Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy Hogmanay!

Alana mentioned how my blog wasn't up to date. This makes the 17th post of the month, which would have been a record if not for my recent spate (since September) of blog posts. I haven't been feeling all that "bloggy" recently, which at least partially explains why this is the first post in five days.

As I've mentioned this year, the U.S. beats Canada at Thanksgiving, but Canada beats the U.S. at Christmas. Scotland, on the other hand, beats both countries for New Years celebrations.

Until the 1960s there wasn't much celebration in Scotland around Christmas time. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland managed to suppress the celebration of Christmas at the beginning of the Reformation (the suppression of Christmas as a celebration was common in the U.S. among the pilgrims, too). Christmas was reserved for religious observance. The Church of Scotland, famous for putting the "shun" in Reformation, put a stop to the pagan-originated holidays around the winter solstice. Several of these had been co-opted by early Christians to form the Christmas holiday season (Roman occupied nations had Saturnalia; Norse nations had Yule). Scotland had the New Year celebration known as Hogmanay (pronounced "hug-mah-NAY), also known as Ne'erday, a contraction of New Year's Day.

By the end of the 17th century the Church loosened it's proscription on having fun around the longest night of the year. While in England Christmas became a big gift giving holiday (particularly by the 19th century, where most of our modern Christmas traditions come from), in Scotland Christmas was still just a time for religious observance. Gift giving and partying was reserved for the secular New Year's Eve celebrations.

I remember my parents saying that Christmas wasn't a huge celebration and never quite understood. I hadn't realized, as a child, that gift giving and fellowship was primarily a New Year's thing until the 1960s in Scotland. I don't know what my parents and our family did before I came along in the early 1960s, but for our family presents were given on Christmas Day. This follows the trend in Scotland, too. Thanks to television, England's cultural imperialism infected the nation north of it, and by the 1980s Christmas had become the big gift giving day.

But this didn't really lessen the impact of Hogmanay, steeped in tradition and superstition as it is. Hogmanay is technically December 31, but it really centres around the switch to midnight and the next day. And the day after that, too. In Scotland, New Year's Day is, of course, a holiday, but so too is January 2.

Hogmanay's big "ritual" is known as "first footing". The first person in the house after the stroke of midnight is, by tradition, supposed to set the luck of the house for the rest of the year. By tradition the "first foot" should be a dark haired man bearing gifts. The gift part is obvious, as it represents wealth. There are a bunch of traditional gifts (black bun, whiskey), but a lump of coal is the biggie (as it represented enough coal to keep the fire going all winter, a big deal in a northern climate). The dark haired part was good because it meant the visitor was a Scot (while a blond or red-haired man meant that they were probably Norse, which in turn meant that they were probably viking raiders, and thus not very welcome).

One tradition that my family followed that Alana's family never did is keeping up the Christmas tree and decorations until Twelfth Night. We were never in a rush to pull down the tree until around my sister's birthday on January 5, while Alana is itching to pack everything on New Year's Day (if not before!). Twelfth Night is the end of the Christmas festivities, known (today mostly through the song) as the Twelve Days of Christmas. It's not surprising that Scotland would have a deeper appreciation of Twelfth Night, as Scotland's winter solstice celebrations extend almost to January 5 anyway, and from what I've heard in Glasgow and Edinburgh they really do extend that long, sort of like a Scottish equivalent to Mardi Gras (without the beads and breast exposure).

(While we're talking about the Twelve Days of Christmas, whoever created the instrumental only muzak version of that song should be sent to a special circle of Hell...)

It's now after 9 p.m. in Louisiana. It's 2007 in Scotland. To everyone, be they Scottish or not, I wish y'all a Happy Hogmanay!

(Just as I typed that someone set off fireworks. I've never seen a nation so fireworks happy!)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I enjoy post-apocalypse novels. This may seem strange, as the genre has at its basis the premise that some several billion people perish in some cataclysm. That's not the point of the genre, though. The point is survival, renewal, and commentary on man's relationship with technology and the world.

Cormac McCarthy is considered one of the best American novelists today. He is certainly a wordsmith. Few writers alive have his gift for aphorisms and metaphor. I'm currently reading his novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, a fictionalized account of The Glanton Gang in antebellum Texas. It's taking me a while, not because McCarthy's book is hard to read, but because it is dark and has a depth that requires attention.

I saw The Road in a book store. Reading the flap I learned that it was a post-apocalyptic story. That and McCarthy's writing interested me. A week ago Saturday I was borrowing books on CD from the library for my trip to northern Arkansas. They had The Road, so I borrowed it. I'm very glad that I did.

The book tells the story of three main characters. The first two characters are the Man and the Boy. The Boy is the the Man's biological son. The Man is trying to keep the Boy alive in a bleak landscape of desolation and destruction. The third main character is the world, the landscape around the Man and the Boy. No one takes a setting and makes it a character in its own right like McCarthy. You can see this process in Blood Meridian but it is more obvious here in The Road.

In the novel, the world is ending. It took me a while to realize there were no animals, save for the mention of a dog. The world is covered in ash. The sun and moon are obscured. Ash carpets the ocean. People wear makeshift masks to protect from the ash. There is mention of some plant life (trees, mushrooms) but no crops. As they move along the road — a series of roads and highways — the characters spot cities devoured by firestorms and lone houses ransacked for food. At all times they fear roving bands of canibals.

The Boy was born soon after the cataclysm. The Boy's mother, the Man's wife, is dead. The Man and the Boy have only themselves. The temperature is dropping, and they don't believe they can survive another winter, so the Man leads them south, for warmer weather and, hopefully, food. The Man has told the Boy that they are some of "the good guys" and that they "carry the fire", presumably the fire of civilization and humanity amidst brutality and a new dark age.

When I describe the world as bleak, I mean it. This is no survivalist fantasy like Lucifer's Hammer or Red Dawn. The question isn't so much how they can survive, but if they should survive. The Man is sick and getting worse. In spite of that, he forces himself to press on, to teach the boy how to survive... and to kill the boy if things get so bad that there is no choice.

I wasn't sure if I'd like the book even while I was half way through. The story is entirely character driven. There's no "high concept" plot. In fact, early on you could be forgiven if you doubt that there is a plot at all. It isn't until about two thirds along that you realize that McCarthy has been developing his characters, and that the development is the plot. With that development, you discover that, perhaps, there is hope; perhaps the world is not entirely bleak.

None of the above properly describes the lyricism of the prose. Here is but a small excerpt:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out and touch the child sleeping besides him. Nights beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.

I understand that there is biblical imagery within the novel. Not being a biblical scholar I missed this, such as all the clocks in the world stopping at 1:17, apparently a reference to John 1:17, "For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." This suggests that the Man is a Moses figure while the Boy is the embodiement of Christ. Biblical symbolism is found in McCarthy's other books, so it fits. In spite of the symbolism, the novel's take on religion is somewhat brave.

A number of reviewers suggest the holocaust was a nuclear war, but you never discover what caused the cataclysm. There are strong suggestions that the destruction of the world was man made. Nuclear armageddon seems the most likely explanation, but there is no mention of radiation, nor any obvious effects of radioactive contamination. In fact, the cause isn't important. The world is dying, decaying. That's what matters. by not focusing on the cause the question is taken off the table. A lesser talent would have wasted time on an answer that doesn't matter.

