Friday, December 30, 2005

Believe it or not, another World War II Delta Green write-up posted!

Believe it or not, I finally posted the write-up from our Fourth of July weekend game. This was part of our World War II Delta Green campaign using the Feng Shui rule system that we played up in Texarkana. This is the second of three parts (the first part was played on the Memorial Day weekend).

I still have today and tomorrow to get the last part of the campaign posted before my self-imposed deadline of New Year's Day (which I made after I missed my previously self-imposed deadlines of Thanksgiving — both Canadian and U.S. — and Christmas Day).

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

In those 1165 days...

I received the latest Our Lady Peace CD (actually a DualDisc made up of a DVD on one side and a CD on the other) for Christmas. The album, Healty in Paranoid Times is pretty good, at least that was the impression hearing it played once.

In the booklet that comes with the CD, the band says that it took them 1165 days to complete the album. They then list a bunch of things that happened in those 1165 days. The items listed are staggering, particularly given the juxtaposition of North America versus the world.

I can't vouch for the veracity of the items listed, but here is a partial list (mostly omitting the band specific stuff):
  • 30 active wars were started across the globe
  • Iraq was invaded for a second time
  • 9.8 million people died from AIDS
  • 19.2 million people had cosmetic surgery in North America
  • 2000 American soldiers died in Iraq
  • 300,000 civilians died in Darfur
  • 2 million were displaced in Darfur
  • 30 billion cases of soft drinks were sold
  • 6708 hours of t.v. was watched by the average child
  • 4,042,030 people died of cancer in North America
  • 40,000 hybrid vehicles sold
  • 118,000,000 gas vehicles sold
  • 3 trillion dollars spent on global arms trade
  • 138 million people ate at McDonald's
  • 38 billion dollars was spent on pornography
  • 815 billion dollars was profted by pharmaceutical companies
  • 54 million people died from extreme poverty
  • Apple iTunes sold its 500,000,000th song.
  • 0 weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq
  • 42 insects swallowed by the average person while sleeping
  • 6 billion people walked on our planet
  • 3 billion people lived on 2 dollars a day
  • 9 billion dollars was all that was needed for all the Third World to have clean water
  • 27 billion dollars was spent on music in the U.S.
  • 30,000 animal and plant species became extinct
  • 1 billion metric tons of hazardous waste was generated
  • 29 billion dollars was spent on video games
  • 400,000 dollars donated by Paris Hilton to charity from sales of her porn DVD
  • 4.8 million children taking Ritalin

Saturday, December 24, 2005

A piece of Christmas Eve trivia

It's Christmas Eve, one of my favourite nights of the year. My parents often had friends and family visiting, especially after I moved out of the house. I have fond memories of nights when Ian (my brother), Lynn (my sister) and I woke up in the wee hours of the morning waiting for it to be late enough to get up. Now it's my turn to wait for kids to fall asleep before quietly playing Santa.

Instead of the usual Christmasy comments, though, I'll just mention an interesting piece of trivia. It was 20 years ago today that the last descendant of Abraham Lincoln died.

Of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln's four children, only Robert Todd Lincoln reached adulthood. Robert and his wife Mary had three children, Mary, Abraham and Jessie.

Mary married Charles Isham, and they had a single child, Lincoln Isham. Lincoln Isham married, but had no children. Lincoln Isham, Abraham Lincoln's great grandson died in 1971.

Abraham "Jack" Lincoln II had no children.

Jessie Harlan Lincoln married Warren Beckwith in 1897. They had two children, both of whom were Abraham Lincoln's great-grandchildren: Mary Lincoln Beckwith and Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith. Neither had children of their own. Mary Beckwith died in 1975. Robert Beckwith, the last living descendant of Abraham Lincoln, died on December 24, 1985.

So, there you have it. A little Christmas trivia. Don't let it be said that Designated Import isn't educational!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Items in the news

Here are a few news items from the last week or so that I found interesting.

  • Hurricane Katrina was only a Category 3 storm when it made landfall: Yesterday the National Weather Service stated that — after checking all of the data — that Hurricane Katrina was only a strong Category 3 storm, not Category 4, when it made landfall in southern Louisiana.

    This is important not just for historical reasons. The levees around New Orleans were designed to handle a Cat3 storm, yet failed. This underlines accusations that the state and federal governments let the conditions of the levees deteriorate over the years, and that to be safe the city really needs levees that can handle a Cat5 storm.

  • Author of the Roswell "flying saucer" news release is dead: Former U.S. Army lieutenant Walter Haut, the author of the press release stating that a "flying saucer" had crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, died in Roswell last Thursday at the age of 83. Something, which the Army says was a classified weather balloon, crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Haut wrote the initial news release on July 8, 1947, which was dictated to him by Roswell Army Air Field base commander Col. William Blanchard. The news release stated that a "flying saucer" had been recovered on a ranch 75 miles northeast of Roswell.

