What’s wrong with SOPA and PIPA?

Ever wonder what the fuss was about the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) and the “Protect IP Act” (PIPA)? This video really explains it well. Both acts basically make everyone online guilty of piracy because we have the potential to steal simply by owning a computer connected to the Internet. It will be up to the user (you) to prove he or she is not doing it. As the speaker in the video says, the big media companies want consumers; not producers, not creators, and certainly not people sharing: just consuming what they are fed.

As noted in a story in The Christian Science Monitor,

In short, critics say, Congress is looking for a 20th-century answer to a 21st-century challenge… The deeper problem… is that the music and film industries simply haven’t adapted quickly enough to the new realities of the online world, and are instead trying to use Congress to prop up outdated practices.

“SOPA will prevent innovation in order to prevent piracy,” says Vince Leung, cofounder of the social media site, MentorMob.com. This has been a problem with every one of the US’s recent copyright changes and protection acts since the late Sonny Bono’s meddling. They protect the monetary investments of media corporations, while stifling the creative abilities of artists and producers. Artists and producers sharing content are not creating profit-making consumers for the corporations, so are a threat that must be stopped.

As a Canadian, I have no direct way to protest SOPA and PIPA, but both will have a huge impact on how I use the Net, what I produce, what I record, write, link, or share. Even if it’s legal in Canada to do so, my acts may become illegal in the USA and my site (or sites in Canada and elsewhere that I post on) may be punished for potentially breaking the laws of a foreign state even though I don’t reside or work there. I don’t actually have to break those laws, merely have the potential to do so. And it puts the onus on me to defend myself legally (in the USA, not in Canada), repair my reputation and restore my site if I am accused from afar.

But it gets crazier: if my site gets blocked, every site that has a link to my content – including Google and other search engines, or Facebook – gets blocked (guilt by association). Any site that sends me money or I use for sales or donations, has to block me, too. So even if what I did was not illegal in Canada, that act can take down dozens, maybe hundreds of other sites unless they shut me out. And I don’t have to actually have done anything illegal, either: all it needs is someone in the recording industry or other media firm to accuse me of doing it. The act says I can be shut down without proof or warning, and I can’t sue the company or companies for causing damage to my site or reputation even if I prove my innocence later.

So let’s say I find a fun video of a ukulele player doing a cover version of a popular song on YouTube. I post the video on this blog using the embed feature (as I’ve done here with these videos). Even though it’s only a link, and I’m not actually hosting the content – and I did not make or contribute to the video – by sharing it I could be accused of having copyright material on my site. YouTube becomes guilty, of course. Several other sites that take my RSS feeds become guilty. Google and Bing become guilty because I have an SEO package that provides links and keywords for search engines. Because I take donations, Paypal would be forced to cut off my account. My site – along with all these others could be removed from the DNS servers so you can’t find it by name. All this without prior warning or any other notice. I’d just wake up and find it had vanished when I typed in the name.

And what if I just post a text link to a site that has that video, and don’t embed it? Even though nothing shows on my site, I’m still guilty by association. Simply having a link makes me guilty and I can be blocked and even sued. I can even be sued if the other site has copyright material I don’t link to, and didn’t even know about. The link alone is sufficient to make me a criminal.

How Stalinist is that? Shy of actually having the secret police take me and my family away in the middle of the night, I can’t imagine anything as extreme or unjust as that.

The issue is a morass of themes: censorship, freedom of speech, copyright, liability, ownership of intellectual property, corporate lobbying and political control by one state over the Internet. What’s really scary is that the main people in charge of the debate are elderly American politicians whose appreciation, understanding and knowledge of how computers and the Net work is limited by their age and inexperience. My cat knows more about string theory than most of these politicians know about the Internet. Not to mention how vulnerable these politicians are to the lobbying efforts of the bills’ supporters (money always speaks loudly).

Whose problem is piracy? The companies’? or the government’s? Is it a private sector service problem or a public legal issue? Whose money should pay to fight it: company profits or your tax dollars? Whose rights are more important: the board of directors of the media corporations or the millions and millions of users who demand a change in the laws to recognize the new reality of the Net? None of this is resolved by these bills. The concepts of sharing, the trust economy, open source and open data, cooperative creativity, free expression, and independent artistry that underly the Net are simply being ignored in favour of a punitive approach.