I will finish with a word about the CD. The unabridged recording is on six discs. The narrator is Tom Stechschulte. Stechschulte is excellent. His voice is perfect for the story, as the Man is the point of view character for most of the story. I've heard other books on CD narrated by Stechschulte, and those have been likewise excellent. He is clear and evocative. The book has tracks at about every three minutes, for easy bookmarking.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

I've awakened as late as 8:15 a.m on Christmas Day before, but not after having gone to bed around 11:15 p.m. Yesterday we didn't get to bed until after 3 a.m. due to presents being wrapped and presents needing laid out. We were up at just before 8 when Logan woke up. I don't function on 4 hours sleep. I just don't. So I slept in the car down to Alexandria/Pineville, and slept a little yesterday afternoon. We didn't get home until about 9 p.m. (it's a two hour trip, but we had to take Logan to his father's place and Daniel home, and then we got something to eat at Waffle House). As Alana put it, "Louisiana is a very bumpy, wet state at the moment and we drove all over it."

Alana didn't get to bed until later on, so it's me and Sabine up right now... and I think Sabine has gone back to sleep! I have Mythbusters on the television, busting Western movie myths. It's an odd Christmas morning...

Logan loved his presents. He got a lot of football stuff. Aside from a toy kicking football player and a new Nerf football, everything he got football wise has the New Orleans Saints on it. Alana's dad is a big Saints fan, so the game was on when we got there. Logan had been wearing his Saints helmet all morning, and continued to wear it while watching the game. He only took it off to eat, and to go out to play later. The Saints did their part and dominated the New York Giants 30 to 7.

Daniel also loved his stuff. Alana and I got him a bunch of stuff for his apartment. He didn't have anything, and he was very appreciative for what he got.

I mentioned a month back how the U.S. does Thanksgiving better than Canada. This is true, but Canada beats the U.S. when it comes to Christmas. In spite of the U.S. being more religious (less secular) than Canada, Christmas consists of only one day off. Right after Christmas, folks are back to work unless they take a vacation day. This is a pain, given that generally Americans work more hours than Canadians and have fewer vacation days.

(Example: I began my professional career at Kodak, Canada. Kodak Canada tended to take its cues from its U.S. counterpart. The work week was 40 hours and you had to work for seven years before you went from two weeks vacation to three. They did change that on my fifth year so that you only had to be their five years for three weeks, but when I went to Scotland for three weeks in 1992 I had to save up a week's vacation from 1991 to do it. My next place of work was the Toronto Star newspaper. Due to my experience, I was able to negotiate three weeks vacation at the outset, and it was a 35 hour work week. A 35 hour work week (9 to 5 with an hour off for lunch) is pretty common in Canadian white collar jobs. Here in Monroe, I work a 40 hour work week again, and I have to be here 10 years before I get three weeks vacation...)

In Canada, the day after Christmas is a national holiday called Boxing Day. This comes from the British holiday of the same name. The origin of the story is shrouded in obscurity. I had heard that it came from the lords of the manor giving a box of leftovers to their servants the day after Christmas. There are several variations on this, and not official answer. Here's Wikipedia's entry on Boxing Day and an explanation of the origin of the name:

Boxing Day in Canada is a sort of a strange holiday, due to controversy over what stores can and can not open.

Before Sunday shopping was allowed (in the early 1990s in Ontario), a statutory holiday law prevented stores from opening on Sundays or holidays unless they were in designated tourist areas, or if they were certain special stores. Book stores were exempt, for instance, because Ontario has always encouraged reading; in fact, books in Ontario are exempt from provincial sales tax. Convenience stores were exempt, because people need to get staples. In Toronto, this meant the waterfront area and a couple of other locations were allowed to open. Through political wrangling, the huge mall downtown (used to be called the Eaton's Centre, after the big department store that anchored it; not sure what it's called now, since the Eaton's chain folded a few years ago) was also designated a tourist spot.

In the 80s and 90s there was a push to allow Sunday shopping in Ontario. Toronto has a large Jewish population, who were not fond of the fact that they had to close on Sundays (their religious day of Sabbath is Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown) while they had to be open on their Sabbath just to be financially viable. A furrier on Spadina Avenue regularly ignored this law, racking up thousands of dollars in fines. Eventually the law was determined to be unconstitutional, but by then the Ontario government (a government formed by the socialist New Democratic Party, ironically) made Sunday shopping legal.

Even with Sunday shopping legal, stores have to close on statutory holidays. Boxing Day is a statutory holiday. It's also the day after Christmas, when people have Christmas money, gift certificates and — in a modern phenomenon — gift cards burning holes in their pockets. Canada doesn't have the big Black Friday sales day, so the better buys are found the days following Christmas. For this reason, a number of stores started flaunting the law, opening December 26.

It's against the law to do so in Ontario. Stores can be fined for opening. These stores shrug it off, as they make so much more money than the fine. There's a rule in retail that the longer you're open, the more you will make. This was at the heart of the Sunday shopping law (that people don't spend a finite amount of money in a week; impulse purchases are a big part of retail marketing). By getting a jump on the competition, and by getting those people with nothing to do with a day off (and I admit I have shopped in downtown Toronto on December 26 before, the scofflaw that I am), these stores found it was worth the fine.

I understand that the controversy still exists. Some have called for larger fines, so that these stores won't make any money. Others have called for an elimination of the law that requires stores to close.

At any rate, having a day off after Christmas — to recuperate if nothing else — is a tradition the U.S. would have done well to maintain. It's for this reason that I say Canada does Christmas better than the U.S.

I noticed that there seemed to be fewer "war on Christmas" stories this year. Apparently people are seeing this argument as the nonsense that it is. As I found on a number of web sites last year, yes there are some overly zealous people who have tried to temper Christmas celebrations, but there is no organized "war" on Christmas, and there are quite a few secularists who actually enjoy the holiday. Most people around here wish folks a Merry Christmas. Alana and I would heartily wish them the same. Christmas is, of course, a big religious holiday, but it's a religious holiday based on giving, peace and love. It's not surprising that it's become a secular holiday, too.

So, Merry Christmas, or a Happy Religious or Secular Holiday of Your Choice!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Canada-U.S. relations likely to improve

I just finished reading an interesting Toronto Star article on Patrick Leahy (U.S. Democratic senator from Vermont) becoming head of the Judiciary Committee. Apparently his appointment is seen as a positive step in Canada-U.S. relations, which have suffered considerably during the Bush administration.

As the article mentions, there are still those who believe at least some of the 9/11 terrorists entered the U.S. through Canada. There are many who believe it is too easy for terrorists to enter the U.S. through Canada.

(Here's an anecdote that flies in the face of that. One of our programmers is from India. Last year he had to leave the U.S. to renew his visa. He would have to leave in February. He could go back to India, but it was easier to just leave over the north or south border, hit a U.S. consulate, get his visa renewed, and come back into the country. He planned to go to Canada. The timing would have him at the U.S. consulate in Quebec City at the height of Winterlude, the big winter carnival. He, instead, went to Mexico. The reason? He needed a visa to enter Canada. He did not need a visa to enter Mexico. In fact, he and several others slipped across to Mexico for the exact same reason.)