    Haut's press release is the point where UFOs entered pop culture, and it coined the phrase "flying saucer". The Army (back then the U.S. Air Force was part of the Army) quickly changed their story, saying that a weather balloon had crashed. Many years later it was determined that the object was a weather balloon, but that it had a special instruments package, probably part of the top secret "Project Mogul". From the Skeptical Inquirer site: "Its classified purpose was to try to develop a way to monitor possible Soviet nuclear detonations with the use of low-frequency acoustic microphones placed at high altitudes. No other means of monitoring the nuclear activities of a closed country like the USSR was yet available, and the project was given a high priority." Mogul was moved from New York, where they had problems with high winds, to Alamogordo, New Mexico.

    Haut later recalled a staff meeting a week or two later where Blanchard reportedly said, "Well, we sure shot ourselves in the foot with that balloon fiasco. It was just something from a project at Alamogordo, and some of the guys were here on our base later, too. Anyway, it's done and over with."

  • Police fear the worst for stolen baby penguin: This has been all over the news, but I missed it. A baby penguin was stolen from the Amazon World zoo on the Isle of Wight last Saturday. Police suspect someone wanted to give him as a Christmas present, possibly after having seen March of the Penquins. Zoo officials say that unless the penguin is returned soon, it will likely die.

    People from around the world have been writing letters and e-mails of sympathy over the penguin. At least two churches in the U.S. are praying for the penguin. An unidentified man reported that he had dropped off the penguin in a plastic bag at the Portsmouth docks on the English mainland. The penguin has not been found, but police fear that the bird may already be dead.

  • Microsoft may soon be fined $2.4 million per day by EU: The BBC is reporting that the European Union is threatening to sue Microsoft for $2.4 million per day because Microsoft has so far refused to comply with an EU ruling. The European Union ordered Microsoft to hand over documentation of the inner workings of its Windows operating system so that other systems, particularly "non-Microsoft workgroup servers", could reach "full interoperability" with Microsoft. Microsoft has not complied, so a frustrated EU is giving Microsoft 5 weeks to come up with the documentation or face a fine of $2.4 million a day until they comply.

  • French government legalizes file sharing: I don't understand French politics, but apparently the French parliament (as opposed to the French government) voted into law yesterday a bill that would legalize file sharing. This goes against the French government and the music industry. The parliament wants it legal to share downloaded music, but wants to reimburse artists through a tax on ISP fees (the tax was not, apparently, part of this bill). The French government vows to fight the bill.

  • Britain plans to record movements of all vehicles: Big Brother comes to Britain next spring. In March, 2006, Britain will begin building a database of all vehicle movement in the country. They will start by capturing license plate numbers via television cameras, whose locations are known via GPS positioning, at a rate of 35 million "reads" per day. The data will be stored for two years. Later they will extend the system with additional cameras, increasing the number of "reads" to 100 million per day, and with additional storage so that the data can be kept for five years. The authorities are signing agreements with gas stations, supermarkets, etc. to integrate their cameras into the network.

    Not surprisingly, British police say that this is an invaluable tool while civil liberties groups worry about infringement of privacy, and the harm caused when erroneous data is used to prosecute an innocent citizen. The authorities intend to use the data to track terrorists, organized criminal gangs, stolen cars, and "associated vehicles". The police contend that thieves often drive somewhere in a vehicle, steal it, and then drive back with it along side their legal vehicle. The police may be more interested in this "associated vehicle" than with the stolen vehicle.

  • Congress planning to outlaw analog-to-digital devices: Just before adjourning for Christmas, Congress introduced a proposal that would outlaw the manufacture or sale of devices that convert analog signals to digital signals one year after the bill's signing. The film industry in particular wants this, because they don't want people recording television or video tape signals onto DVDs, or pulling the same type of content onto a computer and distributing it over the Internet. Unfortunately, it would also make it impossible to pull your family videos off that old, analog 8mm videotape and store it on a DVD. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is fighting the law.

  • Judge rules against "Intelligent Design" in Dover, PA: A federal judge has ruled "intelligent design" cannot be mentioned in biology classes in a Pennsylvania public school district. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican and Bush appointee, found that the school board's attempt to teach "intelligent design" in area high schools was a breach of the Constitution's separation of church and state. Said Jones, "The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy," Jones wrote. "It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."

    This Doonesbury comic, posted to, is particularly appropriate. Click on the picture to see a bigger (more readable) version of it:

Monday, December 19, 2005

CRS reports that administration knew more about Iraq than Congress

For years now, George Bush and his administration have stated that Congress had access to the same pre-war intelligence data on Iraq as the president. According to Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, Bush stated this some 102 times as of December 15, 2005 (see

What the president knew versus what Congress knew is an important argument in the debate over Iraq. Democrats who rolled over and gave Bush carte blanche now claim that they never would have done so if they had been given all the facts. Republicans, particularly members of the Bush League running the White House, claim that Congress knew just as much as the president knew.

On December 15, the Congressional Research Service — a nonpartisan branch of Congress that supplies Congress with research information — released a report clearly stating that the administration has "access to more intelligence and reviewed more sensitive material than what was shared with Congress when it gave Bush the authority to wage war against Iraq".