Which is the greater threat to media companies: a few people sharing files online or the thousands of pirate companies in China and Asia making ripoff DVDs, CDs and other products that end up for sale in North America and Europe? So why aren’t the legislators taking aim at China to stem this practice? Why can’t they block Chinese goods from being imported into the USA, or slap high tariffs on them until the piracy is stopped? Do corporate interests in maintaining a good manufacturing relationship with China make it so profitable the USA can afford to ignore this problem?

How would the USA react if another country passed a law that said any foreign site that mentioned Tianamen Square, Tibetan freedom or the Dalai Lama would be blocked? Oh wait, doesn’t China already do that? In fact, SOPA/PIPA as proposed are remarkably similar to existing Chinese, Syrian, Iranian and North Korean censorship of the Net.

Why has there been so little traditional media coverage of this issue and so little editorial condemnation compared to online commentary and protest? Could it be that the same media companies pushing for this bill are those that control the content of the media that gives us the news on TV, radio and in print?

The result from these bills will be more sales for Hollywood movies, but fewer social media tools or outlets for expression for independent artists, producers, political commentators, bloggers, musicians and filmmakers. They will force creativity to go underground to hidden places on the Net, just like witchcraft laws forced fledgling scientists, philosophers, herbalists and doctors to hide in the Dark Ages. These bills will kill the kind of social change we saw in the Arab Spring movement.

I’m not condoning illegal activity, but these inappropriate and undemocratic proposals presuppose guilt without any due process of law. If this is truly such a large-scale problem, then we need proper solutions that match the reality of the connected 21st century, not this leg-hold-and-stockade approach from the 20th.

Shooting someone is so much fun, as long as it’s just virtual

It’s hard to explain to non-gamers why computer games – especially multiplayer games – are so much fun (and not simply a waste of time). It’s not just the amazingly detailled virtual worlds that offer rich, destructible, 3D environments to explore and move within. It’s not just the visceral experience of role playing or the adrenaline rush of combat/flight/racing against other players. It’s not just the sense of wellbeing from puzzle solving, accomplishing difficult tasks, or finishing challenging quests.

Call of DutyIt’s all of those and more. To appreciate computer games you first have to like gaming: engaging in the challenge of pitting your wits and skills against an opponent, real or virtual. Electronic and face-to-face chess, solitaire, dominoes, or poker can fulfill that for many people. Others – like me – need a more fully-realized environment to entirely engage us.

You also have to appreciate the incredible complexity and processing power of a computer game: keeping track of dozens of other moving and firing players and/or AI units, plus missiles, bullets, trajectories, graphic effects like light, rain, smoke, cloud cover, shadows and bullet holes, free movement in a 3D environment, damage to players and the environment, ammunition loads, scores, all done in real time, updated and displayed in a constantly changing setting. Computer games are the most advanced and demanding software available.

You need a sense of imagination to immerse yourself into a computer game, to go from merely clicking the mouse or tapping keys in response to onscreen stimuli, and really become that worgen druid in battle with a night elf fighting for your life with enchanted staff and spells. It takes imagination to see yourself as a soldier in a desperate life-and-death battle in Paris or Tehran, as enemy soldiers and armour close in. It takes imagination to suspend your reality and pick up that sword to face the dragon.

Fortunately for me, I have a great imagination. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve been playing games ever since I can remember (chess was a serious passion in my 20s), and computer games since the late 1970s. In fact, I wrote the first regular magazine column ever that reviewed computer games exclusively (for Moves magazine in the early 1980s).

I can’t make the connection between video games and real violence any more than I can make the connection between fantasy novels and real life orcs. Perhaps it’s because I’m older than a lot of today’s players, but I think that most people recognize the separation between fact and fiction, except for Charlie Sheen and some of his fellow glitterati. Okay, Republican presidential candidates seem to have that problem, too.