One of the odd things I've noticed living down here is that you do not hear about Canada unless it's a) someone complaining about something Canada did, or b) there's some sort of weird news out of Canada, or c) some sort of disaster happened in Canada. Americans, civilians and politicians, just don't know much about their northern neighbour other than the fact it's cold up there. (It shocks folks that Toronto in the summer is much more humid than northern Louisiana. I constantly mention leaving Monroe after a summer visit when it was 98°F, only to have the temperature hit 104°F in Toronto the next day.)

For instance, I didn't know that on the anniversary of 9/11 Canada had lowered the Canadian flag to half staff at the Canadian embassy out of respect. It is mentioned in the article. I didn't know there was a Hurricane Katrina benefit at the Canadian embassy, either, or that the embassy donated supplies to help Katrina victims (though this didn't surprise me; I did remember hearing that some of the first search and rescue teams arrived in New Orleans from as far away as Vancouver).

Anyway, it's an interesting article:

Oh, and here are pictures from the Katrina benefit, and the banner that was raised at the embassy. I had to choke back tears seeing it:

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Ho. Ho. Ho.

I'm not really in much of a Christmas mood this year. I got back from Arkansas last night, and spent the time — until the wee hours — enjoying Alana's company. She mentioned that she wasn't in much of a Christmas spirit either, but at least she got to put up some decorations and see the presents on the exercise bike (the fact that the bike is used to support presents right now speaks volumes as to how much I've let me exercising slide). In spite of the public decorations in northeast Arkansas, it didn't feel much like Christmas to me. No family. No friends. No snow.

Okay, in recent years it hasn't snowed much on Christmas in Southern Ontario either, but only once did the temperatures approach freezing here in the Deep South in the last couple of weeks. We were out today wearing t-shirts. I remember late Decembers where I would have died of hypothermia doing what we did today in the clothes we were wearing. Literally. It's important to remember, as a Canadian, that there are long spans of time when you can die simply from going outside for sometimes short periods of time improperly attired. (Yet, I remember very, very few days as a child when it was too cold for me to go outside. I have a very clear memory from high school or my last year in senior public — junior high, down here — walking to a friend's place and then the library, a distance of several miles, in temperatures that must have been around zero in the old scale.)

Santa is arriving here tonight. Logan was at Alana's ex's place this weekend. As per tradition each year we alternate getting Logan for Christmas day. This is our "off year", so we have him on Christmas Eve instead. He then goes off to their place for Christmas. Therefore, Santa comes here tonight to leave him is presents. It's likely that this will be the last year Logan has any kind of belief in Santa Claus.

For some reason this Christmas custody arrangement is bugging me this year. It never has before. It didn't a couple of years ago, when we pickced Logan up from them on the night of December 22 and he had the Norwalk virus. I took care of him the next day while Alana worked, and came down with Norwalk myself Christmas Eve morning. I was violently ill from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., slipping in and out of fever dreams most of the day. Weirdly enough, the next day felt more Christmasy than this year feels. For some reason this year it just doesn't feel quite right having our Christmas a day early. I don't know why.

Daniel is with us this year. Daniel is Alana's adopted son. He has... issues. He was legally emancipated last spring. We weren't sure he was even going to be around this year, but here he is! This is the first time he's stayed here since at least March. We had bought him a few things, but nothing major. We ran out today and got him stuff for his new apartment. Even with this last spate of Christmas buying, it's not feeling like Christmas.

Maybe part of it is not going out to get Alana a Christmas gift. We're poor this year, so we decided not to get each other gifts from one another. Instead, we each bought something from Logan to each other. I had a couple of gift ideas for her; I'll just sock those ideas away for her birthday.

I think my lack of Christmas spirit is probably due to the trip to Arkansas stressing me out so much (not the trip itself, but what happened when I got there). I'm completely out of sync with my usual holiday pattern that I'm only registering tomorrow as Christmas at an intellectual level. And, of course, it's only our "observed" Christmas.

I'm sure I'll feel better tomorrow. Gifts will be opened in the morning, and then we're going to drive down to Pineville to see Alana's family.

For now, Christmas is a humbug.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

So where has he been, already?

I haven't posted in a while because I've been busy working. I'm currently in Blytheville, AR, training clients on our company's software. Training unhappy clients. It's a long, depressing story that I'll recount in e-mails with those who have a pressing need to know. All you really need to know is that I've been working late hours after work, the weather and my mood have been dreadful, and it's a toss up which I dislike the most right now: sales people or programmers.

To top it all off, yesterday I got a flat. I decided to drive into town (har, har) to get something to eat. The downtown core is much like other small cities in the U.S.: pretty close to dead. They did spruce up the place by putting up lots and lots of Christmas lights. As it turns out, I had passed all the places to eat, so I decided to negotiate the stupidly laid out main street (it has traffic islands forcing you into a Formula One chicane a block long) and head for a main road. I crossed a railroad crossing, made a left turn and drove for a couple of blocks before hearing something weird. I thought it was the muffler at first, but no. It was the rear passenger tire.

I changed the flat in the dark and the drizzle, and then ended up eating at a McDonald's, that being the first place with a bathroom where I could clean up. I got up early and headed to the Wal-Mart. The auto centre opened at 7, and I was first in line.

The tire had picked up a length of metal somehow. It cut a slit in the tire. I had to have it replaced. $80 lighter and 45 minutes later I left the Wal-Mart. When I checked the tires on the car, I heard a bubbling sound from the driver-side rear tire. I could see air bubbles on the water that had picked up on the tire; thankfully it had rained last night. Also thankfully, the wonderful Wal-Mart people (how many times do you hear that took it right back in. That tire had a piece of glass in it. It looks like I may have driven over the debris of a wreck. They were able to repair this tire, which hadn't quite deflated.

That was the start to my wonderful day, which would go downhill from there. At least I get to go home tomorrow, after work. I'm not staying over until Saturday. Instead, I'll drive back tomorrow. It should only take 5 hours or so. I understand that the people I'm training are going to be there until 5 p.m. tomorrow. Joy.

Alana's been feeling awful for the last couple of weeks. She's been sick to her stomach. I'm worried about her, which is another reason I want to go home tomorrow!

I have about half of Cormac McCarthy's new book The Road left to listen to from discs I borrowed from the library. I'll review it sometime this weekend.

The only other thing to mention is that the Wal-Mart cashier was complaining about how their auto centre opened at 7, but the managers wouldn't let them clock in until 7, so they don't really open until 7:05 or 7:10. I guess from the sheer size of the organizaton, those five minutes add up to substantial money. It seemed pretty petty to her, of course.

I'd better post this and go to bed. I'm starting to ramble... and even more than usual!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Which historical lunatic are you?

I'm Pope Stephen! Hurrah.
Which Historical Lunatic Are You?
From the fecund loins of Rum and Monkey.

Yes, this is yet another one of those quizzes where you are asked a bunch of questions and they come up with a personality type based on the answers. This one combines history and lunacy, so how could you not like it?

