility of some folks, I decided to spend a little time researching how widespread this silliness had become.

As expected, and sad to relate, it was all over the Net. Seems every psychic-New-Age-crystal-therapy-astrology-aura-UFO-conspiracy-theory-Atlantis-Elvis-is-alive obsessed wingnut site has repeated the claims, usually copying and pasting them directly from the original source without even bothering to investigate the claims:

A team of physicists detected an energy beam coming through the top of the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun. The radius of the beam is 4.5 meters with a frequency of 28 kHz. The beam is continuous and its strength grows as it moves up and away from the pyramid. This phenomenon contradicts the known laws of physic and technology. This is the first proof of non-herzian technology on the Planet. It seems that the pyramid-builders created a perpetual motion machine a long time ago and this “energy machine” is still working.

In the underground labyrinth, in 2010, we discovered three chambers and a small blue lake. Energy screening shows that the ionization level is 43 times higher than the average concentration outside which makes the underground chambers into “healing rooms”.

Even a grade school education will see through this. First of all: perpetual motion. Doesn’t, can’t, won’t ever exist. period. Entropy is a basic law of physics. Then “non-herzian technology”? I assume the writer means non-Hertzian. That claim makes little sense unless you know what the author means by Hertzian. I assume he means that the power of the wave diminishes with the distance transmitted.

Nikola Tesla was experimenting with non-Herztian waves in the late 19th century:

Nikola Tesla advanced the electromagnetism theory into new dimensions, further than Hertz and other scientists of his time could conceive. He described his “wireless” waves being far superior to Hertzian waves, which diminish with distance. Tesla foretold of a brilliant new future for humankind, using his non-Hertian “wireless system,” including the ability to generate power and transmit it to various parts of the globe.

However, the author does not mention the power of the alleged beam, merely its frequency: 28kHz, or 28,000 cycles per second. That’s above the average human’s top end for high pitches (20kHz), but well within the hearing of dogs and many other mammals. This sound would be like a constant, annoying, high-pitched whine to them. Like a shrill dental drill to us. It would effectively drive most animals away from the site.

Healing rooms? Ionizing radiation is a known carcinogen. Negative ions can be a mood enhancer, and reduce air pollution, but I’ve never read any credible research that proves they heal anything. even so, calling a rough pit of sand and gravel a “healing room” is a bit of a stretch. And who are these “physicists” he claims investigated the site? None are named, no labs or universities noted, no test results posted to back up these claims.

Alleged This block of stone is one of the alleged “ceramic sculptures” found under one of the hills. It has been dubbed “K-2” and weighs approx 18,000 lbs. For an advanced society capable of building perpetual motion machines, they seem to have had a remarkably primitive sense of aesthetics. Their “sculpture” looks remarkably like a glacier-polished rock, or perhaps a big limestone accretion. I can easily understand why, if it is man-made, it is buried underground instead of being on the surface for all to see: it’s pretty ugly. These “sculptures” play an important parapsychological role, Semir writes: “Ceramic sculptures are positioned over the underground water flows and the negative energy is transformed into positive. All of these experiments point to the underground labyrinth as one of the most secure underground constructions in the world and this makes it an ideal place for the body’s rejuvenation and regeneration.”

All the right phrases to convince the New Age crowd that this is real magic, not that hokey-baloney fake magic called science. Woo-hoo for positive energy.

The author of this nonsense is Semir Osmanagi, a metalworker and contractor with a degree in sociology (not archeology). Before he started promoting these rocks as “pyramids,” he wrote a book called Alternative History in which he claimed that Hitler and other leading Nazis escaped to an underground base in Antarctica. In his book, The World of the Maya, he claims the Maya had a “mission it is to adjust the Earthly frequency and bring it into accordance with the vibrations of our Sun. Once the Earth begins to vibrate in harmony with the Sun, information will be able to travel in both directions without limitation.” he also claims Mayans descended from the mythical Atlantis.

Osmanagi writes on his site:

The pyramids are covered by soil which is, according to the State Institute for Agro-pedology, approx. 12,000 years old. Radiocarbon dating from the paved terrace on Bosnian Pyramid of the Moon, performed by Institute of Physics of Silesian Institute of Technology from Gliwice (Poland) confirmed that terrace was built 10.350 years ago (+/- 50 years). These finding confirm that the Bosnian pyramids are also the oldest known pyramids on the planet.