Napoleon's Last BattlesQuick segue. I started playing board wargames in the early 1970s, playing battle simulations like Avalon Hill’s Blitzkreig, Panzer Blitz and SPI’s Barbarossa and Napoleon at War. I played paper simulations of pretty much every major battle in history, from the ancient Middle East to futuristic invasions of North America or the USSR. Some were strategic scale, whole armies in a single counter; some were tactical, each piece a single vehicle. Along the way I read a lot of military history, debated the advantage of horsepower-to-weight ratios and argued shell sizes and penetration values, and the advantage of the square over the column formation with fellow enthusiasts. I knew the battlefields of Kursk, Waterloo and Arnhem intimately, if only from a paper-map perspective. I actually still have several of those games today, albeit no one locally to play them with. Anyone want to spend an afternoon over Napoleon’s Last Battles quad?

I like operational and strategic levels of play rather than tactical, but when I played board games, I’d play just about any level, any era, any style. I even became a published game reviewer in the board game industry, as well as a sometime beta-tester.

My preference in wargames and simulations has always been for realism over playability. I appreciate the attention to detail, even if it makes the game somewhat more complicated and duller. The balance between the two was always a struggle in paper games, but since computers, playability and realism have been able to combine better in one package because the sense of realism can be heightened through the visual and 3D elements.

Combat Mission: Barbarossa to BerlinFor a long time, my favourite wargames were the Battlefront Combat Mission series. Graphics were mediocre, but the play was excellent and the programs took realistic, historical data into consideration in the many algorithms that calculated fire, line of sight, morale, casualties and movement speed. The system is best payed against another opponent, but the AI of the games offered a good challenge. I really liked the WWII series, but didn’t get interested in the modern line.

The CM series was very chess-like in its approach, not a real-time game, but rather turn-based. It was rather cerebral. It discouraged casual players, though, because it required thought on many levels, planning, and an appreciation of terrain, goals, morale, command control, line of sight and coordinated attacks. The AI was competent, although human opponents are always craftier and less predictable.

Then I got distracted with the shooters: Call of Duty, the Battlefield series, Red Orchestra, Bad Company, Operation Flashpoint and others. The latter two franchises tried to put some realism into the game: the rest are basically games with a patina of realism painted on to make them seem more than just mindless mouse clicking and killing dumber-than-stumps enemy AI characters. Still, it was fun to slog through the rubble of Stalingrad, crawl the jungles of Viet Nam, and shiver (virtually) on the snowy slopes of the Andes in the action process of gameplay.

Shooters are fun, but generally thin on realism. You’re in them for the action, not the effectiveness of the simulation of bullet penetration or ballistic trajectories. The AI in most shooters is somewhere between “stump” and “George Bush”, so don’t expect a lot of challenges. The usual method of balancing computer skills against human players in shooters is to throw in lots of AI, rather than making smarter AI. But to waste an hour, shooters are lots of fun.

World of TanksThe latest game I’ve been playing is World of Tanks. Like it’s name, it’s about tanks. Fighting tanks. No infantry, no supply, no generals or even captains. Just tanks shooting other tanks or capturing the enemy base. Doesn’t get much simpler than that. One side wins by eliminating all the enemy tanks or capturing the enemy base. Period.

Yet behind the simple gameplay lies a complex system for calculating real-time ballistics, movement, penetration, speed, damage, visibility and accuracy. In WOT, there are dozens of factors that affect your play, including the very obvious terrain: the gun calibre, type of ammunition, crew training and experience, engine horsepower, radio range, turret height, rate of fire, track traverse speed and amount and location of any damage sustained. There’s a deep tech tree for researching and advancing from basic, starter vehicles to more advanced and more powerful units, fueled by experience points gained while playing (and winning).

Fortunately for most players, you only have to to move, sight and fire. Controls are simple. The software takes care of the rest. That encourages a lot of players whose main goal is to waste away a few hours racing around and shooting, with less attention to strategy and tactics than a gnat has to Hegel. And don’t get me started on team play. A typical game sees a handful of “Rambos” race forward to attack, get destroyed, who then spend the remainder of the time sending whining messages to others complaining about their cautious gameplay. Luckily for the rest of us who like to think, games only last 10 mins or so.

World of TanksSince WOT doesn’t have the respawn feature in most shooters, once you’re dead you don’t come back until the game ends. You can quit, but you lose any experience points the team may garner. You just have to wait until the match is finished. Dying early means waiting longer.

