My Digital Nightmare

My Digital Nightmare

Update: this occurred in August of 2016.  As of late 2017 things are running pretty smoothly.

Recently, as in a few weeks back, I had a bunch of nice websites. Good layouts, interesting information, decent design, the requisite number of cat pictures. You get the idea.

Then one day, all the websites disappeared. They were just gone.

Needless to say I was somewhat annoyed.

I tried to approach this in the most professional way possible, and contacted the web hosting company.

It turns out that there had been a recent buying spree on the part of large web hosting companies to acquire smaller web hosting companies. My hosting company had been acquired, likely as a result of one of those “What should I do today?” musings by someone with obscene amounts of money and lots of free time.

As a result my web hosting company changed from a small, dedicated group of local people who really knew their stuff to little more than a small cog in a large corporate wheel, and the corporate Big Daddy’s then outsourced their technical services and web support to an overseas nation which shall remain nameless.

I exchanged emails and support tickets with some very nice people, like Saurabh and Sandip and Sunjit and Sameer and Abhijeet, and although they were unfailingly polite they seemed somewhat completely clueless.

This began 10 days of increasingly frustrating back and forth on-line chatting, discussing about who did what and when, with numerous insightful suggestions from the Support Technicians like, “Did you spell your username correctly“, and “Is your password more than four letters?” They were hitting me with some truly cutting edge ideas.

Finally, after a three day period of them insisting that the problem was due to a “brute force hack attack” (they loved throwing out that term), the Techs announced they had deduced the root cause of my missing websites. It was due to (and I quote) “random internet glitches“.

The response I sent to Sandip and his merry band of computer neophytes to discuss this phenomenon of “random internet glitches” was short and consisted of an intense series of four-letter words designed to express my dismay at their level of digital incompetence.  Yeah, it was a nasty email.

The next day all of my websites suddenly re-appeared (“Praaaaise Jee-zus! It’s a miracle!“) and I felt the need to make a choice: stay with that company and run the risk of another random internet glitch biting me in the ass or seek the greener pastures of a new hosting company.

I swallowed the blue pill, did some online research and found a good hosting company. I went to my existing hosting company’s website, re-directed my domain names to the servers of this new web hosting company (“Namaste, you dumb-asses!”) and set about checking the status of my websites. The re-direct went OK and everything seemed stable. I am now BFF’s with the new web hosting company, InMotion ( They seem nice.

I’m not even concerned about the apparent lack of adult supervision in their office. Even if it appears they do their design work with crayons.

But there is a lot of re-building work to do on my websites, some of them pretty much from scratch. And I will get right to work on that after this small break.

Why I Built a Personal Website

Why I Built a Personal Website

Why build a personal website? Well, I figured the time had come.

I’ve been using computers and the internet since before the World Wide Web existed, back in the good old ARPAnet days, when Geeks were not cool and computers were the size of refrigerators yet had less computing power or memory than iPods.

Even before Steve Jobs became a hippie or Bill Gates became a nerd I found myself sitting in front of an enormous dot matrix printer playing the very first Star Trek computer game with the Enterprise searching for the evil Klingons. The input was through a clunky keyboard and we used a pen and paper to plot possible locations of the Klingon Bird of Prey in the 2-dimensional grid universe. The output of each flight was the printed location of our new position on the grid. The result of each photon torpedo shot was another printed line, either Hit or Miss.

It was slow, it was unbearably clumsy by today’s standards and it took an entire freakin’ mainframe computer to run the game! But we had so much fun.

In the ensuing years I spent countless hours in Paul and Andrew’s basement, my friends from down the block. Their Dad had bought a computer from Radio Shack; a Tandy 1000. I had no idea how to turn it on or boot it up because only their Dad was allowed to perform that important task. But once it was running, we had three games to choose from, all of them controlled using the keyboard. Hours of fun. Countless hours.

Then Paul and I discovered video game arcades. Space Invaders, Asteroids, Centipede, Lunar Lander, Defender, Missile Command, Galaga and Tron (we were too cool to play Pac Man). Handfuls of quarters. Countless more hours.

Skip forward to my early 20’s when I spent a summer working for a provincial government agency. One day my boss said he would show me how to use the new computer. He pointed to where it sat on a table and told me to fire it up. When he joined me a few minutes later, the monitor screen was still dark.