Archeology, a respected magazine, takes exception to that claim of age:

Construction of massive pyramids in Bosnia at that period is not believable. Curtis Runnels, a specialist in the prehistory of Greece and the Balkans at Boston University, notes that “Between 27,000 and 12,000 years ago, the Balkans were locked in the last Glacial maximum, a period of very cold and dry climate with glaciers in some of the mountain ranges. The only occupants were Upper Paleolithic hunters and gatherers who left behind open-air camp sites and traces of occupation in caves. These remains consist of simple stone tools, hearths, and remains of animals and plants that were consumed for food. These people did not have the tools or skills to engage in the construction of monumental architecture.”

The Smithsonian reported:

…Osmanagich… points out various boulders he says were transported to the site 15,000 years ago, some of which bear carvings he says date back to that time. In an interview with the Bosnian weekly magazine BH Dani, Nadija Nukic, a geologist whom Osmanagich once employed, claimed there was no writing on the boulders when she first saw them. Later, she saw what appeared to her as freshly cut marks. She added that one of the foundation’s workers told her he had carved the first letters of his and his children’s names…

On another site about these alleged pyramids Osmanagi says:

Almost everything they teach us about the ancient history is wrong: origin of men, civilizations and pyramids. Homo sapiens sapiens is not a result of the evolution and biologists will never find a “missing link”, because the intelligent man is product of genetic engineering. Sumerians are not the beginning of the civilized men, but rather beginning of another cycle of humanity. And finally, original pyramids, most superior and oldest, were made by advanced builders who knew energy, astronomy and construction better than we do.

So what are these structures? Simply natural formations called “flatirons”, possibly used at some point by Romans or others as hilltop encampments, but otherwise not unusual. The European Association of Archeologists has called for an end to the digging because it is ruining real archeological finds, and wrote, “This scheme is a cruel hoax on an unsuspecting public and has no place in the world of genuine science.”

Meanwhile, Osmanagi continues to dig, because, as he says, he needs to “break a cloud of negative energy, allowing the Earth to receive cosmic energy from the centre of the galaxy.” It’s entertaining stuff, but it isn’t science.

Dogs and dog owners need places to socialize

Dog picHow many dogs live here in Collingwood? No one knows for sure, but we can make some good estimates, based on numerous surveys and national statistics. It’s a lot. Dog owners are a very large special interest group, perhaps larger than any other demographic group in town.

I’ve done some research and read many studies on pet populations done since 1996 (like this one from 2001 and this one from 2007). All of the major census figures of the older surveys are consistent with the most recent surveys.

Nationally, we have between 35 and 39 percent of homes with one or more dogs. On average there are 1.7 dogs per household.

I wrote about our pet populations last year when council was debating the cat tag bylaw. Back then, I noted,

A recent survey done by Colin Siren of Ipsos Reid estimated there are 7.9 million cats and 5.9 million dogs in Canada. The survey also shows that 35% of Canadian households have a dog, while 38% have a cat, which is consistent with other surveys conducted in the developed nations. Based on a figure of 9,500 households we should have around 3,040 households with dogs and 3,610 with cats.

We actually have more than the original 10,695 households here (based on stats from the last census, used in a report prepared by the planning dept. in Feb., 2012), so the pet ownership figures need to be updated. If we are consistent with national averages, using the lower 35% ownership, we should have roughly 3,750 households with dogs. That means, based on an average of 1.7 dogs per household, more than 6,300 dogs in town.

If we assume that 80% of the households with dogs are full time residents (that’s the percentage of households here used by full time residents as estimated by Stats Canada), we get about 5,100 dogs live here year-round.

Figure on adding another 200 new homes to the mix in 2012, and we get another 120 dogs (95 full time). If Collingwood’s pet ownership figures are higher than the lower end of the national average – and there are reasons to believe that: we have more seniors plus we’re semi-rural, both of which push the averages up – we may have closer to 6,000 dogs living here year-round. And that’s not counting any new arrivals between the census and 2012.

Put it another way: based on an average of 2.3 people per household (StatsCan figures), there are more than 6,900 people living year-round in Collingwood in a home with one or more dogs, and more than 8,600 if we include all of our part-time households in the mix. And that’s the low end of the estimate.