Sides are randomly collected from players waiting in the game queue, selected only by tier, so the sides are relatively balanced (tier 2 players may have tier 1 and 3 in the game, tier 3 may have 2 to 5, and so on). You get points for spotting, damaging (not merely hitting) and destroying a tank, as well as winning the match. friendly fire (killing your own teammates) costs you points.

All of the vehicles are from the WW2 era (early 1930s-late 40s). It’s a bit disconcerting seeing German panzers on the same team as Soviet T34s, but the selection process ignores nationality. There are only a few maps for the basic levels (tier 1 and 2), but a lot more get added as you progress. The maps are a reasonable size for 30 tanks (15 per side), and richly varied: Arctic, fjords, European towns, marshes, mines, towns, plains and more. The maps have a nice, European-theatre WW2 feel.

WOT is a nice balance: fun, easy, but with rich historical data and context. It’s only spoiled by the idiots who want to play it like their Xbox or PSP shooters. Success lies with using cover, careful, coordinated advances, skilled defence and teamwork. That requires more than the average gamer’s attention span, however, so most games are a mix of thoughtful, cautious players and idiots who leave their base and fellow players undefended to run ahead. Ah well, at least it’s just a game. And it’s free. So I shouldn’t complain too much. I can always fire up my chess program if I want something more cerebral. And it’s got me away from my World of Warcraft druids and worgens…

Scientists reveal favourite theories

Charles DarwinOne hundred and ninety two scientists contributed more than 128,000 words in answer to The Edge’s question, “What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”

You have to admire that question. They didn’t ask, “What is your favourite theory?” or “What is your favourite scientific puzzle?” Neither did they confine it to any particular field. As noted in the Edge:

“Scientists’ greatest pleasure comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way … answers may embrace scientific thinking in the broadest sense: as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, including other fields of inquiry such as philosophy, mathematics, economics, history, political theory, literary theory, or the human spirit. The only requirement is that some simple and non-obvious idea explain some diverse and complicated set of phenomena.

A breathtakingly clever question. And the responses are as luminous as they are eclectic. It is a testament to the wide, and eyes-wide-open, vision of science.

As the National Post noted in its story, Darwin’s explanation of evolution by natural selection, and Einstein’s explanation of time and space by general relativity, were the two most often mentioned. But the range of ideas presented is too rich to really limit it to just these two.

Many of the ideas suggested in the responses came to me as breathtakingly new and visionary. Some I had read about in books and magazines, although I don’t profess to truly understand them (string theory, for example). However, even as a layperson, I can appreciate why they highlighted Darwin’s realization of the mechanics of evolution (it basically created modern biological sciences) and Einstein’s realization (it created modern physics).

For me, Darwin’s explanation has always held a sort of charm. I suspect it’s because I first wrestled my way through his book around the precocious age of 12 or 13 (with intermissions to devour Tom Swift Jr and Andre Norton novels). It’s true that I understood little of it, and required the help of some other books borrowed from our local library to explain its broad scope in terms more appropriate for a pre-teen school kid. And it’s further true that my efforts to reread it since then have suffered from less attentiveness than I apparently had back then. But I still am in awe of its beauty and clarity and am slowly rereading it, in small bites.

As evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, wrote about Darwin’s ideas in his submission, “Never in the field of human comprehension were so many facts explained by assuming so few.” But, fascinatingly, that was a mere sidebar to his submission. Dawkins chose to write not about Darwin, but about his great-grandson’s work in neurobiology. And at the end, he poses a challenge to genetic science. A delightful read – both Dawkins and all the responses.

Annual Mayor’s Levee today

The annual Mayor’s Levee will be held this afternoon, January 8, at Georgian Manor Resort, from 1-3 p.m.

This is the annual event in which people who have contributed significantly to the greater good of the community get recognized with the “Order of Collingwood.” It’s also an opportunity for the public to socialize with their council

This year the following people will get the Order of Collingwood:

  • Ms. Catherine Campbell
  • Ms. Penny Skelton
  • Mrs. Jennifer Nichol
  • Mrs. Barbara Fawcett
  • Mr. Terry Geddes

The following people will also be given a Companion to the Order of Collingwood pin. This is awarded to those people who have previously received the Order of Collingwood and have continued to make outstanding volunteer contributions to improve social, cultural, and or recreational conditions in the Town of Collingwood.