Ken: “Why didn’t you turn it on?”

Me: “Well….”

Long pause. Followed by a longer pause.

Ken: “Do you know where the power-on switch is?”

Me: “Well….”

He laughed and reached behind the computer. There was a loud ‘ka-chunk!’ followed by a beep, some whirring sounds, another beep and then the screen flickered on. After a few seconds the flickering settled down and I was facing a black screen with a blinking light in the top left corner. The blinking light was the cursor, next to the only other thing on the screen which turned out to be C:/.

That was my introduction to MS DOS 3.0.

This was the era of the massive desktop computers which used floppy disks; memory disks so thin they were actually floppy. They were the latest technology but still held only enough resident memory to save about 20 pages of plain text.

The monitors were the size of mini-fridges and instead of a friendly graphic user interface with Windows and soothing music, all you would get was that very black and intimidating screen, with the blinking cursor which mocked you; “Hey, stop staring and type in a command. Any command. I dare you…” No such thing as a mouse in those days; it was all typed commands.

These days, we have handheld devices that will allow me to simultaneously check my e-mail, add a day-timer entry for an upcoming meeting, send a multi-version document to an entire work team at once, chat with someone on the other side of the planet and have some snot-nosed teen from a different continent destroy my character in an FPS combat game.

From a slow mainframe with paper printer instead of a monitor to smartphones with genius capabilities; truly mindboggling.

After all that time spent staring at a computer screen, I figured it was time I did something more useful with the internet than just more games.

Something other than writing boring technical documents that no one will ever read, or editing environmental plans that the construction company is just going to ignore anyway in favour of their ‘screw the wetlands; gotta git ‘er done!‘ approach. Something more productive than forwarding videos of cats doing funny things on YouTube. Something more permanent than Facebook entries that begin with, “Hey everybody. Look what I had for lunch!

I mean it’s not like I didn’t gain any real computer experience along the way. I’ve spent virtual  lifetimes working my way through DOS 3.0, DOS 3.2, DOS 4.0, and DOS 6.1. Then Windows 95, WIN 98, Windows ME (the horror!), Windows XP (the promised land), Windows 8 (Aaargh, my eyes!), WIN 8.1 and Windows 10. And lately, Apple iOS 8, iOS 9 and iOS 10.

In short, I’m kind of a digital bad ass. (I believe I just heard my daughter’s roll their eyes).

So I’ve decided the time has come to claim my own bit of digital real estate and with this website, I hereby plant my flag on the virtual landscape.

 (PS. That’s not really me in the photo with the flag but thanks for thinking it might be).

Social engineering in the workplace

Social engineering in the workplace

I used to work for the town of Fox Creek (Alberta, Canada) as the town’s Development Officer and Planner. It was a small town so everybody knew where the town office was and most of the residents had the same low regard for the people who worked there. After all, town employees didn’t have real jobs but they sure got paid as if they did.

One day the town council came up with the brilliant idea of putting the bios of senior staff in the local paper, as a way of convincing the residents that the town’s employees were highly qualified and working hard on their behalf.

Council brought this to the town manager and assistant town manager who also thought it was brilliant. The rest of the staff were ambivalent about being more ‘visible’ in a town where animosity towards civic employees ran pretty high.

As for me I hated the idea. Since I regularly made decisions about granting or denying permits for all developments in town, I held the one position that residents universally saw as “potential ass hat”. So no, I did not want to do anything to increase the size of the target on my back.

I demurred when the idea was first dumped on the staff. Then came the deadline to have our bios ready for the town manager to review. Then a second deadline specifically for me after I watched the first one whizz by. Then came the closed door meeting at which I was the guest of honor; apparently providing a bio was not optional. I was given a new deadline: noon the following day.

When I asked about the format for the bio the reply was “enough detail to give the residents a good feel for your qualifications but not so long that it costs very much to put it in the paper. No more than one page.”

A single page bio showing my most outstanding qualifications? I could do that. Next morning a copy of my bio was on the town manager’s desk. And also emailed to every town employee to, you know, get their input.

Andre Legris (Palmarius non fecit)

Andre Legris was born in Edmonton, Alberta. He immediately looked around and thought, “Well, this will all have to change”.

He speaks multiple languages: English, French and Quebecois. Can curse in all three.

He has multiple academic degrees but prefers doing cool stuff.