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the media. I have no idea what happened over the weekend on television, as we were so busy that I was mostly out of touch with TV news. So far, though, it doesn't look promising. CNN's web site has a report about the Senate balking at extending the PATRIOT Act, but nothing about the CRS report. There is no mention of the report at,, or, in spite of all sites having posts dating before the CRS report. I didn't bother checking Fox.

Considering that the news outlets let Bush make his false claim of equal knowledge for ages without checking that statement's credibility lends me to believe that they will not be quick to point out their own failings.

For more information about the CRS report, see the Media Matters web site at

Oh, Tanenbaum...

Someone at work posted an e-mail saying the following:

Christmas is once again politically correct. Congress passed a resolution declaring the national tree the National Christmas Tree not the National Holiday Tree and that this the Christmas season and not the Holidays.

Heard that from Michael Savage – The Savage Nation radio show.

I pointed out the flaws in this e-mail soon after with the following response:

Is that the National Christmas Tree or the Capitol Christmas Tree that was renamed? They are two different trees.

The National Christmas Tree is at the White House and has always been called the National Christmas Tree. The Capitol Christmas Tree stands on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol grounds. It was the one that was renamed the Holiday Tree back in the 90s.

The Capitol's senior landscape architect confirmed that the Capitol tree was to be called the the Capitol Christmas Tree back on November 28.

"The Capitol tree, traditionally overshadowed by the White House's "National Christmas Tree," was renamed a "holiday tree" several years ago, according to the Capitol Architect's offices, in an effort to acknowledge the other holidays of Kwanzaa and Hanukkah -- although no one seemed to know exactly when the name was changed or by whom."

I have no idea if the e-mailer got the name of the tree wrong, or if he heard it right and the person he was listening to got it wrong. What this underscores, though, is the belief that the National Christmas Tree was called the Holiday Tree, when it was not. It was the lesser known Capitol Christmas Tree that was renamed.

Just another object lesson on how people will hear what they want to hear.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Amazing Race ends in Toronto area

Last Tuesday I was hit with a bout of homesickness. The Amazing Race 8 ended with a two-hour episode set mainly in Canada. The teams flew from Montana to Montreal for the first half of the episode. The second half was spent mostly in Toronto.

They didn't go anywhere that I recognized from our single trip to Montreal (back in 2003, when I went to get my U.S. visa) but Toronto was a different story. They flew into the Toronto Island airport, went to the CN Tower, drove back down to the harbour area, and then left Toronto for the Queenston area near Niagara Falls. The race ended at Lewiston, NY, just opposite Queenston.

I lived in the harbour area, on Queen's Quay (pronounced "queen's key", not "queen's qway", as one player called it) for the last 7 months I lived in Toronto. I only ever went up the CN Tower once, back in grade 11 or 12, but I was a regular at Toronto Argonauts games held at the Skydome (now the Rogers Centre, or some such) which is next door to the tower. I used to walk past the tower regularly. My apartment was right next to the approach to the Toronto Island airport (for planes coming in from the east).

What's interesting about seeing The Amazing Race when you know the area is that you can tell just how they edit things for interest sake. On the commercials for this episode they showed the team that eventually won the race running into the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. The stadium was set up for Canadian football. One of the family members exclaims, "I love this game!" Now, I figured (as did any Americans watching) that he meant football in general. I was pretty sure by the commercials that they were in Canada even before I saw the episode, due to the placement of the goal posts, so I thought it would be fun to find out he really did mean Canadian football. Well, no he didn't. He didn't mean American football, either. It turns out that during the episode two of the three teams had to play curling, another sport popular in Canada. (I've never played it but I love watching it, due to a combination of being a Canadian citizen, being born in Scotland where the sport was invented, and from being a gamer — the sport has a fair bit of strategy to it). One of the Linz family members fell in love with curling. It's curling, not football, to which he exclaims, "I love this sport!"

The clue box for this leg was "at centre field" on the Olympic Stadium football field. When they zoomed in, sure enough, it was on the 50 yard line! One problem... Canadian football fields are 110 yards long (not including end zones), not 100. The box should have been on the centre line, sometimes marked with a C in the middle. Someone operating the cameras must have decided they wanted the box on the 50 yard line so that American viewers would understand the location of the box.

Toronto was the mystery destination. After landing in Toronto they had to go up to the CN Tower to search for a clue. The show insisted on calling it by its French name, La Tour CN (you can see they call it that on their web site, at
show/ep13/index2.shtml). The funny thing is, noone in Toronto calls it "La Tour CN". It's "the CN Tower". At least a couple of people thought they'd have to speak French in Toronto. This is funny considering that English is spoken the most in Toronto, followed by Cantonese and Mandarin, then Italian, then I think it's Portuguese. French is something like 8th.