  • Mr. Charles Tatham
  • Mr. Dunc Hawkins
  • Mr. Paul Hurst

For the full program and to see a list of all previous recipients of the award, see this document.

Musing on mixed heights in urban environments

Mixed building sizesI recently spent some time looking online for images of cities where mixed building heights could show me how a varied skyline looks when buildings of significantly different heights are close together in an urban environment. This is, of course, because Collingwood council will soon consider allowing a six-storey building downtown, set amidst what are mostly two- and three-storey buildings. The mix of high and low in the core is common in cities, less so in smaller towns. That’s simple economics, however.

Aurora, ILAll of these images here were borrowed from various sites to showcase the mix. It’s a simple effect, it seems, of growth and time: buildings grow taller as population increases. Height was limited before the development of elevators and modern steel construction. This had the effect of limiting density, as well. There were many six-storey walk-ups built, but not very often outside big cities, at least from what I could find.

Barrie, ONI make no claims as to whether these photos represent good or bad planning, or whether they create a beautiful or ugly skyline. Those judgments are subjective. We will never reach a consensus on taste, so other factors will have to be considered in our decision. I was merely curious as to how such dichotomies of size looked in the real world. Nothing I’ve seen has changed my mind.

Boston, MAI’ve had the pleasure of visiting a lot of cities: I’ve been in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax, Ottawa, London and almost every other Canadian city (the sole exception being Quebec City). I have visited many American cities, including New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, Detroit, Buffalo, Seattle and several others. I’ve been to Guadalajara, Acapulco, Mexico City and Morelia in Mexico, and Cartagena and Baranquilla in Colombia. I’ve been to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv where ancient and modern share property lines. I’ve seen a wide and varied mix of new and old in every city, often side-by-side in the core of the city.

Halifax, NSMost recently, I was in London, England. England has some very stringent laws about heritage and development, far stronger than anything we have here. I had the pleasure of sipping a pint of beer in a small pub in the heart of London, surrounded by tall, modern buildings that towered over it. I had the pleasure of eating lunch and shopping in 17th and 18th-century buildings that had been incorporated into newer structures much larger than the originals. And I had the pleasure of doing the same in entirely new buildings made of glass and steel. Nothing seemed glaringly out of place.

Toronto, ONThe mix of heights usually also indicates a mix of ages: heritage (shorter) and new (taller), co-existing. But not always: some of the shorter buildings on Toronto’s Yonge Street are comparatively new. Sometimes a lower height is the choice because taller buildings require more extensive engineering, and there may not be sufficient land for anything larger. Downtown Collingwood has such a mix of new and old shorter buildings.

Ottawa, ONMost Canadian cities are new compared to Europe’s, so we lack the volume of heritage buildings there. That makes it more important to retain what we have. But what does that mean for current and future development? For some, at least, it means nothing can be built that does not in some way enhance or mimic those heritage sites, or at least does not in any way overshadow them (aesthetically and literally). To me, part of the beauty of cities lies in their mix, not merely in the areas of similarity.

Philadelphia, PAI am not convinced that the character of a heritage building is in any way diminished by a more modern, or a larger building beside it. In fact, I personally feel that the heritage aspects can be enhanced when they are juxtaposed against another era’s architecture. I don’t feel, for example, that the classic brownstone homes turned into shops and offices in Toronto’s Kensington Market or along Baldwin Street are in any way diminished by the nearby highrises and office towers that can clearly be seen beyond the roof lines. To me, it makes the smaller buildings more human-scale and enjoyable.

Montreal, QCThere are numerous modern, small-scale buildings on the main street of Collingwood. the soon-to-be-vacant Shoppers’ Drug Mart is an example of a mediocre, boxy, modern design that would benefit from demolition and replacement. On its site won’t go a heritage building – maybe in another century it will be considered as such. Instead it will be a modern simulacrum that mimics older designs and their height.