In comparison, 1,276 Collingwood kids were enrolled in ball and ice-related teams in 2011. Another 220 Collingwood adults were listed in ‘pick-up’ hockey (source: PRC Dept., May 2012). But even if the number of kids playing hockey was five times that number, it’s still fewer than the total number of people in Collingwood homes with dogs as part of their family.

It’s not about us-versus-them, however. It’s about accommodating all the user groups in the community, not just some of them. Dog owners are a substantial group of residents. Just because dog owners are not organized like hockey or soccer associations doesn’t mean we can ignore them.

We have made it illegal to walk your dog without it being on a leash, which forces owners to find a place where they can legally let their dogs run free. Allowing dogs to have exercise and socialize is as important to their behaviour and psychology as it is to children’s.

Happy dogKeeping a dog on a leash or penned in a back yard all the time will create a dog with the same sort of personality that it would if you treated a child that way: anti-social, aggressive, bored, destructive and overweight. Dogs, like people, are social animals: they need exercise, activity, companions and interaction with humans and other dogs.

To accommodate all of our dog owners, have one full-time off-leash dog park in an isolated area located at the most southerly edge of town, an area without neighbours.

It can only be reached by driving (even if a bus went there, dogs are not allowed on our buses). Anyone without a car can’t use it unless they walk a very long way to get to it: the location is very inconvenient, even inaccessible for many people who want to walk their dog to an off-leash area. This violates some of our basic beliefs in walkability, in active transportation, in creating community spaces and in creating neighbourhoods.

It’s a dark place with no lighting, and there are no nearby homes, so it is not considered safe by all dog owners.

“Pawplar” Park, as it was named, is beside an unfenced storm water management pond, too. Council has received complaints recently about dogs swimming in the pond and having to be treated for skin and eye ailments. The park currently has parking for only four cars, so drivers are parking on the grass wherever they can find space, and wet ground discourages parking there.

There is no source of safe, fresh, treated water for the dogs. Only the pond (which could be toxic) and the nearby river (which could mean any number of parasites) have water. Upgrades to make the park better and safer would be modestly expensive.

Dogs at playTwo baseball diamonds (at Central Park and Heritage Park) are designated as off-leash areas in the off-season (winter to early spring). These close to dog owners in mid-April. Once they close, where can dog owners go? If owners take their dogs to the water to swim, they still have to obey the leash law. Where can dog owners throw a stick or a ball for their pet without violating the bylaw?

Council is talking about expanding our ice surfaces to accommodate the demands from skating and hockey teams ($35 million for a total of 685 young players, according to those PRC figures). Yet a suggestion to spend a mere $5,000 on fencing to create a temporary off-leash park at High and Second – a well lit, safe, walkable part of town – was criticized by some at the table, last Monday. That is an odd alignment of priorities, as I see them.

We apply curiously different standards of service and facility to dog owners than we do to users of the arena, the curling club, the tennis courts, the skateboard park, the lawn bowling club, the pool. I don’t think we should. Dog owners deserve, I believe, more choices than one, out-of-the-way spot accessible only by car.

Dog owners, too, appreciate the neighbourhood off-leash parks because they can socialize with other owners; talk with neighbours, share stories, exchange ideas about pets and help strengthen community bonds. Off-leash parks are also safer areas for kids because they are protected from traffic.

Last night, six of nine members of council* voted to approve the recommendation to create a temporary off-leash area in an unused part of Heritage Park. It’s a small step towards a long-term, permanent solution. I would like council to also consider identifying some trails as off-leash, as well, if for no other reason than to recognize their use as such by contemporary dog owners.

* Voting for the motion: Mayor Cooper, Dep. Mayor Lloyd, Councillors Cunningham, Lloyd, West and myself.

Digital Connections is in print

My new bookMunicipal World has released my newest book: Digital Connections. It came out this week.

This book is about the benefits and challenges of using social media for municipalities and municipal politicians. The target audience is politicians, staff, boards and committees, but a lot of what I wrote can apply to anyone in business or industry.

The sell sheet says:

Social media: everyone’s using it today. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, blogs, and photo/video sharing sites. These and other services have literally hundreds of millions of users. But what does it mean for your municipality? Or for you as a municipal politician?
Is it a potentially huge audience for marketing, business attraction, staff recruitment and even votes? Or is it all hype?
What services should you use? What are the rewards and what are the risks? How do you measure success and failure in social media? How do you measure activity and response rates? Who owns and controls usernames and passwords? How do staff update and monitor your municipal pages in social media?
Social media is both a boon and a minefield for municipalities. For newcomers, this book is a practical guide about where to start. For municipalities already using social media, it offers thought-provoking issues: liability, staff access, compensation, security and crafting social media policies.