Anyway, the clue they were searching for was down in the dockland area near a go cart track. I didn't even know there was a go cart track there! That must be fairly new (in the last 4 years, anyway). When the teams got there they had to choose between climbing the mast of a tall ship in Toronto harbour or search for a single person out of 100 people at the Bata Shoe Museum. I was yelling at the screen telling them to go with the ship. They had to sail across part of the harbour in a sailboat, but they would stay at the south end of the city. The Bata Shoe Museum is up on Bloor Street. Depending on the day of the race, the trip to the museum alone could take them 20 minutes or more from where they got the clue on a good day.

This was another place where judicious editing was done. The next leg was as Queenston, in the Niagara-on-the-Lake area. The best way to get there is via the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way, a six-lane — sometimes eight-lane — highway to Niagara Falls. You get there via the Gardiner Expressway, which is right down near the harbour. Again, depending on the route and time of day, the round trip from the harbour to the museum and back to the Gardiner could easily add 40 minutes to the trip time for the team that chose the museum challenge. In the race, the Linz family and the Bransen family were neck-and-neck at that point. They were pretty close to neck-and-neck at the final. That means that in spite of the extra 40 minute trip time, the slow and frustrating challenge in the shoe museum (match a pair of shoes to one of 100 women walking barefoot in the museum) was actually the faster of the two challenges to complete.

I just checked the pictures at The Amazing Race web site. The tall ship is near the Toronto Island airport. You can see a plane hanger in the background. That meant that they had to sail a boat from the east side of the harbour to the west, climb the ship, and then sail back. Yeah, okay, I can see how the team at the museum could keep up. The Weaver family got to the dockland clue box just as the Bransens were leaving. They chose the ship challenge. They were way behind in the final, suggesting that there was some considerable time difference in their sale across the harbour.. That doesn't show up in the show. The editing made it look like the Weavers weren't that far behind the Linzs heading for the tall ship.

(Toronto traffic being what it is, it could easily have been 30 to 60 minutes one way from the harbour to the shoe museum. Traffic was light from what I could see, and the racers apparently flew into Toronto in the morning, so I'm guessing they got there on a Sunday.)

If you haven't guessed by now, this was a fun episode for me. The racers were all worried they'd have to speak French in Montreal, but everyone they met spoke English. This was the same thing that Alana and I discovered when we went to Montreal (35 years living in Canada and that was only the first time I'd visited Montreal, and my previous experience in Quebec had not been a positive one, language wise). One team stopped a Montrealer asking if the big building nearby was the Stade Olympique (the French name, displayed on their clues). They pronounced it "Stayed Olympeek". The Montrealer, corrected them, saying, "Stade (pronounced "stad") Olympique? Yes." It was a very Canadian moment, a Montrealer with an anglophone accent correcting an American on the pronunciation of a French-Canadian name. The shots of Toronto brought back some homesickness, but it also brought some "Oh, I've been there!" excitement that comes from seeing your neighbourhood on television, and American television at that! Torontonians play a game called "spot the building" when they watch a movie filmed in Toronto. I did the same thing with this episode.

I couldn't get over the fact that the teams found easy parking in Toronto. They must have a crew on hand to make sure parking places are secure, otherwise the team that went to the shoe museum might still be looking for a parking space. The shots of Montreal showed a different quality of light to those in other places during the race, including Toronto. This was something that I noticed when I was up there, that there really is less light hitting Canada. (Last year my mother noted how much brighter it is here in Louisiana. It makes sense, otherwise why would it be so much hotter?)

The final Canadian leg took the racers down the QEW to highway 405, which takes them to Queenston, site of a War of 1812 battle and a really lovely place to visit. If you don't like the tacky tourist trap that is Niagara Falls, the nature trails, historical sites, and classier shops of Queenston and Niagara-on-the-Lake are for you. The teams mirrored much of the route Alana and I took into Toronto when we went for my visa, only we crossed at the Queenston-Lewiston bridge. The teams had to take a speed boat around the whirlpool along the Niagara River (down river from the Falls), and then take the boat to the New York side of the river. Alana and I have been above the whirlpool, so that part looked very familiar. Alana was wondering aloud how they managed to get into the U.S. without clearing customs, though.

(Here's a little travel tip for anyone driving into Canada from the U.S. at Niagara Falls, or vice versa. Do not cross at Niagara Falls! It's far too busy. Go north to Lewiston on the U.S. side, or Queenston on the Canadian side, and cross there. You're only about 10 or 15 miles from Niagara Falls, but the crossing is a lot faster. Besides, you'll want to see the stuff around Queenston anyway.)

When the signs for Niagara, Queenston, and the 405 popped up, it was all I could do to refrain from dragging Alana out to the car and driving up there.

That didn't happen, of course. Beside the distance, and us having to work the next day, there was another reason. The Amazing Race was apparently shot during the summer. Southern Ontario is covered in snow right now, and gets dark incredibly early. While Alana would love to see snow that lasts for more than a few hours, I'm in no big rush to drive on salt-covered roads any time soon.

I can wait until Canada thaws out.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

That was liberal media bias, right?