As listed above, I came out as Pope Stephen VI. What's weird about this is that I first came across Stephen VI based on an thread a couple of months ago, and was really grabbed by the story of the Cadaver Synod. So, hey, maybe I am Stephen VI!

Click on the link, above, to take the test yourself.

Oh, the Cadaver Synod? Also known as the Synodus Horrenda, it's a very weird and turmultuous point in Roman Catholic history; there were 24 popes in the period before and after the Cadaver Synod.

Pope Formosus was on one side of a political power play while the future Pope Stephen VI was on another. Formosus made Stephen Bishop of Agagni, largely to get him out of the way. Formosus died (natural causes, apparently), and was replaced by Pope Boniface VI in April, 896. Boniface lasted 15 days as Pope, dying either of gout or murdered to make way for Stephen VI, depending on who you ask.

In January, 897 Stephen put poor old, decaying Pope Formosus on trial. Literally. He had the guy's body dug up, clothed in papal regalia, and set up on a throne while Stephen and a panel of judges selected from the clergy presided over the trial. A deacon was designated to speak for the dead pope.

The charge against Formosus? He was made the Bishop of Rome while he was already a bishop in another diocese. Oh, the humanity! The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, which is considered the head of the church the world over. Church law at the time prevented a bishop of one diocese from becoming the Bishop of Rome. Formosus was made Bishop of Porto, Italy in 864, and became Bishop of Rome/Pope in 891.

Not surprisingly, Stephen and the gang found the deceased pope guilty. In other words, Stephen's side of the political tug of war "won" (though it was, by then, more insult than injury). Formosus was stripped of his clothes, his papacy — and all acts from it — were anuled, and the three fingers of his right hand used for consecreations were cut off. He was dressed in ordinary clothes and reburied. Not content with that, the old boy was dug up again and thrown into the River Tiber.

If you were paying close attention, you'll have noticed that Stephen was Bishop of Agagni when he was made Bishop of Rome. Well, conveniently, since Formosus' papacy was anulled, Stephen was never made Bishop of Agagni, so he was not guilty of the same crime!

The story of Formosus doesn't end there. His body washed up on the banks of the Tiber. Soon after, commoners started claiming that the body was performing miracles. This led to a rebellion that saw Stephen VI deposed and imprisoned. At some point in July or August, 897, Stephen was strangled in his cell. He was replaced by Theodore II in December, 897. Theodore II anulled the the verdict of the Cadaver Synod, and Formosus' body was interred in St. Peter's Basilica. Theodore only lasted 20 days as pope before dying of natural causes. The next pope was John IX, who lasted about two years. John IX confirmed Theodore's judgement, had the Cadaver Synod transcripts burned, and declared it illegal to try a dead person.

But it was still not over for poor Formosus. John IX died in C.E. 900, and Benedict IV became pope. He upheld Formosus' rulings. Benedict IV died in 903, and was succeeded by Leo V. In this period the barons and nobility in Italy were making and unmaking popes left and right. Christopher, a Cardinal-priest, forcibly dethroned and imprisoned Leo V. Christopher technically became pope on Leo's death in prison in October, 903 (possibly by strangulation), but Christopher was forced out of the papacy by another revolt, and is now officially known as antipope Christopher. Sergius III was asked to become pope in January, 904. (Antipope Christopher died later that year, either of natural causes or, less likely, strangulation.) Sergius was on the same side as Stephen VI. Sergius reinstated the verdict of the Cadaver Synod, and reportedly had Formosus exhumed again, retried, and beheaded!

So, there you have it, my "historical lunatic" is Pope Stephen VI. What is yours?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Severe space storm headed our way

Yesterday I mentioned a solar tsunami. Apparently the sunspot that exploded is causing more hassles for us.

A severe space storm is headed toward the Earth after a solar flare erupted from the sun. The flare erupted last night, sending a storm of charged particles our way.

The storm is due to hit the Earth tomorrow sometime. It could cause problems for satellites and power grids. Power grid managers have learned how to minimize the disruptions. Satellites might suffer reboots and damage. As a precaution, the astronauts in the space station have been moved to a protected area.

Here's a story about it:

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Solar tsunami

Back on December 8, a massive solar flare exploded out of a sunspot on the surface of the sun. While that may have caused some problems for satellites in orbit around the Earth, it had no other effect on us (except for some really cool Northern Lights).

The neat part is that the explosion sent a tsunami like shockwave across the surface of the sun.

This site has a video of the event (actually, it's a number of still photos put together into a video). Select December 8, 2006 on the far right under "View Archives".

The video actually compresses eight minutes into a few seconds.

To give you a sense of scale, the Earth is roughly 1/1000 the size of the sun, or a little bit bigger than the spots on the right side of the image.

To Live and Die in LA (Louisiana), session 2

We played another sesson of our All Flesh Must Be Eaten zombie game was this past weekend. I posted a write-up to our Actual Play thread on You can see the post, and the previous posts, here:

Feel free to comment on You do have to be a member to post a message, but membership is free.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Verizon math

This was posted to You Tube ( two days ago. It is long. It is the recording of a customer service call to Verizon wireless in the U.S. involving wireless data rates in Canada. It is almost 23 minutes long, if you are listening to the whole thing.

At the heart of the matter, the person calling has unlimited web usage in the U.S. Before going on a trip to Canada, he asked how much it would cost him to use his phone for Internet downloads. Verizon quoted him a price of .002 cents per kilobyte. He downloaded 35,893 kilobytes. Quick! How much should he owe? I'll wait until you get a calculator...

Okay, so he owes 71.89 cents, correct? Okay, he was charged $71.89. Obviously the rate is .002 dollars per kilobyte. Therein lies the problem. He was quoted .002 cents per kilobyte but they charged him .002 dollars per kilobyte. In other words, he was charged $0.002 per kilobyte while being quoted $0.00002 per kilobyte.

The trouble is that he is trying to get someone at Verizon to understand this, and none of the people he talks to gets it! Two separate reps on an earlier call, a rep, a supervisor and a floor manager on this recorded call, and not one of them understand simple math! They continue to quote him ".002 cents per kilobyte" while insisting that his bill should be $71.89 for 35,893 kilobytes.

He double checked the rate before he went, by the way, because the thought the rate was suspiciously low. However, he pays for a flat fee in the U.S., which can easily run up to gigabytes of download a month, so it's not outside the realm of possibility that they would have fairly low rates for someone travelling into Canada.

Anyway, here is the message:

It's quite funny, infuriating (I was infuriated and I wasn't the guy talking to them!), and a sad commentary on the state of mathematics. It's also a wonderful example of the corporate brainwashing that happens with customer service departments. Verizon's internal documents quote ".002 cents per kilobyte" when they mean ".002 dollars", but nothing that the person says on the other end will sway them from believing the corporate literature is right!

I'm sure this is going to go all over the Internet. It will probably show up on Snopes. It is already on Slashdot and Digg.

And I just found out that the guy who had this happen to him has a blog about it! And that Verizon, earlier today, refunded him the entire amount. Apparently they were being inundated by calls from people who heard about this. According to the blog they are now quoting a rate of ".002 dollars per kilobyte". Yes, the penny finally dropped!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Start of World War II

Today is December 7, the 65th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Coincidentally, starting about two weeks ago the U.S. media started pointing out that the war in Iraq had "lasted longer than World War II".