I am currently working on my next book for Municipal World, about e-government and the impact of technology on municipal governance and politics, due out in December.

My other book, The Municipal Machiavelli, has been finished, but has not got a publisher yet. Personally, I think it’s the best book I’ve ever written.

What happened to the video business?

Rogers Video storeIn the early to mid 1990s, Collingwood had three independent video outlets. Then it had two and one franchise (Rogers). Several variety stores also had a small video rental business. Then the independents closed and another franchise (Blockbuster) moved in. Now the two corporations are gone and there is no place in town to rent videos. I am deeply disappointed.

What happened to the video rental business? Was it so unprofitable?

Or is it just a plan by Rogers to increase revenue through it’s “on demand” service? Or to drive customers to Netflix and get more revenue from their overuse of their parsimonious Internet bandwidth cap?

In my limited experience with the service, Rogers’ “on demand” is slow, clumsy and prone to interruption and stuttering. I was not impressed – I used it once, tried to use it twice more without success (it timed out both attempts), and never returned.

I haven’t tried Netflix, yet, but it seems it’s the only way we’re going to be able to watch current films. However, I’ve had mixed reviews from people I know who have the service – the list of films available is slim compared to what the video stores offered. We like to watch foreign films and independent films. I’ve been told Netflix doesn’t offer many (if any) of those, just the rather predictable Hollywood stuff.

We watch more movies than TV shows, mostly because most commercial TV is dreck. And that’s being kind.

With the exceptions of some BBC UK, HBO and AMC dramas, and a few odds and ends on CBC, PBS and TVO, the usual run of TV swamp people, ice road truckers, home hunters, so-called survivors, dancers, drivers, psychic frauds, junk store scavengers, restaurant remakes and pseudo-ghost hunters is simply junk food for the hard of thinking. Even the BBC Canada channel on Canadian TV is an unflattering, watered-down version of the excellent BBC America – which has dramas and mysteries and other series. BBC Canada is mostly a cultural wasteland: an embarrassing melange of tedious and repetitive kitchen and home “reality” shows.

Having no video rental outlet really limits our options for movie watching. I won’t pay for the cable movie channel because I already pay a lot more for cable than it’s worth. I would dump it back to basic cable except that we like to watch TCM. Rogers doesn’t offer any reasonable solutions for our quandary, just increasingly expensive packages. I could happily subscribe to about a dozen channels max, without any of the extra crap we never watch. But that sort of customer-friendly service isn’t available.

It irks me to pay for crappy and customer-hostile channels that repeat the same show over and over (like AMC showing the same tired movie twice in an evening and then again several times during the week). Or the number of channels showing the same thing, just with different channel numbers. Or the number of sports and music channels we will never, ever watch. Or the number that repeat shows from the 80s and 90s usually putting several of them back to back. We’re paying for hundreds of channels and we watch no more than six or seven most weeks.

I didn’t mind so much when we could rent movies, but when that’s no longer an option and we have to watch what’s on the box at any time, we get to see how really dismal, how intellectually arid, and how culturally shallow most TV is.

We can always buy videos, of course, but the two major outlets left that sell videos are probably about the lowest on the ladder for range of choices: Wal Mart and Zellers. Besides, who wants to pay $25-$30 for a B flick? After you’ve watched it, what do you do with it?

More and more, I feel we are being driven to dump cable TV altogether, and start using the Net for our entertainment.

Goodbye, Carlos Fuentes: 1928-2012

Carlos FuenteI was in a bookstore in Israel in 1980 or thereabouts, looking for a book in English to read during my visit. I found Terra Nostra, a 900-page novel by Carlos Fuentes, in a Penguin paperback edition. I had read another Fuentes’ book, A Change of Skin, a few years earlier, so I picked it up.

I’ve carried Terra Nostra with me ever since that day in Israel. It’s still on my bookshelf. I don’t remember if I ever finished it. I remembered that book this morning when I read that the Mexican writer, Carlos Fuentes, had died last night, at age 83.