Last night I read an article on about Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco's e-mail. In order to show that her government asked for federal help in the wake of hurricane Katrina her office released 100,000 pages of documents. CNN's first story with regard to the contents of the documents focused on how Blanco —— or her staffers —— were concerned about appearance, both the appearance of racism and her physical appearance on TV. The story, the first story on the release and probably the one most people will remember, concentrated on 13 pages of e-mails. Granted, pouring through this massive pile of documents will take time. Still, the first story —— a negative story against a Democrat —— focused on 0.013% of the documents released.

This item, and several others including that mentioned in my last post, got me thinking about so-called liberal media bias.

You can't argue in this country about existenc of liberal media bias. It is ingrained in popular culture. It's certainly ingrained in the people I work with. It was most noticeable during last year's presidential election. There was lots of "water cooler" talk about liberal bias (thank you, Dan Rather) but they were completely oblivious to any conservative media bias. It was terribly frustrating, but also quite amusing at times.

Everyone believes it exists, but does it?

Forget that "liberal media bias" being a negative assumes that liberal and conservative view points are equally valid. That certainly hasn't been true historically. There was a big push to ban the atomic bomb in the 60s by liberals, in spite of the fact that the Soviet Union was never going to just do away with the bomb on their own. Southern conservatives (though mostly Democrats due to the hatred of the Republicans among white Southerners) were vocal in their opposition of desegregation at the same time. Not every liberal or conservative opinion should have equal weight, but I won't get into that in this post.

Every cable news outlet says they try to be balanced. Most of them consider it balanced if they give both sides of every issue regardless of the opinion's merit. Or, to put it more succinctly —— and to quote my friend Michael Skeet —— they think that "balanced reporting is two idiots spinning in opposite directions".

The one notable exception in this is Fox News. They don't even try to be balanced. Fox takes the "liberal media bias" assumption to heart. Their news is heavily biased in favour of conservatives, with the assumption that by showing a conservative balance they correct the liberal bias. This isn't any better than the other outlets with their oppositely spinning idiots. In fact it's worse because far too many people only watch Fox News. I know of a number of people at work that watch nothing but Fox. It's the reason for Fox's business success. It's good for their bottom line, but it's not good for informing the American populace.

There have been some interesting trends in network news recently that shows a biased media, but it's not exactly what everyone believes.
  • Several media outlets have made much of Democrat Senator Joe Lieberman's December 6 speech against Democrats who speak out about the war. It's been heavily covered by CNN. On the other hand, virtually no one covered Republican Senator Chuck Hagel's speech blasting the Bush administration for attacking those who disagree with them. The New York Times even ignored it. (Link)
  • On December 8, a CBS-New York Times poll showed President Bush's approval rating had climbed 5% from 35% to 40%. CNN and NBC both announced that Bush had made a strong bounce back in opinion. They failed to mention that the 5% increase was within the margin of error in the poll. The "strong bounce" could be a statistical anomaly. (Link)
  • The media has been incredibly quiet about on polls asking Americans, "If President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, Congress should consider holding him accountable through impeachment." Back in June 42% of Americans said they would be in favour of it. In a comment on the Washington Post's web site in early November, another poll showed Americans were 52% in favour of an impeachment proceding. Some conservatives called the question "bias against the president". Apparently asking that question is "biased", but asking"If Clinton lied by testifying under oath that he did not have an affair with the woman, and he did not resign, is this something for which Clinton should be impeached, or not?" is not. ( Link)
  • The Associated Press and USA Today published Bushes claims of success in Mosul and Najaf in Iraq without any critical analysis of those claims. (Link)
Those are just some of the more recent examples. Anyone who has followed the Bush presidency since 9/11 will note the fairly light treatment he's had, in spite of waging a war in Iraq on claims that were unfounded, despite racking up a huge deficit (after Clinton created a budget surplus), despite the gap between rich and poor expanding, despite the huge increase in gas prices, and despite the fact that Osama bin Laden is still at large. It really wasn't until hurricane Katrina, where what the press was told and reality collided head on, that Bush hit any real, solid, consistent criticism.

While conservatives cry "media liberal bias", some of the most popular conservative pundits continue to distort the facts for their own ends. There are too many to go into, but check out the Media Matters web site at for more information. Not surprising, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and David Horowitz are prominant in the list.

Okay, so maybe Media Matters is biased. Hey, they probably are! On the other hand, perhaps they just see themselves as balancing out Fox News. That would make them "fair and balanced", wouldn't it?

The fact is that all media is biased to some extent. The very fact that a news outlet has to accept money from someone means there will be some bias. Citizens are only served by news outlets if they try hard to get to the truth and clearly, and openly, state their biases. The idea is to bring people the news. Distortions should be punished. No one gains when journalists (or, in Bill O'Reilly's case, "journalists") distort the truth, or show two opposite, distorted views and claim they are "balanced".

I fear that instead of bringing truth, news outlets will simply spin their idiots faster and faster.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The secular war on Christmas, or so we are told.