When he was 23, a chance meeting with Bill Gates in a dingy cantina in Tijuana, Mexico, lead to a boozy afternoon during which he convinced Gates that Portals was a lousy name for a computer program and that Windows sounded better.

One day during winter, he made time stand still. It was only for a nanosecond but nonetheless, it was cool stuff.

He was accepted into the NASA Astronaut program but declined the invitation when he realized that you can’t actually fly the International Space Station anywhere but around and around in endless circles.

He was offered the Nobel Peace Prize for his international work, but decided not to accept, citing the inevitable requirement to talk to an endless stream of journalists, politicians and other vermin. That, and his preference to ‘fly under the radar’.

He grew up in west Edmonton, one block from where Wayne Gretzky first lived. He convinced Gretzky to stay with hockey despite The Great One’s desire to play bass guitar in a folk-rock band.

He once finished the New York Time’s Sunday crossword in less than ten minutes but left a single four letter word unfilled, just because.

He has seen the future and does not approve. Not one damn bit.

After a lifetime of observation of human nature in all its quirks and idiosyncrasies, he has decided that the optimal companion on this journey through life is a cat.

Andre became a Development Officer for the opportunity to both play God with people’s lives and meet hot women. He has succeeded magnificently with one of those goals; not so much with the other.

Andre’s time working for the Town of Fox Creek so far has been an eclectic mix of shuffling paper, playing internet solitaire, drawing cool maps and plotting the quickest escape route to somewhere else.

So there it was, on a single page. Oddly enough not only was it not published in the newspaper but the subject of staff bios never resurfaced after that. A few of the staff were miffed that their bios were never published. Oh well, my bad.

Is there a moral of this story? A lesson to be learned from this bit of tragicomedy? If anything, it’s that social engineering works in the strangest of ways.

As for the meaning of Palmarius non fecit? Nobody asked, which of itself speaks volumes. It is a loose translation from Latin: My masterpiece.

And I confess that two parts of my bio were in fact, true: the thing about cats, and the last eight words.

In Praise of City Wilderness

In Praise of City Wilderness

I am spending part of this lovely summer evening sitting at a picnic table along the shore of a small lake. About 30 feet from me is a family of Canada Geese, the young goslings still covered in downy feathers but starting to show the color patterns that will forever mark them as Canada Geese.

Most of the shoreline of this lake is covered by cattails and bull-rushes, which is one reason why there are dozens of ducks, shorebirds, terns and blackbirds flying around or calling from the dense plant cover.

There is another family of geese with very young goslings which was thinking of coming up onto the shore at an open space until an inquisitive young boy of about 8 ran down to the shore to greet them. He didn’t get as close to the geese as he wanted as they swam off, but he is happily waving to them and urging them to come back.

The town I live in has only about 11 thousand inhabitants but many of them can be found here at some point during the day. There are walking paths around the lake, benches to rest on, a gazebo or two placed in the shade of the tall trees which also surround much of the lake. It’s quite  pastoral here, and the only man-made things you can see are the pavilion on one side, right next to the playground, while off in the other direction you can see the top of the old water tower.

So it’s pretty natural environment around here, if you don’t count the tall fountain in the one small bay which is throwing a lovely shower of spray into the air.

The point is, we have this wonderful little park close to just about everywhere in town and it takes only a few minutes to drive here. More importantly, this short distance actually takes us a great deal further away from town than can be measured by the odometer; we end up far beyond the annoyances of traffic and stop lights, away from the blaring stereos and sputtering lawn mowers, well removed from the constant racket and clatter of the modern urban environment.

And we need more of this ability to escape from the harsh rendering of the built environment of cities. We need to be able to find the calmness and tranquility that can only be provided by the presence of water and trees and birds.

A United Nations report on the state of the global population estimated that in August of 2007, for the first time in human history, more of us lived in towns and cities than lived in rural areas. Which means that half of the world’s populace is living in an environment designed, built and maintained strictly by human endeavour.

And it is an environment of concrete, glass and asphalt, where trees are often seen as obstacles and water is the enemy, to be drained away as quickly as possible. An environment of discordant noise, dirty skies and unrelenting movement.

Cities evolved over the course of human history to protect us from the thing we feared most: other people. And it worked with varying degrees of success, with the inhabitants protected from the rampaging hordes of “others”. And over time, the city evolved to better protect greater numbers of people.