I’ve read three of his 15 novels. Years after I had bought Terra Nostra, I read his book, The Old Gringo, an enjoyable tale which was turned into a good film in the late 1980s. Buried on my shelf this morning I also found Christopher Unborn, which I read some years ago. I’ve also got the novel that first brought him to international attention, The Death of Artemio Cruz. I can’t recall if I ever read it, but believe I did. It came into my collection around the time we moved up here, and like a lot of books I brought with me and stacked two-three deep on my shelves, I may have simply forgotten it. I tend to read mostly non-fiction these days, and not as much fiction as I once read.

Another novel, The Years with Laura Diaz, is up there, too, but unread and waiting. Not sure why I got it then forgot it. I now feel compelled to re-read his novels.

These might might be among my stash of “retirement novels” – books I meant to read when I retired because I never found the time to devote to them when I was working. I have several shelves of them, many now mixed with books I’ve read. Maybe it’s time to start reading them.

I recall Fuentes as a complex writer, with shifting tales woven into each novel, with transient perspectives, often with historical material that underlaid the novel’s time line.

Fuentes had the distinction of being what he himself called, “a pre-modern writer.” He used only pens, ink and paper to write. According to Wikipedia, he asked, “Do words need anything else?”

I can appreciate that sentiment, because I started out with pen and paper, although the geek within me really like this computer for composing, today. Still, there’s powerful magic in writing that is not found in word processing.

Fuentes said that he detested those authors who from the beginning claim to have a recipe for success. In a speech on his writing process he related that when he began the writing process he began by asking, “Who am I writing for?”

Looking through Terra Nostra today, it seems dense and meandering, like Joyce or Tolstoy. I found a bent corner at page 476. I wonder if that’s as far as I got, 40-plus years ago. I started to read from that page this morning and got sucked in for several pages. I think it’s a sign I should start reading Fuentes again from this book, rather than the newer Laura Diaz.

I was introduced to Fuentes back in the mid-late 1970s. I was reading Latin American authors – writers like Marquez, LLosa and Asturias, and many others. There was a paperback publishing wave headed by Bard/Avon to translate these authors for a North American market. Penguin followed and published others. I read dozens of them in that period – I still have many of those books on my shelves now. I enjoyed reading them; the authors had very different perspectives on life, on society, on government. It opened a new world to me and lead to my first trip to Mexico, more than 35 years ago.

Among my favourite books in that publication boom period was El Presidente by the Guatemalan author, Miguel Angel Asturias. I liked it so much I bought it in Spanish to try to read it in the original. I didn’t do very well, but I still have the Spanish version upstairs, along with a Spanish version of 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Marquez, and a more recent book by Paul Coelho, El Alquimiste. Someday I may try again, reading a line in Spanish, trying to translate it, then reading it in an English edition to see how well I did.

The BBC story on Fuentes’ death notes,

He was associated with the Latin American Boom – a literary movement made up of mainly young authors whose politically critical works broke with established traditions… His narrative, like that of his contemporaries of the Latin American Boom, was rarely linear, instead relying on flashbacks and changing perspectives.

The world lost a great author yesterday.More than that: he was a social commentator and champion of the people. But he lives on through his work and will continue to inspire writers for many more decades.

Having a purpose strengthens your brain

Cartoon StockA story in Science Daily caught my eye recently. It was titled, “Greater Purpose in Life May Protect Against Harmful Changes in the Brain Associated With Alzheimer’s Disease.” That suggested a different approach to brain ailments than what I’ve usually read. Most are medical or surgical. This one is philosophical.

I’m not one for either self-help or New Age palaver. Most of it strikes me as unmitigated pap that borders on the religious. It’s like the gazillions of diet books and websites. I’m not sure which would rake in the millions faster: to form a new religion or a new diet plan.So when I see something about a “purpose-driven life” I tend to shy away in case it involves angels, spirit guides, auras, ghosts or ten people you’ll meet in heaven. Or hell.

But when someone in the science community comments that purpose has more use than filling one’s days or creating fodder for self-help gurus, that it may have medical and biological implications, then I perk up and listen.

“Our study showed that people who reported greater purpose in life exhibited better cognition than those with less purpose in life even as plaques and tangles accumulated in their brains,” said Patricia A. Boyle, PhD.
“These findings suggest that purpose in life protects against the harmful effects of plaques and tangles on memory and other thinking abilities. This is encouraging and suggests that engaging in meaningful and purposeful activities promotes cognitive health in old age.”

In other words, as I read it: purpose makes you think better. Well, council watchers may want to debate that issue.