Now, this is one of the reasons people in other countries get upset with Americans. There's a certain amount of insular arrogance that suggests that the Iraq War, which began in 2003, has now been going on for "longer than World War II". This statement is true only if you think World War II began, oh, on December 7, 1941.

What the media meant is that the U.S.'s participation in the Iraq War has gone on longer than the U.S.'s participation in World War II. One "media outlet" got it right... and that was The Daily Show, whose British correspondant pointed out that Britain had been in World War II since September 3, 1939. (Okay, so not all U.S. media news claimed that the war was "longer than World War II". But CNN and FOX News did.)

This does bring up the question of when, exactly, did World War II begin. The traditionally accepted date is September 3, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, prompting Britain and France to declare war on Germany (followed soon after by Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and other Commonwealth nations).

The trick with World War II is that it was actually several conflicts that occurred at the same time. The primary conflict was Germany versus France and the British Commonwealth. When Germany invaded Poland, soon after the Soviet Union aided Germany in the partitioning of Poland. Although both Germany and the U.S.S.R. knew that they would be at odds eventually, they were technically allies at the time. Germany wouldn't fight the Soviet Union until June 22, 1941, when Germany invaded the U.S.S.R.

So, Germany seems to be the central figure in World War II, and it was, but the war wasn't considered over until August 15, 1945, V-J Day (Victory Over Japan; sometimes called V-P Day, for Victory in the Pacific, and celebrated in the U.S. on August 14 as that is when the people of the U.S. found out the war was over due to time zone differences). V-E Day (Victory in Europe) commemorates the surrender of the German army on May 8, 1945. If World War II was central to Germany, why is it not considered over until Japan was defeated?

That's a good question. The two theatres of operation were like two separate wars. You could argue, though, that the central power in the war was not Germany, but Britain. Britain declared war on Germany, and Britain was one of the countries attacked in early December, 1945. With the signing of Japan's surrender, Britain was no longer at war.

The United States came into the war rather late, for political reasons. And, in fact, it did not enter voluntarily. Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, and Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. on December 11, 1941. With the U.S. entry into the war, and all three major Axis powers at war with the U.S., the European and Pacific wars have gelled into World War II.

What's interesting is that the Second Sino-Japanese War is still considered apart from World War II, at least in the west. Japan invaded Chinese-owned Manchuria in 1931 due to an incident created by the Japanese. On July 7, 1937 Japan invaded China. This became the Second Sino-Japanese War. It did not end until September 9, 1945, after the peace declaration was signed between Japan and the U.s. and the British Commonwealth.

If you look up information about the Rape of Nanking, or the Second Sino-Japanese War in a book store, you will find it in the World War II section. For this reason, some have suggested that the true boundary of World War II is July 7, 1937 to September 9, 1945, and it is only Western bias that fails to recognize the start of, and importance, of this conflict. After all, it was the Second Sino-Japanese War that prompted Britain and the U.S. to embargo Japan, which resulted in Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

In other words, depending on who you talk to in the world, the Second World War lasted just over eight years, or just shy of six years. In either case, the war was much longer than the three years and eight months the American press is currently using to compare it to Iraq. For it to truly be longer than World War II, we will have to see U.S. troops in Iraq in 2009 or 2011... neither of which are out of the realm of feasibility.

Silly String goes to war

A woman in Philadelphia is collecting cans of Silly String — plastic goop shot out of aerosol cans — for shipment to Iraq. So far she has over 1,000 cans. The woman, Marcelle Shriver, got the idea of sending the stuff from her son, a soldier in Iraq.

No, the cans are not used for off-duty tension relief. They are actually used on patrol.

The stuff can shoot over 10 feet, which can cross the average room. The soldiers fire a strand and watch it drop. If it hits the floor, that's good. If part of it gets hung up in the air, then it's mostly likely lying across a nearly invisible booby trap wire.

The idea of using Silly String in this way was the result of inspired improvisation by some Marines in Iraq. The U.S. Army learned the idea from the Marines.

Soldiers are encouraged to improvise, and they are sometimes given money to purchase non-regulation supplies if it helps in the field.

Shriver can't mail the cans through the postal service, because they are aerosol cans. However, a private pilot has agreed to fly the cans as far as Kuwait, probably in January.

The story:

ISG: violence in Iraq under-reported

Hey, it's been a while since I posted anything political, so...

Yesterday the Iraq Study Group (ISG) report came out. U.S. news reports have focused on a key recommendation that the U.S. increase the number of troops instructing Iraqi security forces, but that the U.S. begin pulling out troops in 2008 (rather, the proper wording was that all combat brigades not necessary for "force protection" could be pulled out by first quarter of 2008) and the need for diplomatic talks with Syria and Iran.

What wasn't covered by the media in the U.S. was something picked up in The Scotsman: the ISG report states that the level of violence in Iraq has been under-reported. As an example, one day in June of this year fewer than 1/10th of the violent attacks in Iraq were reported by U.S. officials. There were 93 reported acts of violence. "A careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence."

Apparently a murder of an Iraqi is not listed in the reports of violent acts if they don't know who committed the murder. Sure, the murderer could be a spouse or an enraged business partner, but the killing could also (and most likely is) part of sectarian violence. These murders are not reported. Also, a mortar or rocket attack, or roadside bomb, that does not injure U.S. personnel is not included in the database, either.

Key quotes:

"There is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq."

"The standard for recording attacks acts as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases."

"Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimises its discrepancy with policy goals."

I'm not sure why this isn't reported more thoroughly in the U.S., escpecially since it's giving credence to the study that showed the number of post-war Iraqi deaths was quite a bit higher than official counts.

The Scotsman article is here:

Another item, again not from a major U.S. news outlet, is here:

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Ressurrection and ruin

My legs hurt more today than yesterday. I traipsed all over the French Quarter today, to the Cathedral and Cabildo, down to Decatur, over to Central Grocery and the French Market, up Esplanade to Dauphine (and then over to Barracks to find out the book store I wanted to visit wouldn't be open for another hour!) then back to the hotel. After dropping off my leather jacket (hey, it was chilly this morning), I hiked down to Decatur, over to Canal, up to St. Charles, almost over to Poydras to get to a bank (to save the $2+ withdrawal fee, since it was a branch of our bank), back down to Royal (where I found a much closer bank!), then back down to Decatur again.

I should have gone back to the hotel at about 11, but I just couldn't do it. The day was crisp and clear. After all the times I visited New Orleans, I can honestly say that the Quarter has never looked as good as it did today. Even the ever present murky water in the streets was mostly gone (though there were two places where workers were powerwashing the sidewalks). While in a store today I heard a news announcer talk glowingly about the French Quarter, and how people needed to visit it now that it was open again. I saw a huge tour group from Germany in Jackson Square. There seemed to be a few more people around this morning than yesterday. Tourism is slowly returning to the city.

After checking out of the hotel, we decided to drive home by way of the Ninth Ward. We drove... uh... okay, I'm not sure of the compass heading (and if you've seen a map of New Orleans you'd know why), but we drove along Orleans until we got to Rampart, where I turned right. We were headed roughly in the right direction.