But these days, we no longer require protection from other people, and even if we did, a city is not the optimal solution, cities being rather large and inviting targets for modern military capability.

No, what we use cities for now is protection from the natural environment. After all, it’s not easy living off the land; crops have to be grown, fruit picked at just the right time, and sometimes the best tasting food can only be found perched on top of four, very fast legs. But if we build bigger cities, then people outside the cities will grow the food, pick the fruit and catch the four-legged tasty things.

Which means that the city has become less about personal safety from others and more about socializing with others. They are places where art and culture can thrive, where medicine is researched and where education at all levels can be passed down.

But they are not normally places where an 8 year old boy can get close to wild geese. Or where many people can spend a relaxing hour sitting on a picnic table enjoying the ducks ( and now a beaver towing with a very large branch).

With half the human population living apart from these simple pleasures, we run the risk of having the next generation grow up with almost no first-hand knowledge of what most of the planet is still like. And even more so, having very little experience of it.

There aren’t too many people who wouldn’t enjoy spending this past hour as I have. Fortunately I can do it easily enough but I would imagine I am in the minority. The expanse of concrete and glass is just too large for many people to escape for an hour.

What we really need is more trees and water and birds into our cities.

Another Look at Our Stuff

Another Look at Our Stuff

A friend of mine died today: George Carlin. He wasn’t a friend in the personal sense but we had a long history together. I don’t recall exactly when it was during my teen years that we first met but I do clearly recall what he was doing at the time; he was talking about stuff. Or rather, about STUFF.

I remember laughing until my gut hurt as he described how lost we are without our stuff, and how the supply lines connecting us to our stuff get thinner as we move further away from our homes. And of course, our homes were actually just large containers built so we would have a place to keep all of our stuff.

At the time I was enamoured with the likes of Richard Pryor, and Cheech & Chong. My buddy and I would listen to their albums for hours. But it was George Carlin who seemed to ring the loudest as he skewered the shallowness of many aspects of 1970’s North American culture.

He had a huge repertoire of famous skits and raucous rants. One of them, the “Seven words you can’t say on television”, got him arrested when he insisted on saying them on radio, an event which provoked serious debate about the nature of obscenity in that least comedic of institutions, the United States Supreme Court. That will no doubt remain his most important influence on the intertwining snakes of morality and entertainment that form so much of the landscape of our generation.

But it was his take on our obsession with stuff that really got to me personally. In just a few short but manic minutes, he was able to lay bare the true nature of our fixation with material goods. About how passionate we are about surrounding ourselves with things that make us feel safe and comfortable. About how naked and vulnerable we feel without being able to lay our hands on things that belong to us and no one else.

Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century American writer, went off to live in the woods near Concorde, Massachusetts, for two years of what he called “simple living”. He stayed in a small shack containing few possessions and spent much of his time writing and walking through the woods. He later wrote that “a man is rich in comparison to the number of things he can afford to leave alone”. I think he would have been shocked to find out how many of us simply cannot leave very many things alone. I also think he and George Carlin would have seen eye to eye on this point.

And that is where the true genius of George Carlin lies. Not just in his ability to make a teenager laugh until it hurts, but in his skill at making us think about ourselves and the way in which we live.

I shall miss that long-haired, potty-mouthed, hippie freak. Especially tonight, since the passage across my bedroom to the comfort of my bed is an obstacle course composed of too damn much stuff!

Using a Peacock to Get a Job

Using a Peacock to Get a Job

I’ve been going to job interviews since the late 1980’s, trying to land that one perfect job. Or at least, that one job that was full-time, long-term and which doled out paycheques large enough to have me living in a lifestyle to which I could become accustomed.

Alas, it’s now 20 years later and that job has proven elusive. Once again, I am making the rounds of interview panels, trying my best to look both enthusiastic and brilliant while the eyes of the interviewers slowly glaze over and the clock-watching begins.

Although many of the questions that interview panels asked in the 1980’s are still being asked today, I’ve noticed a somewhat disturbing trend in the direction of interviews over the past few years.

There are still the questions like, “Can you tell us, in your own words, why you feel qualified to work for our company?”, or “You have a pretty impressive resume. But could you explain the gaps in your resume, particularly the period of 1996 to 1998 and again in 2004?”