I know people today, including many people younger than I am, who don’t read to exercise their brains, don’t play interactive games (like chess, go, bridge), don’t do anything creative as a hobby (like write, play music, garden, take photographs). They work, they watch TV, they sleep. TV – a passive device programmed by media giants who want to control your life and consumer habits – is their main source of information, entertainment, opinion and education. What sort of purpose in life does watching TV fulfill?

By the terms of this study, they’re dementia patients in the making. Anyone who wastes hours of their life watching such dreck as “Survivor” or “American pickers” probably won’t notice the onslaught of dementia…

Boyle and her colleagues from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center studied 246 participants from the Rush Memory and Aging Project who did not have dementia and who subsequently died and underwent brain autopsy. Participants received an annual clinical evaluation for up to approximately 10 years, which included detailed cognitive testing and neurological exams.
Participants also answered questions about purpose in life, the degree to which one derives meaning from life’s experiences and is focused and intentional. Brain plaques and tangles were quantified after death. The authors then examined whether purpose in life slowed the rate of cognitive decline even as older persons accumulated plaques and tangles.

What the study suggests is that doing something creative or goal-oriented that requires some effort to start, develop and complete a project helps stave off some of the physiological problems that are seen in Alzheimer’s and other senility-related ailments. Obviously TV watching isn’t goal-oriented.

The study didn’t look at or correlate other studies that have shown how reading stimulates brain activity and also helps ward off dementia and senility. Which is unfortunate, because I believe the two have an obvious relationship. Reading is probably the most powerful activity you can do to keep your brain active and engaged.

The start, I suggest, to developing goals and purpose, is to turn off the TV. The next step is to find something creative to do. Build a deck. Plan a garden. Paint a room. Write a blog. Take photographs. Learn a new word or a new language. Play a game of chess or backgammon. Do a jigsaw puzzle. Play a musical instrument (or learn one). Train your dog to do a trick. Better yet, train your cat.

Do something active, something with a goal, a focus. It doesn’t have to be very big, or exciting or momentous. As long as you get off the couch and away from the TV.

At the very least, read a book. Books will give you ideas, goals, will inspire you, tease your imagination and make you smarter, wiser, more cultured and better looking (okay, maybe not the last one). Books will serve you much better than TV ever will. You don’t have to give up TV for good; just share your time with things that make you smarter, better, wiser, more educated, more intelligent and less prone to dementia than TV.

Just lay off the self-help books. Once you wean yourself from the TV you’ll probably find that tour life has a lot of purpose and meaning and you won’t need the self-help gurus.

Flatulent dinosaurs warmed ancient earth

Dino fartAn amusing story on Science Daily says researchers have determined that the giant, herbivorous sauropods of the Mesozoic might have been responsible for the era’s warm climate. Well, not the dinosaurs themselves, but rather the methane-producing bacteria in their guts:

“A simple mathematical model suggests that the microbes living in sauropod dinosaurs may have produced enough methane to have an important effect on the Mesozoic climate,” said Dave Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University. “Indeed, our calculations suggest that these dinosaurs could have produced more methane than all modern sources — both natural and man-made — put together.”

So basically, dinosaur farts created global warming. That would be one stinky environment.

Wilkinson, Ruxton, and Nisbet therefore calculate global methane emissions from sauropods to have been 520 million tons (520 Tg) per year, comparable to total modern methane emissions. Before industry took off on modern Earth about 150 years ago, methane emissions were roughly 200 Tg per year. By comparison, modern ruminant animals, including cows, goats, giraffes, and others, produce methane emission of 50 to 100 Tg per year.

Out-gassing animals have been blamed before as the cause of our recent climate changes. According to this site,

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) agriculture is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases world-wide (this is more than the whole transportation sector). Cattle-breeding is taking a major factor for these greenhouse gas emissions according to FAO. Says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the report: “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”

The site’s conclusion is to “Eat less meat and dairy products.” Now if dinosaurs did better in the hotter climate of the Mesozoic, then curiously the same advice would have been suitable for carnosaurs, because eating the sauropods could have reduced the global climate. Fewer herbivores equals fewer farts equals less methane in the atmosphere equals cooler temperatures. Somehow I can’t see a T. Rex nibbling on the Cretaceous equivalent of broccoli in order to keep a warmer neighbourhood.

Just another example of the wonderful delights we find in the world of science.