On December 2, Bill O'Reilly (of Fox's The O'Reilly Factor) played a clip on his TV program of a Daily Show joke about Christmas. The joke was told by Samantha Bee (The Daily Show's resident Canadian). O'Reilly said this:

Predictably, the opponents of public displays of Christmas continue to put forth counter-arguments on 'Secular Central.' I — I mean, Comedy Central. They said this:

This was followed by Samantha Bee's joke, which went like this:

Christmas: It's the only religious holiday that's also a federal holiday. That way, Christians can go to their services and everyone else can stay home and reflect on the true meaning of separation of church and state.

O'Reilly finished with, "And a Merry Christmas to you, Jon Stewart."

Now, Jon Stewart's hilarious follow-up on December 7 is too long to put here. If you want to read it, you can find a transcript for it at the Media Matters web site: The important point is this: the item was first broadcast last year, though O'Reilly implied that it was broadcast the night before. It's easy to prove that wasn't the case... in fact Stewart and Bee did just that. You see, Samantha Bee was wearing a tight pink blouse in the show. She wore the same blouse on The Daily Show's December 7 episode. It didn't quite fit, though, because she is now about 8 months pregnant. She was quite obviously not pregnant when the joke originally aired.

Secularists are out to kill Christmas. This is the latest neocon cry. It's part of their whole "persecution of Christians in the United States" battlecry. Or rather, it's their latest battlecry because it's the Christmas season. This isn't really new or anything, as they trotted out the same argument last year. Apparently secularists have banded together (no mention where they hold their meetings, as I'm guessing they won't be able to organize in Church basements; probably in a Starbucks in San Francisco) to do away with Christmas. This incredibly influential group has even coerced — again, according to neocons — stores like Wal-Mart to stop saying "Merry Christmas" and start saying, "Happy Holidays".

Secularists are stealing Christmas from Christians!

Funny enough, there seems to be a dearth of proof for this. Last year the same three stories were trotted out again and again as proof of this "war on Christmas" (as O'Reilly puts it). The Columbia Journalism Review piece from last year, found at
, said that there were three stories recycled again and again as proof of this "war", two of which were essentially false. This year the Washington Times went looking for "war on Christmas" battlefields within the federal government but, according to CJR at this link:
, they came up a little short.

So, the Washington Times had a hard time finding any real evidence of this war (must be clandestine!), and O'Reilly resorted to displaying year-old jokes as current evidence. Why would they do this? Is it because controversy sells, and Fox's conservative (and largely Christian) base eats this stuff up? Could it be that they are counter-programming the recent bad press shovelled on the Bush administration? Or could it be that back in October Fox News host John Gibson released a book, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought? Gosh, they wouldn't be making things up to push an agenda and sell books, would they?

(I haven't heard any secularists pounding the streets of Monroe calling for a ban against Christmas. I do know that the Puritans banned Christmas during the 1600s, though. Damn those liberal, secularist, Puritans!)

As a secular humanist (I guess I'm one, according to this definition anyway: I have to say that all of my secular friends call the holiday "Christmas". None of them seem to be offended in the least that it's a religous holiday. Some express concern at the erosion of the separation between church and state, but they are quite happy to get the day off work, give presents, and listen to Christmas music.

Christians have a right to be upset at the way Christmas has become commercialized, but that has little to do with liberals or secularists. It has to do with businesses co-opting every holiday they can find in order to make people buy more stuff. That should be good for the country, right? After all, the neocons are all about spurring the economy by helping business.

I bet you won't see Fox news doing a show on how businesses are stripping Christianity from Christmas. Nope, it's — once again — the fault of liberals. And their sneaky, hidden but well-organized cousins, the secularists.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Another little U.S./Canada difference

I have a longer post in mind for later. Right now, while I'm waiting for someone to come into the office to answer a question, I have time for a quick posting.

Robert, the president of the company I work for, noticed something about the leather jacket I was wearing the other day. The zipper was on the left-hand side. He said that women's jackets have the zipper on the left, men's have it on the right.

My jacket was most definitely a men's jacket, but it was made in Toronto in the garment district. When I got home I did a quick check. Two jackets and a fleece sweater with zippers that I purchased in Canada have the zipper on the left. One jacket I bought in Canada has the zipper on the right, but it was made in the U.S. Alana's fleece sweater had the zipper on the right, but it's reversable and I couldn't tell which was the "original" side. Her raincoat has the zipper on the right, but she said that it was a men's jacket.

So, it appears that the U.S. and Canada differ in this respect. Of course, being right handed, I find the Canadian method superior. You hold the zipper side still while you maneuver the other side into the zipper and end piece. It's (slightly) easier for me to do this with my right hand.

This, of course, begs the question of why men's and women's zipper sides differ. I mean, what's the point? If there's a slight advantage to it one way or the other, half the population is being slightly inconvenienced. If there is no advantage, why are manufacturers not increasing efficiency and decreasing cost by making only one type of zipper?

Just some silly trivia for you to ponder.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

HarnMaster write-up on HyperBear. No! Really!

After a delay of two months, I finally posted the latest HârnMaster write-up to HyperBear.