(Incidentally, the correct answer for that last question, for all of you human resource specialists out there, is, “None of your damn business.” More on why those time period gaps exist in a future blog).

Back then, the majority of the interview was given over to a discussion of job skills, work experience and education, particularly in my field where an extensive education and background in science is so important. I would happily talk with the interviewers about how good I was at field research methods, or data analysis, or writing technical reports. There were always scenarios to describe, such as, “Can you describe for us a scenario where you have encountered a serious problem in project protocols which would affect the quality of the research and how you solved that problem given the fact there were also other people who depended on your work to supply them with concise and accurate data?”

The interview I did the other day had all of those types of questions but curiously, they formed a fairly small portion of the interview time, which is what I have been finding in every other interview. Most of this interview (which was for a teaching position at a technical college) was geared towards inter-personal relationships.

“Have you ever had to work with a difficult co-worker who was affecting the quality of your work, and how did you deal with them?”

“Have you ever encountered a situation in which a co-worker contradicted you in front of other employees in an insulting way and how did you handle the situation?”

“What is the worst conflict you have personally been involved with in the office, how did it occur and what did you do to resolve the conflict?”

Do they want me to teach classes and conduct research or do they they want me to manage conflict and deal with belligerent people! Perhaps, at nthe very least, they want to be assured that I can handle any inter-personal problem which may arise.

Has our culture become so stressed from lack of money, lack of personal support groups, lack of gratitude from others, lack of freely-expressed love from our spouse and kids (and all of this amidst a growing pile of bills and financial problems) that the stress level at work needs to be actively managed?

Has the level of common courtesy sunk so low that each new applicant has to pass the minimum for both work skills and conflict resolution skills?

It could well be. After all, the reason I am interviewing for jobs right now is that I was fired from my last job. Six days before Christmas. On the day before the Christmas bonuses were handed out. And all because I told the senior manager (in order to save her some potential future embarrassment) that the reason why I did not include this one bird species in the environmental impact report is because the bird in question was a peacock and someone’s pet, and not a naturally-occurring species which could be classified as rare and therefore, a potential threat to the smooth functioning of the construction project we were working on.

As a result, there was unhappiness, there was inter-personal antagonism, and yes, there was conflict. And I did not manage that conflict very well. Partly because I thought it was such a  damn silly a thing to worry about and I did not see the axe until it fell. But also because by that  time I did not care.

If a co-worker can’t treat you with at least a minimum of courtesy and common good manners, then they aren’t worth working with. You are giving them a portion of your day and they should damn well respect that.

I was pissed off at being fired right before Christmas, and for something as dumb as a peacock. But in the 60 feet of walking from the front door of our offices to the elevators, I went from frowning at the perceived injustice to smiling at the sudden onset of freedom.

So now I’m back on the interview tour and answering all kinds of questions about how well I manage inter-personal conflict. I told the last interview panel the story about the peacock; they smiled and shook their heads at the silliness of it all. Seems like they might be good people to work with.

The National Geographic Curse

The National Geographic Curse

There is an uncomfortable trend occurring in the field of environmental science these days; it’s the tendency of university researchers and scientific organizations to use volunteer field researchers to help collect data for their research projects.

Now you may wonder why this trend would be important to anybody outside of academia, but the rise in the use of amateur “citizen scientists” has a definite downside for everyone.

First off, I must be clear on one point: the work of citizen scientists does indeed have a place within the scientific community. There are many worthwhile projects that would not be done or would be unable to generate enough good information were it not for the efforts of a dedicated network of citizen scientists.

An example of this is Project FeederWatch, which is run by Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. These citizen scientists record which bird species are coming to their bird feeders during the winter. By combining the observations of thousands of feeder watchers across North America, scientists have been able to describe the state of bird populations across the continent with much greater accuracy than would be possible if only the much smaller number of professional wildlife biologists were allowed to work on the project.

So why is the use of volunteer field assistants on scientific projects a problem for anyone? Because these folks are now taking the place of those people who have traditionally filled the positions of field assistants and junior researchers on scientific studies. The result is far fewer opportunities for the scientists of tomorrow to gain on-the-job training today.

And with the wave of retirements in the ranks of senior scientists expected to swell as more and more Baby Boomers reach 65, the ranks of well trained and experienced junior scientists is thin indeed.

And why should this interest you? Because, these are the scientists who are responsible for monitoring the water you drink, conserving the parks you visit on vacation, and protecting the environment you live in.