Nashville, TNTo me the height argument has flaws when applied to the property at Hume and Hurontario, as much as it would to property in the Shipyards’ end of town. I see it as akin to my neighbours telling me I can’t plant a maple tree on my property because everyone south of me has older, established lilac bushes that would somehow be diminished by a taller maple at the far end of the street.

Hamilton, ONPerhaps if I wanted to plant that maple between two smaller bushes close to one another on a single property, I might agree that there could an aesthetic mismatch. In the same way, I wouldn’t want the one-storey SDM building replaced with a six-storey micro-tower (if such a thing were possible) because it would look out of place between buildings of three stories. But would a four-storey seem so out of place? What about a two-storey? Must it be three to suit the streetscape?

Markham, ONAt almost the end of the downtown portion of street, the Admiral Collingwood development needs special consideration. I can’t accept the argument that a six-storey building there will be so grossly out of place. There are too many examples I’ve seen where mixed heights complement one another, not detract from the other. I think that would be the case, here. I don’t believe a taller building will hurt the property values of the surrounding heritage buildings.

Fredericksburg, USAOf course, whether it fits or not, no matter what the height, the building will be new, not old. Although it will be tasteful and elegant, it will not be a heritage building. No argument for or against the height will change that. It will not even look much like the late-19th century buildings further up the main street. It will look like what it is: a new building with heritage-like stylistic touches.

Mixed heightsAs council, we have to consider all the factors that are represented by the development – economic, social, impact on the downtown businesses, tax revenue, etc. – not just the height. And if we want to avoid sprawl and live up to those honourable goals and visions we have set for this town – active transportation, active lifestyle, less dependence on automobiles, cultural strength, strong core area – then we need more people downtown. Higher density is the only way to put more people into a small space, and taller buildings are the only way to get more density. That’s why cities grow upwards. Property values increase with the height, too. That’s simple capitalism.

More mixed heightsWe’re still a small town and we have to ask whether a development of that size and scale will negatively affect our community (and the perception of our beloved small-town-ness). Or will it help it be a vital and exciting place to live with a lively and thriving downtown core? Which is most important to the long-term future of this town?

Jesus and Grilled Cheese

The Huff Post has a story on the most bizarre religious sightings from 2011, which I read on New Year’s Day. The Post story has people finding images of Jesus on everything from sandwiches to rock faces to dirty laundry and pizzas last year. No Photoshopping, honest…

Ashton KutcherAmazingly, most of the images look more to me like Ashton Kutcher than the radical Jewish rabbi of biblical description. Maybe we won’t know the truth until images of Demi Moore start appearing on toast.

One of the sighting includes the word “God” spelled out in veins on a woman’s leg (see here). She noticed it while shopping at a local mall. Some folks may find it comforting to know their supreme being has chosen a Wichita, Kansas, woman to spread his/her word – on her skin. Looking at the pictures, I wonder if the supreme being might be dyslexic, or simply really bad at handwriting, because to me at the best it looks like “Ooq” or “goo”on her leg.

I would have thought something more impressive, like “Mene, mene tekel upharsin” would have been better proof of a divine message than “Ooq.” Unless, of course, the message is meant for chimps and gorillas, not humans. And why the supreme being would write in English, rather than a biblical language, is unclear. Would Yod-He-Vav-He have been too much to write? Would a mid-western American shopper have even recognized Hebrew?

But take heart, ye desperate-for-a-miracle believers, because the bottom of the page of that story includes the sighting of Jesus in a crumpled sock in England. On seeing the visage in her drying laundry, Sarah Crane realized she had “the most holy pair of socks in Britain” and built a shrine to the sock. A shrine to a sock. In the land of Monty Python, it’s a place pilgrims will flock, I’m sure. Sorry I missed it on my recent trip to Old Blighty.

Jesus on a fish stickOn this side of the Atlantic, right here in Ontario, you can line up to see Jesus on a fish stick. Imagine people flocking to the fish freezer at Loblaws to light candles over a box of frozen Highliner fillets…

HuffPost isn’t alone in listing bizarre religious sights from 2011. Back last March, The Shark Guys ran a story on ten strange “Virgin Mary” sightings. These include variously imagined images of Mary in such unlikely media as potatoes, bird droppings and restaurant griddles.