As I mentioned yesterday, the downtown and tourist sections had mostly recovered, at least as far as businesses were concerned. This was from walking Decatur, Royal, and Bourbon Streets in the Quarter, and Canal, Poydras, Leola, and St. Charles in the business district. People with money had returned. We saw a couple of Mini Coopers. Outside the police station on Royal, I saw a yellow Lotus. Perhaps it was confiscated. As we drove along Rampart, on the edge of the Quarter, we saw several more businesses boarded up. The further you get from the tourist areas, the more obvious the signs of ruin.

On the opposite side of the road and a couple of blocks further along Rampart was a building that indicated you were now entering the Ninth Ward. It did not have any signs on it. It was a blue building with a corrugated metal roof. Half of the roof had been peeled back like someone opening a can of Pringles potato chips.

Another home had its left side exterior wall ripped away. The obvious mildew and water damage suggested that it was wind that tore it off.

Everywhere there were houses with rescue symbols spray painted on them. We didn't know what the symbols meant, but we're pretty sure that one of the rarer symbols meant someone had died inside. Occasionally we came across buildings with information crudely spray painted on it. In each case it was to tell someone that an animaly — maybe a treasured pet — was found and rescued. Someone in the neighbourhood had taken care of the animal and left a note to tell whomever what had happened.

The rescue symbols were accompanied by dates. Alana didn't see a single date earlier than 9/6. She saw quite a few showing 9/12. Considering how low to the ground the symbols were painted (at about chest height) this area of the city must have been pretty much dry by the time rescuers got to it.

FEMA trailers filled several small parks: a couple of dozen in one park, a dozen in another. On one street, three or four homes had trailers parked out front while the house behind it showed signs of slow, but perhaps steady, repair work.

Most of the homes looked deserted. Most of the debris was gone, or had never been there in the first place, but there was no life in the homes themselves. We listened to a local guy on the radio while driving along. He said that homes in New Orleans should not be rebuilt with wood frames but with some sort of concrete composite capable of withstanding hurricane force winds. I've seen the pictures of destroyed homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, but very few of the homes we saw were destroyed. There were maybe a half dozen to a dozen lots that had been razed. The rest still had the building intact. They had not collapsed. The wind had done nasty damage, but the homes had mostly survived the wind. It was the water that destroyed. It was the water, the flood, the failure of human engineering that had killed.

While the structures were intact, roof damage was common. Anyone without a recent roof took some damage. Shingle curl with age. The wind scraped away curled shingles as it drove across the city.

The streets were fairly busy. There were people getting on with their lives. We passed two guys walking pit bulls; I couldn't tell if the dogs were for protection or intimidation. It was a poor section of town. There were more people around and more cars on the streets than I had expected. Poor folks with nothing to do, I suppose. Their faces were mostly young or old.

We didn't get to the Lower Ninth Ward where most of the damage occurred. We were in the Upper Ninth Ward and that was bad enough. We didn't take any pictures. For one, the traffic was busy enough on Rampart and the other major roads that we couldn't stop. For another, we weren't sight seers. We were witnesses. We wanted to see the devastation and see what, if any, progress was being made. People were trying to live on these streets, where — depending on the street — between one in three and one in ten homes were livable. Somehow, stopping for pictures seemed wrong.

Alana said something to me that made a lot of sense: there have already been enough pictures taken.

Pictures wouldn't give the right context, anyway. Maybe video would. You only get a real feel for the destruction as you pass house after house after house spray painted with emergency rescue markings. Each of those homes was empty of the living when those marks were made. The only homes that were not marked were those that were no longer there.

We looped around and drove back down Rampart toward the city core. As we approached the top of the Quarter\ I saw three damaged homes, obviously empty. Next to them were four homes built at the same time and in the same Spanish style. They were newly painted in bright colours: one was predominantly blue, another yellow, a third cinnamon, the fourth green. They had been recovered, but the ones next to them had not. The recovered homes just happened to be on the part of the street closer to the city centre. It appears that the city is rebuilding in the same direction that it originally developed, from the old city centre outward, with a smattering of structures in the outskirts. It was New Orleans' development re-enacted at a faster pace, but a pace that is still woefully slow.

The traffic out of the city was heavy, as was the traffic into the city. I suppose that is a good sign.

I will mention one other thing about our trip. There were hats and t-shirts for sale with slogans about rebuilding, or about FEMA, or about the mayor's infamous "chocolate city" quote. I didn't see a single resident wearing a shirt or hat of this type. If they wore anything that mentioned the city, it was an NFL Saints shirt (of which there were plenty). A number of stores had tasteful posters about New Orleans rebuilding and welcoming visitors. None of the proprietors of any of the stores I visited volunteered stories about the hurricane. I overheard maybe one discussion about the hurricane while I was there, and that had to do with a store that may or may not have reopened. The store owners were, for the most part, warm and friendly and happy to see you there. I'm sure if I asked them about the storm, they would tell me a "storm story". Its just that the storm didn't come up in conversation, and no one was volunteering. Like the tacky souvenirs, "bigass beer", and the beads sold on Bourbon Streets, slogans about surviving the storm or blaming FEMA are for the tourists. The natives of the city are too busy rebuilding (the city and their lives) for slogans.

Monday, December 04, 2006

My feet are sore!

I spent a lot of time walking around the French Quarter today. It was a gorgeous day, but cold (for the South). The high today was supposed to be 47°F, and it wasn't a whole lot over freezing when I started walking this morning.

My plan was to hit a number of rare/used book stores in the Quarter to look for some books I have on my "wish list". I was also looking for some research material for a book I've been planning to write for years.

The first stop was to Faulkner Books, a short two minute walk (if that) from our hotel. It was an interesting stop. I asked about books about the Union occupation of New Orleans during the Civil War. The woman, who was very knowledgeable, immediately thought of one book. She didn't have it, but she did have another book with the first listed as a reference. That let me write down the title: Louisiana Reconstructed: 1863 – 1877 by Joe Gray Taylor. I did find a book from my wish list at this store, so I bought it sort of as thanks for helping me (though it was a book I was definitely looking for on this trip).

I then marched around the French Quarter looking for the other book stores. My next stop, though, was to an antique weapon store. I've been trying to find the price in 1861 of a spyglass. It's part of the plot of the novel I'm writing. This store had a bunch of opera glasses in there, so I thought I'd drop in and ask. The guy I talked to guessed the price at $5 to $10, which is about what I thought it would have been from what little I've been able to discover. Not much luck there, except that given the work I've done try to find this information, and given this guy's confirmation of my own research, I figure it's unlikely anyone will disagree with me.

I went up to Dauphine Street near St. Louis to find Dauphine Books. The store is closed. I'm guessing that it never recovered from Katrina. I was surprised that more stores down here hadn't collapsed. There are a few empty store fronts, but not a lot.

The air was cold enough that I feared I might have an asthma attack while I was out, so I headed back to the hotel room to get my inhaler. I visited three more book stores, one of which is across the street from the hotel. I got a lead on another book, but I didn't find what I was looking for. However, Crescent City Books had a book about the use of reconnaissance balloons in the early part of the Civil War. Yes, there is literally a book on every aspect of the American Civil War (except, of course, the one that I'm interested in; well, okay, there are books on the Union occupation of the Crescent City, but none were published after 1975). The book was only $10, so I grabbed it.