Until the past decade or so, money to fund basic biological and environmental research was viewed as a low priority expense. Whenever the national economy has started to weaken, the biology jobs start to disappear. And quickly. Usually, the scientists are the first sector of the civil service which is trimmed.

Even in today’s world where environmental science is often on the front page of newspapers (eg. climate change, depletion of fish stocks, chemical pollution) well-paying biology positions are hard to come by. There is little public desire for real biology research; government departments look after the legal aspects of “protecting” the environment and consultants fill in the holes not covered by government. That leaves biological research largely in the hands of academia, which is funded through grants and other forms of government hand-outs, funding which is cut back when the economy is not doing very well.

Besides the problem of monetary cut-backs, another problem in environmental science is the nature of the field itself; it is a very cool field to be working in. What other professional endeavor can combine the allure of remote and wild places, the charisma of working with exotic animals, and the glamour that comes from a job whose best recruiting tool is the National Geographic TV special?

If you are at a dinner party and everyone compares professions, which do you think is going to generate the most interest from the others around the table: the lawyer who is a partner at a major firm, the heart surgeon, the businessman with his private jet or the guy off in the corner who just came back from doing polar bear surveys in the arctic?

Sure, there is a lot of work in biology which doesn’t fit the National Geographic mold but a lot of it does. The result is that biology oozes romance.

A few years ago I applied for two jobs: one as a soil surveyor and the other as a wildlife biologist working with migratory birds. The soil survey job had a handful of people apply; the bird biologist job was inundated with hundreds of applicants. Soil is not sexy; birds are.

So there is a real desire for people to work in the field of biology and environmental science, even as a volunteer. I know of one university professor who works with Earth Watch, an organization which matches field researchers with ordinary people who want to volunteer to work on a research project.

As the Earth Watch web site states, “As a volunteer, you might choose to band penguins in South Africa or tag endangered sea turtles on Pacific beaches. You might measure snowpack density on the front lines of climate change or map water supplies in drought-stricken northern Kenya.”

Who wouldn’t read that and think to themselves, “Here’s a way I can star in my own private National Geographic Special”?

Until society as a whole realizes that biology is a profession on the same level as the legal and medical professions, biology will get neither the financing nor the respect it truly deserves. There is nothing wrong with having enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers help with the never-ending task of answering the many questions about how our world actually works. But if we want to find concrete answers to the myriad of biological and environmental problems which are besetting our planet, we need more professional biologists and fewer dinner-party volunteers.

No thank you, we’re metric

No thank you, we’re metric

I was driving home this evening after watching the fireworks when I saw an interesting sign.

See, this weekend is our town’s annual Pioneer Days, a celebration of our heritage as one of the true pioneering towns in the west. I mean, The West. There is a parade down the old main street, a midway with lots of rides guaranteed to make the greatest number of kids sick in the shortest period of time, a fiddling contest, a quilting demonstration, a golf tournament, yada yada yada. You get the idea.

And of course, on Saturday night, there are fireworks. The kids and I go every year but this time I met them as their mother drove them down to the field next to the airport. They are in their pre-teen and early teen years and the umbilical cord is starting to stretch away from Dad.

We enjoyed the fireworks and they went home with their Mom while I headed back to my comfortable chair to watch a taped game from the European soccer championships. On the way back I saw the sign. It was a sign at one of the number of car dealerships along the new main road (as opposed to parade route) and it was touting the newest cars for sale. But instead of advertising their price and financing deals, it was advertising the car’s mileage.

I’ve heard of numerous companies across North America doing this; advertising their cars based on their mileage, a necessary sales tactic when the price of oil is setting new records every other day. So the fact that this sales pitch is being used here is no big deal.

What is interesting is that the sign contained the (very large) letters,”MPG”. As everyone knows, mpg stands for Miles Per Gallon, a measure of how far the car will go on a gallon of gas. The higher the mpg, the less often a driver will have to buy gas and, consequently, the more money they will save in the long run.

But that’s still not the interesting part. No, the interesting part is that the sign read MPG when it should rightfully have used the term, “liters per hundred kilometers”. That’s because we’re metric.

Back in the 1980’s, our Prime Minister (who is our equivalent of the American President) decided that Canada should join the rest of the world and switch from the imperial measurement system (which was a holdover of our days as a British colony) to the more modern metric system. Yes indeed, to join the 20th century we were going to bury ourselves in a system that worships the number 10.