Mary in a potatoBuzzfeed picks up on stories from around the Net and adds more weird sightings of Jesus and Mary, that includes dried mangos, tie-dyed T-shirts, melted chocolate and that all time favourite, rock faces.

Some believers will take almost anything as an image that bolsters their faith (called pareidolia). In a separate HuffPost story, a Virginia artist has had to fend off the pious because they’ve come to worship at his 30-foot sculpture of a pregnant woman, claiming it resembles the Virgin Mary (to me it looks more like Stevie Nicks did about 20 years ago…). Apparently his statue to motherhood has become a stop on bus tours of religious pilgrims, who never seem to find it curious that their Mary is heavy with child, not the usually svelte portrayal. Or that she lacks hands and feet and her gold-covered head seems disproportionately large for her body.

Naan bread, tortillas, bathroom tiles, irons, frying pans, Marmite jars, perogis – Jesus and Mary seem to pick pretty mundane places to appear. Why a divine image would appear on a consumable item like a sandwich baffles me. But it doesn’t baffle believers, who proudly show them off. And then sell them.

A grilled cheese sandwich with an alleged face of the Virgin Mary in it – with a couple of bites eaten – went for $28,000 on eBay. Other such items have appeared on eBay (a pancake and pierogi for example), making me suspect there’s a growth market for religious food icons.

Twenty-eleven wasn’t the only year with bizarre religious sightings: they happen all the time (see The Wondrous for a few from previous years). But thanks to the growing power of the Internet, more of them are shared than ever before. And more are on eBay, of course.

For the believers who feel slighted by not finding a holy image in their own morning cereal, this company offers a toaster that will burn the face of Jesus into your cooked bread every morning. Or the Virgin Mary. Or a peace sign, a cannabis leaf or a dog pawprint. Apparently the toaster is very popular. That begs the question if one is supposed to eat the toast or worship it. Is there some transubstantiation taking place? Too deep for me to ponder. (An alternative is the Jesus Pan, especially goof for making grilled cheese sandwiches…)

So far I haven’t run across any reports of Buddha images appearing on food, let alone walls or rock faces. Nor any images of Allah, Muhammed, Ganesh, Lao Tzu, Avalokiteshvara, Joseph Smith, Shiva, Manitou or any other religious figure or leader. I haven’t found Om-Mani-Padme-Hum inscribed on any veins or arteries, either. However, Mother Theresa did appear on the “Nunbun” at a coffee shop in Nashville, 1996, and in the same story, the name of Allah was found spelled out in eggplant seeds (in Urdu, not Arabic) in Mendhasalis, India, in 2003. It seems Jesus and Mary have cornered the franchise on images on fast foods, though.

Darwin on ToastHowever, I did find this remarkable image of Charles Darwin on toast. Now if someone was looking to build a shrine that would attract the likes of me, finding Darwin on a dirty tea-towel or unwashed sock, or even in a half-eaten grilled-cheese sandwich, that would be the ticket. According to The Onion, Darwin’s visage has graced at least one wall stain. Unfortunately that stain looks remarkably similar to one on a Chicago underpass wall that believers claimed showed the Virgin Mary, so I suspect my presence there lighting a candle to Charlie and his contribution to reason and science would be misconstrued.

I would think for the believers, finding a piece toast with an image of the late atheist, Christoper Hitchens, on it would really cinch their faith. After all, if Hitchens was still around in spirit, even on a pizza or a waffle, it would vindicate their belief in an afterlife.

Politically Speaking: new book on media relations

I am pleased and proud to announce that my first of two books for Municipal World has been published. Politically Speaking is a guide to media relations for municipal politicians and municipal staff. Of course the advice and strategies I suggest are applicable to other levels of government as well. My goal was to provide some basic guidelines on how to deal with the media, but also to encourage municipalities to create proper communications policies.

There is a video interview about the book here:

My next book is similar, about social media and municipal use (politicians and staff). It was a bit more of a challenge to write because the whole field of social media is changing. Even as I was writing, headline stories forced me to change some of my content. The finished manuscript is in MW’s editorial hands, but I may need to make some updates before it gets much further. I hope it will be published in late winter.