My next stop was outside of the French Quarter. I hiked up Canal Street, heading for the New Orleans Public Library. Canal Street has a lot of construction going on. Most of it is concrete work, probably as a result of the hurricane flooding. They do have white Christmas lights up on the palm trees, though. There are also a few homeless folk about, so the street is looking more like it did prior to the storm, if perhaps a bit cleaner (all that new paint I mentioned yesterday).

I had to go through a metal detector, and they searched my backpack — which held one of our laptops — when I got to the library. The reason wasn't immediately obvious until I got inside. A part of the library has been partitioned with cubicle walls for use as some sort of state emergency services office. I'm guessing that they are worried about violence, and are treating it like a regular state or federal building.

The library's city archives survived the hurricane. Most of the paper records had been microfilmed. The basement archives survived without flooding. The few papers that did get wet were sent to a preservation specialist for recovery. I was there for the microfilm archives, though I started by asking if they had Louisiana Reconstructed. They did, but a few pages were missing. t didn't matter, I was able to look through the book. I didn't get a lot of immediate use from it, but I did get a lead on another book: Occupied City: New Orleans Under the Federals 1862-1865 by Gerald M. Capers (published in 1965).

As I said, I was there for the archives. In particular, the newspaper archives. I pulled out the January to August archive of The Daily Picayune, which later merged with another paper and became the famous Times-Picayune. It was very cool to read old newspapers (even in microfilm form) from a period I know a fair bit about. I got a lot of information out of it: the address of concert halls, information about Mardi Gras in March, 1862 (it was apparently very subdued), steamships travelling up the Mississippi (damn, didn't write down ship names!), and a lot of other little details. Some of what I read was poignant. There was an advertisement by a woman whose ten or eleven-year-old had drowned in the river offering a $50 reward for her son's body if anyone were to find it. A month later she was still advertising, offering up to $200. There were only a couple of slave auction listings, and a couple of ads for rewards for the return of run-away slaves. Nothing makes slavery as real as seeing this sort of stuff in print.

Most interesting, to me, were the events leading up to the Union occupation. Starting on April 8 the newspaper started publishing accounts of the first day's battle at the Battle of Monterrey, which would a few days later be called the Battle of Shiloh. The first couple of days hailed it as a great Confederate victory and how the Union army would likely be destroyed. In reality, it was a nasty shock to the Union and the army was almost destroyed, but the Confederates ran out of steam, the Union received fresh reinforcements, and the Confederates were driven from the field the next day. You can actually see the point where the editors must have heard that the battle was a Confederate loss, but only had a story talking about it as a victory. You can also tell the point where the Union navy was about to sail against the city. The newspaper usually ran four to six pages in length. On the eve of the naval battle for the city, the newspaper was only two pages long, and the front page had a lot of ads for steamships going up river. Then there is a day or two gap, then the newspaper was only two pages of ads. When it recovered back to four pages it urged calm now that the city was occupied.

It was all cool, wonderful stuff for a Civil War buff!

I walked back to the hotel as the sun was setting and the temperature was dropping. I met Alana at the hotel, where her conference folks were having a group picture taken. We hiked over to Mulate's for supper. Alana had the Catfish Mulate's, which she thought was pretty good. I had the crab cakes which I thought were too spicy (the crab flavour was drowned). We walked to the Riverwalk, but it was closed already. This was more evidence of the lack of tourists. It was just after 6 and the mall was closed, even though it was about three weeks until Christmas. So, we hiked back to the hotel. We'd done Bourbon Street the night before, and it was getting pretty chilly out. At least we got to see Heroes!

Alana has another day of conferencing. I'll be traipsing through the French Quarter. I hope my fee have recovered by then.

* * *

I just heard this on the news. The body of another Katrina victim was found in the 9th Ward, when workers demolished a flood-damaged home. This is the 28th body they've discovered since March.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

We're in New Orleans!

What the title said! Alana has a Medicaid Purchase Plan conference in New Orlenas, and I came down to join her. We're staying at the Bourbon Orleans hotel in the heart of the French Quarter. We stayed in the same hotel back in 2004 when we had to come down here for my Employment Authorization Document. At the time the hotel was undergoing renovations with workers pounding away at 7:00 a.m. We paid less than $60 a night then. This time the rate is over $100 a night, but the State of Louisiana is picking up the tab. The "rack rate" of the room is $1000, so even the price on this trip is a discount!

I can say that the French Quarter is up and running more or less as normal. There are one or two empty buildings; can't tell if that was due to the hurricane or just bad business. A couple of souvenir shops have "going out of business" sale messages. Oddly, they are fully stocked. The Tower Records store has been mostly picked clean, though Alana did pick up the Vincent Black Shadow CD she's been looking for. Tower Records' demise had nothing to do with the hurricane. A bunch of places, like Mulates (a famouse New Orleans restaurant near the convention centre) have new coats of paint. The big difference is that Bourbon Street isn't as busy as we've seen it in the past. There are people out and about, but the numbers are much lower than I've seen before in non-Mardi Gras periods.

The only direct evidence we saw of the hurricane was eastbound on I-10 a mile or two before the Houma, LA exit. I saw a very large shed or very small warehouse on wooden stilts. The stilts were new. Nearby was a metal shed, mangled, discarded like a crumpled up piece of paper. Indirectly, there are a number of t-shirts available that reference the hurricane, FEMA, and New Orleans' mayor Ray Nagin's post-Katrina comment about the city being a "chocolate city". One of the better ones had a picture of Nagin dressed as Willy Wonka, and the message, "It's a chocolate city. Semi-sweet and full of nuts". Alana bought a t-shirt with a bad word on it (grin!) dealing with FEMA. She's going to have to show it to the folks at her work.

If we get the chance, we intend to drive down into the 9th Ward. Not sure if we'll have the time, though; depends on when her conference ends.

For lunch we ate at Johnny's Poboys, on St. Louis near Decatur. A client suggested that we go there, and his recommendation was a good one. There's not much to the decor. You give them your order, sit at a table with plastic red and white checked table cloths, and they call your number. However, they make excellent poboys. They suggest that they are the best in the city. I could believe that. I had the calamari poboy; the calamari was perfectly cooked and the toasted bread melted in your mouth. Relly liked it, and the price wasn't bad given the size of the sandwich.

We finally made it to Port of Call for supper. We had to wait quite a while to be served as they were packed. Normally we wouldn't wait so long, but it's within a ten or fifteen minute walk, and we'd talked about going there every time we'd visited New Orleans. They have a limited menu: three or four types of steaks and four types of burgers. That's it. For good reason. The burger was excellent; and, yes, I could believe the claim of reviewers that they are the best in the city.