Truth be told, it is a pretty good system and a logical one to use, once you understand how it works. I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of the metric system but suffice to say, you would think that after 30 years of using a federally mandated measurement system, everyone would think in metric by now. But we don’t. At least, not completely.

As a people, we Canadians have taken the buffet approach to the metric vs. imperial question. We will tell someone we were driving at 100 kilometers per hour for the entire 155 miles of the trip. Or that after our latest workout, we weigh 139 pounds and we kept hydrated by using a 450 milliliter water bottle. Or that it’s really hot outside at 32 degrees, exactly the same as it is today in Cairo, Egypt, where their temperature is 90.

There was a hue and cry across the land when the federal government legislated the change to the metric system. Editorials cried that we were being manhandled by a dictatorial government, that our rights to preserve our traditions were being trampled, blah blah blah. On and on it went. You’d have thought we were being asked to hand over our first born to work in the coal mines.

In the end, we never did make a compete conversion to the metric system because we did what we Canadians traditionally do; we compromised.

We use the Celsius temperature system because it makes sense in a country where the freezing point of water means the end of nice weather and the start of winter. we use metric for highway speeds because the speed limit is written on the signs and we don’t want to get a speeding ticket. But we use miles to explain distances because, well, because that’s what we did before and we still prefer it today.

And I would imagine that this state of affairs will last for many years to come. Or at least until my grandchild asks me what a pound is because, after all, doesn’t butter come in kilograms?


Clash of the asinine ironies

Clash of the asinine ironies

I’m not one to watch a fine bit of irony walk by without commenting on it. But today was especially noteworthy because two very ironic moments slipped right past each other on their way to see if anyone cared about them.

The first irony comes courtesy of the Flavour of the Month in Hollywood Fools, the Hogans. According to breathless talking heads on every second TV channel, Linda Hogan (the Hulk’s wife) is dating a 19 year old teen while she is 48 years old. The airways are buzzing with outrage at the audacity of the woman to date someone 29 years her junior. TV psychologists are shaking their heads and clucking their tongues in outrage as they pass judgement on this sad state of world affairs, using comments like, “it behoves her as an adult to put an end to that relationship before it began” and “it is so inappropriate”.

I find it a tad ironic that a nation in which men as young as 17 years can join the military and be sent on combat patrol in dangerous areas of an active ground war (Iraq, Afghanistan) are not considered mature enough to decide who they want to cavort with. They are considered man enough to live with the constant fear of violent death or injury every day for months on end, put in charge of battle tanks and high tech weaponry, and sent across the world at the behest of the government to risk their lives for American interests. But somehow, they are not man enough to date a woman of their choice.

This reminds me of the mini-series about Homer’s Odyssey which ran on the major US networks about three years ago. In the final two-hour episode, Homer passes by an island inhabited entirely by beautiful women and stops to check it out. There, walking along the beach of this island paradise was the head priestess of the women, the former Miss America, Vanessa Williams, dressed only in a short, diaphanous skirt. The odd thing was that she was walking along with her hands covering her naked breasts. In fact she spent the entire scene with her hands demurely covering her large breasts.

Less than an hour later in this same episode, Homer discovers a group of men in his home who have spent two years trying to convince his wife that he was dead and that she should marry one of them. Homer is annoyed and dispatches these unscrupulous suitors by using a long spear to impale five of them onto the wall. At this point, the viewer is treated to lingering screams of pain, a flurry of legs kicking wildly five feet off the floor, and gallons of blood running down the wall.

The lesson from an American interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey? Naked breasts on a beautiful woman are bad but explicit violence and bloodshed is OK.

Which brings me to the second bit of irony. Legions of people are outraged at a video posted on YouTube allegedly showing a US marine holding aloft a cute little puppy before tossing it nonchalantly over a cliff. The marine in question has been dismissed amidst calls for his head.

Now throwing an animal of a cliff to its death is a horrendous act, regardless of why it is done. And the marine should be punished for his careless act of violence. But all you people out there who are howling in outrage at this video, have you not seen any of the other videos freely available on YouTube?