Our last roleplaying session was one of those times when we were in more of a socializing mood than a gaming mood. That meant that we didn't get too far in our Delta Green scenario on the Saturday. Instead of playing HârnMaster on the Sunday, we decided to finish the Delta Green scenario.

Okay, so where is the Delta Green write-up? Umm, well... Okay, I was busy. No, really! I've been modifying my Cthulhu miniatures rules. And when I wasn't doing that, I was working on the write-ups for our 4th of July Feng Shui/Delta Green game. I plan to have those write-ups done before Christmas. (Yeah, I know, I told the gang I'd have it ready by Thanksgiving. They'll be done before 2006, I promise! Unless I get busy...)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

Okay, I'm not as depressed as the title makes it sound! That's a quote from "Time" by Pink Floyd. I thought it appropriate as my birthday was yesterday, and Pink Floyd was recently inducted into the U.K. rock music Hall of Fame.

My birthday was a low key event, but very nice. Alana and Logan presented me with a Lilliput Lane cottage from the Scotland collection (I now have 18 Lilliput Lane pieces, a David Winter cottage, and two Fraser Creations pieces), and The Night the War was Lost by Charles Dufour, about the fall of New Orleans to the Union during the Civil War. This is on top of the four sets of the Heroscape game I received a few weeks ago! Heroscape can be used as a stand-alone game, or as a terrain set for miniatures games.

We went to O'Charley's for dinner. Alana and I had been with Jason and his Mom last weekend and we had a coupon for a free apetizer. For the second time in a row we were underwhelmed with their service. Alana had asked the waitress to bring a cake for my birthday, to surprise me with cake and singing waiters, but the woman forgot. Alana was most peeved!

I really enjoyed the day, though it would have been better if I didn't have to go in to work! Alana always makes me feel special on my birthday, and I appreciate that more than I tell her. She knows I get a little depressed when my birthday rolls around (it was pretty bad when I turned 40) but this year I didn't really feel that way at all. Okay, maybe a little, but not much! Alana's a big part of that. So is Logan, who couldn't wait for me to open my presents (literally! When I asked what present I should open first, he said, "The book!" He paused. "Not the building!")

Anyway, I'm another year older. Today I continued to celebrate by eating a piece of cake the size of my head! This weekend I still intend to play Panzer Leader, which will take me back to the first days of my teens. Who says you have to wait until you're old to enjoy your senility!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

It started 30 years ago...

Today is my birthday. It also marks the 30th anniversary of my most loved hobby: strategy gaming, also known as wargaming.

Actually, my love of strategy games predates 1975. I remember having a number of strategic games a few years before this. One of the early ones had a square grid with plastic tanks, the name of which escapes me. I also had a pair of very simple games that were essentially wargames featuring Patton and McArthur, but I seem to recall that they weren't "serious" wargames, just positional games with a military theme.

My first miniatures game pitted my Airfix Scottish Napoleonic figures against a friend's (David Higham, whom I haven't talked to in decades) French figures. He had more than I did. I lined mine up in a "wedge" formation (no idea why). He split his into three waves. In spite of being outnumbered, I won simply because of the laws of probability. At the time we were both reading library books about miniature wargaming by Charles Grant and Donald Featherstone, but neither of us could paint at the time and neither of us could afford metal figures. We played in his basement. I can't date that game. It could have been as early as 1973 or as late as 1977.

The next time I remember miniatures gaming, my family lived in the house that my mother still owns. We moved into that house in the summer of 1975. I set up a small battle on a table in the basement. Buildings were constructed from bristol board (poster board) and I used plastic 1/32 scale figures. Based on my memories, I'd put it no later than 1978. I recently gave Logan my plastic 1/72 scale figures. They still have paint on the bases where I had written unit organization numbers back in high school.

The precise dates for my burgeoning interest in wargaming are murky, but there's one date I know for certain. For my 13th birthday I received the game Panzer Leader by Avalon Hill. I still have the game. It's one of my favourites.

Panzer Leader is the younger sibling of PanzerBlitz. Avalon Hill was one of the first companies (the first?) to produce board games based on historical battles. Starting in the early 1960s, they created games based on such battles as Gettysburg, Waterloo, and the D-Day invasion. Their games focused on strategic (dealing with whole armies) and operational (dealing with divisions up to corps) campaigns. PanzerBlitz was a revolution in gaming. Released in 1970, it was the first truly tactical game. Instead of a cardboard counter representing several thousand soldiers, a counter represented 30 or 40 men or four or five vehicles. PanzerBlitz was set on the Eastern Front of World War II with Germany fighting the Soviet Union. It came with three "geomorphic" boards that did not represent a "real" battlefield, but could be arranged to roughly represent a host of battlefields. Instead of squares, movement on the board was regulated by a grid of interconnected hexagons (not a first for PanzerBlitz, but it was the introduction to the "hex grid" for many a young wargamer). There were 12 "situations" in PanzerBlitz, so it was like getting 12 different games in one box. The rules also encouraged players to design new situations. PanzerBlitz was very popular at the time, and can still be purchased at a reasonable cost on eBay. I bought my copy used in the late 1980s.