I’m referring specifically to the many, many videos which clearly show American forces killing people, not puppies. Whether it’s a grainy, ghostly green, night-vision video of people being machine-gunned from the air, or daylight videos of people on the street disappearing in a unexpected explosion from a tank shell, the end result is the same: sudden death of people who may or may not be engaged in war-like activities. What about those folks who are only going about their daily activities and are mistakenly targeted? Where is your outrage for those people?

So to recap this litany of ironies: seeing naked humans is bad, seeing humans being killed is OK. Killing puppies is bad, killing humans is OK. And sending young men into battle is OK as long as they refrain from having sex with people we don’t approve of.

The irony of it all would be amusing to contemplate if it were not for the fact it’s such a damning indictment of how badly screwed up our societal values have become.


Indiana Jones and the Rise of the Crystal Numb-skulls

Indiana Jones and the Rise of the Crystal Numb-skulls

This summer’s release of the latest installment of the Indiana Jones adventures has had two effects so far.

The first is to persuade huge crowds to stream into theaters to catch the newest antics of everyone’s favourite faux archaeologist. And let’s face facts here; no real archaeologist would ever take an Indiana Jones approach to exploring ancient ruins.

A professional archaeologist would carefully survey the site, taking precise measurements, and moving no faster than absolutely necessary so as to ensure that nothing was missed and no relics or artefacts were damaged due to overly hasty efforts. Not so Indiana, who has shown himself quite comfortable with using hammers, guns, even explosives, in his never-ending quest to plunder riches from ancient civilizations.

And there is simply no other way to describe it other than mindless plundering. Wanton destruction of important historical relics in order to lay his hands on a shiny, jewel encrusted bauble in order to make a museum curator happy. It’s enough to make a real archaeologist cry.

But hey, it’s not real archaeology, it’s a Hollywood movie. And the Indiana Jones movies are cracking good entertainment. I’ve got all three of the first three Indy movies in my collection and I have no doubt the fourth one will be included in the near future.

So let’s not get too excited here about real vs. Hollywood archaeology. That would be like asking medical TV dramas to stop saving four lives in the first ten minutes of every episode.

No, what we should be worrying about is the second effect of the new Indy movie: the rise in interest in crystal skulls.

There has always been interest in the crystal skulls unearthed in Central America. For decades now, all kinds of mystical properties have been associated with them. They were mythical objects whose true purpose was not known. They were magical components of some greater, paranormal entity. They were given to humans by some long forgotten extra-terrestrials for some important but also forgotten purpose. The list goes on and on.

And now, the Discovery Channel, a network which has spent years building up its reputation as a credible purveyor of decent programming in the sciences and humanities, has aired a program called “The Mystery of the Crystal Skulls”. It purports to explain what the crystal skulls are all about but instead, leads its viewers down a path littered with the very worst examples of tabloid journalism.

Using a couple of ‘experts’ to provide a running dialogue about the reason why the crystal skulls exist, the program goes from Central America, to the United States, to Europe and back to Central America. Along the way, the ‘experts’ explain the genesis and purpose of the skulls. Without going into great detail, here’s the gist of why they claim the skulls exist.

The earth is advancing towards some unspecified galactic alignment, involving planets, stars and the centre of the Milky Way. Lines of power radiating across the earth are important, as are the undiscovered (but guaranteed existence of) 13 skulls. These skulls will save the earth and humanity from some sort of cataclysmic disaster, which is looming closer even as I write this.

The entire two hours of the program are devoted to providing the very best in pseudo-science and apocalyptic prophesy. Along the way, the crystal skulls were used to unite the disparate conspiracies of alien visitation, unexplained phenomena like the Mayan Temples and even the lost city of Atlantis.

Of course, there was one brief (very brief) nod to the conclusions of a real scientist who declared, after examining a crystal skull using an electron microscope, that it was carved using a rotary tool. Which means the skull was, at most, 60 years old. The program ‘experts’ explained away this inconvenient result as proof the skulls were the “the product of an advanced civilization” of which we are unaware. Apparently, most of us are too stupid to realize that this is the only possible conclusion from that one scientific test.

So, the two outcomes of this summer’s big movie release are actually identical. In both instances, you have to suspend belief, turn off the brain and just sit back and enjoy, while someone spins you a good, old fashioned yarn.

The real problem is that the Hollywood version knows it’s playing make believe. The Discovery Channel program wants you to Believe.

The former is OK, the latter is not. We should be smarter than this.