Panzer Leader was the Western Front version of PanzerBlitz. It covered the conflict between Germany and the armed forces of the United States, Britain, and Canada. The rules were a little more complicated than PanzerBlitz, but not a lot more complicated. More importantly, it fixed a number of issues that appeared between 1970 and Panzer Leader's release in 1974. It was also a bigger game than PanzerBlitz: more counters, four boards instead of three, and 20 situations instead of 12.

I first saw the game in a Shoprite catalogue (one of two catalogue stores in Canada at the time, Shoprite was the only one to carry wargames). I will never forget its yellow and black cover. I can still remember what it was like to open the game box that day. I remember the smell of the components and the slick feel of the rule book. There might have been snow on the ground; I vaguely remember that, too. The game was fascinating. Over 400 counters to punch out and organize into little baggies. A rule book that, at the time, was the most complicated set of rules I'd ever read (I recently re-read them, and compared to some of today's monster games they are incredibly compact and clear) was devoured before the week was out. I was hooked!

Panzer Leader is not my favourite wargame (that goes to Avalon Hill's Up Front, which I bought in college) but it's one of my favourites. Later games were better simulations. In particular, there are no command control rules in Panzer Leader ("command control" rules model the difficulty in commanding troops in combat, and explore the reason soldiers were organized in particular formations). In some ways, it was ahead of its time. PanzerBlitz was sometimes called "Panzerbush". Counters receive benefits for being in tree areas, so players often ran vehicles from one tree hexagon to another. Opposing forces couldn't touch the counter even if the counter spent the vast majority of its time moving in plain view. Panzer Leader fixed this problem with an optional "opportunity fire" rule, a rule that's sometimes missing in games produced today.

Unfortunately, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I played Panzer Leader against an opponent. This was (and continues to be) a common problem for wargamers. The last time I played it against someone was in the winter of 1984/1985 (yikes, more than 20 years ago!). There's a reason wargames began to list their "solitaire suitability" in the late 70s.

Board wargames started to die off in the late 80s/early 90s. Powerful home computers and video game systems attracted the attention of players more than the more complicated board games. It took hours (sometimes days!) for someone to read the rules (and in the case of Advanced Squad Leader, months or years). They got more and more expensive as production values went up. Panzer Leader's boards are mostly off-white with the occasional splash of green (trees), brown or orange (hills and ridges). Towns are a cross hatch of lines. The boards for games like Avalon Hill's/Multi-Man Publishing's Great Campaigns of the Civil War, by contrast, are almost beautiful, with exquisite, accurate detail. All that colour and detail costs money.

Avalon Hill's main rival, SPI, was purchased by TSR (the Dungeons and Dragonscompany) in the 1980s. Those games were out of print before TSR itself was saved from bankruptcy by Wizards of the Coast. Avalon Hill was folded by its parent company, only to be snatched up at the last second by Hasbro. They still produce games under the Avalon Hill banner, but only Diplomacy and Acquire date back to the old AH, and these are games of easy mechanics and mass market appeal.

I noticed that there's been a resurgence of wargames in recent years. Computers just can't match the tactile appeal of unfolding a map and moving counters with a friend. Computer programs, like VASSAL, allow games to be played by e-mail. (You could play Avalon Hill games by mail for many years, using things like random number tables or stock market quote lookups for dice rolls, but you were stuck playing at the speed of snail mail.) Web sites devoted to Panzer Leader, PanzerBlitz, and The Arab-Israeli War (Panzer Leader's more complex and less successful younger brother) add new situations, new counters, and new board layouts. Some new games look absolutely gorgeous. There's a new wargame magazine that produces four games a year; one of their most recent games, about the fall of Berlin in 1945, is stunning in its graphics and use of colour. The old AH games are long out of print, but thanks to eBay they are still in circulation (as are the games of Avalon Hill's competitors: SPI, West End Games, and GDW). I think the Shoprite catalogue pegged it at C$10, a monumental sum in those days. You can now get it for US$10 to $20 on eBay. PanzerBlitz sells for just a little less. Some enterprising folk are selling die-cut variant counters and new mounted game boards. These games may be out of print but they are not gone.

My Panzer Leader box is over full. I purchased an expansion set for it in the mid 1990s which added counters and situations for the fight between Germany versus Britain and France in 1940. Somewhere along the line I picked up an additional copy of board D. I would still like to get another copy of the game, as my boards are slightly torn at the joins and I'd like to keep the game for many more years to come. Multi-Man Publishing has the rights to Panzer Leader and PanzerBlitz. The company, whose president is Curt Schilling, the Bost Red Sox pitcher, has yet to re-release the game.

Sometime this coming weekend I intend to play the game again, some 30 years after I first opened the box. I'll post my impressions of the game after that, to let you know if it still feels the same after all these years.

(For the record, I wrote this on the 2nd, but only because I didn't have time to write it down on the 1st.)