I'll write more about our trip later. As it is, I'm having trouble keeping my eyes open. Time to head to bed!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

St. Andrew's Day: Word usage

Here's a little lesson in word usage, just in time for St. Andrew's Day.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is recognized by the world as a single country. It is made up of four "regions": England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. At one point Scotland and Wales were separate kingdoms in their own right (though this an oversimplification with regard to Wales). When talking about the country of Britain as a whole, people outside of Britain (actually, people outside of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) have an annoying habit of calling the entire island nation "England". This is not the case. England is the biggest piece of Britain, and is the majority of the nation by land mass and population, but it is not correct to use the word "England" when referring to Britain and the United Kingdom.

Even more mysteriously, I hear people in North America call folks in Britain "English" but call the people of England "Brits". I have no idea where this comes from! Scots and Welsh are "Brits". The people of England alone are "English". Now that you've been informed, you will have your knuckles rapped if you use it incorrectly!

Oh, and while we're at it, let's mention a couple of other things. "Great Britain" is technically England, Scotland, and Wales. "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, there is also "the British Isles", which includes England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, and the Isle of Man. The three latter are special. They are "Crown dependencies". They are countries in their own right, and they have their own governments, but they are owned by the British crown, and the British parliament extends some control over them. They are not, however, part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

Clear as mud, right?

St. Andrew's Day: Devolution

Today is St. Andrew's Day. St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, so this is the equivalent of St. Patrick's Day, though Scots emigrants were less successful than their Irish brethren in exporting the day to North America in the 19th and 20th centuries. My mother, a Scottish patriot, was always upset that I was born a few hours too late; I should have been born on November 30 instead of December 1.

In honour of Scotland's most patriotic day (which, ironically, is still not a "national" holiday in Scotland, though it may become one soon), I thought I would talk about the current state of Scotland's nationalism and give a lesson on Scottish history. I started writing an essay last month. It became a monster, by far the longest post I'd ever created for the blog. It was also far too detailed. As a result, I've decided to split the entry up into several bits. I'm not sure if they will all be posted today or not. At any rate, here is the first part, on the devolution of Scotland's parliament.

* * *

Devolution is the process by which a central government grants powers to a national, regional, or local level government. In 1998, Scotland was granted its own parliament under devolution from the British parliament in Westminster (a district of London). Devolution has resulted in friction between Scotland and England. This friction is bad news for Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer and a Scot who is running for the leadership of the British Labour Party, the current party in power.

Trivia: Tony Blair is considered "English" by almost everyone, but he was actually born in Edinburgh, Scotland. Blair spent most of his childhood in Durham, England, but he lived for a time in Edinburgh, Adelaide, Australia, and Glasgow, Scotland.

Previous to Blair, the last Scots born prime minister was Ramsay MacDonald, who last held the position in 1935. The British prime minister has been a Scot six times (technically seven) since the Union of the Crowns.

I may have missed someone, but I only found one Welshman as prime minister (technically James Callaghan was born in England, but he represented Cardiff), and one Irishman. The Irishman was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who was the famous general who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Wellington was a Protestant and of the English "squirearchy" that ruled Ireland, and so he was very sensitive to his Irish roots. Later in life, when someone suggested that he was a famous Irishman, Wellington replied, "A man can be born in a stable, and yet not be an animal." Apparently "de Nile" is a river that runs through Dublin.

I found one "foreign born" British prime minister. Andrew Bonar Law was born in 1860 in Rexton, New Brunswick, before there was a nation known as the Dominion of Canada. His mother died in childbirth and he was raised by his father and his aunt (who lived in her sister's home). When his father remarried, his aunt went back to her native Scotland and took the boy with her when he was 12. So Law went from teenager to adult in Glasgow, so technically there were seven Scottish prime ministers (or six Scottish and one Scots-Canadian/Canadian-Scots prime minister) of Great Britain.

Scotland's parliament is now responsible for things happening in Scotland, without any say from the British parliament. The Scottish parliament in the Holyrood district of Edinburgh handles all affairs of Scotland. This includes the Scottish health service, Scottish infrastructure, and education within Scotland. The Holyrood parliament has some limited power of taxation, but it has yet to enact on it. The Westminster parliament handles items involving the entire country (national defence, international trade, fiscal policy, most taxation issues, energy policy, and other things like abortion rights and drug policy). Westminster also handles all aspects of things happening in England, such as England's health care, and England's education system.

Trivia: Power was transferred to Scotland's parliament on July 1, 1999. Wales was also devolved at the same time as Scotland, though the Welsh National Assembly did not form until March, 2006. The Welsh National Assembly has less power than Scotland's parliament. Northern Ireland technically received Home Rule in 1921, but a devolved national assembly was not formed until 1998. That assembly is not operating right now due to a breakdown in the Northern Ireland peace process.

The source of the friction comes from the fact that Scotland still sends members of parliament to Westminster. Scottish MPs (Members of Parliament) get to vote on everything brought up in Westminster. This includes items dealing strictly with England, like education, that are handled in Scotland by the Scottish parliament. Perhaps not surprisingly, this whole controversy has its own name, the "West Lothian question" (named for Tam Dalyell, a Labour MP for Scotland's West Lothian constituency — think "riding" in Canada, or "congressional district" in the U.S. — who first posed it in 1977). The question he posed was, "For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate... at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on British politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?"

Opponents of devolution in its current form say that it's not fair, that Scots get to vote on strictly English matters while English MPs don't have a say in Scottish matters. Proponents of devolution in its current form point out that England has the lion's share of the people, and takes up the lion's share of the British budget. England is such a huge part of Britain that purely "English" matters affect the entire nation. A supposedly "England only" matter could eat up a huge amount of money, with an indirect, but no less potent, effect on Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Of course the "simplest" solution to this problem is to keep Westminster as a national government for all of the U.K. and devolve a parliament for England, too. This would put Britain on a par with former colonies like Canada, Australia, and the United States with a central government and devolved regional governments. So far English voters have been against this move, partially because Westminster has, traditionally, been England's parliament.

As a result of devolution, there is increased tension between Scotland and England. The two countries have been at peace since the Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century, but many Scots never accepted the loss of their nationality. Scottish nationalism, in its present form, rose about the same time as Irish nationalism. When the Republic of Ireland was formed, a movement in Scotland sought the same thing. This movement gained strength through the 70s and 80s. I have only my parents' perspective on this, but it mostly centred on a belief that parliament was run by the English for the greater benefit of the Home Counties around London. The Tories looked at Scotland only as a tourist trap and a source of North Sea oil. It was the North Sea oil, in fact, that pushed a lot of Scots in the late 70s and early 80s, as the revenue for what was seen as Scotland's natural resource didn't seem to result in much wealth for Scotland.

A referendum on giving Scotland a form of devolution was held on March 1, 1979 by the Labour government then in power. They imposed a requirement that 40% of Scotland's eligible voters participate. Both the Labour and Conservative parties ran ads to convince Scots to vote "No". The referendum was held in the winter, in bad weather. While the referendum passed, it did not reach the 40% minimum number of participants. The view from across the Atlantic suggested that the referendum was stacked against Scots, yet I've since learned that many Scots nationalists thought that the plan did not go far enough toward home rule. There was opposition from several sides, and the measure failed.

In the 90s, Scotland became a swing vote in the British parliament. The Tories and Labour were in a close enough fight that Scotland became an important voting block. To soothe Scottish voters, the Stone of Destiny (or Stone of Scone, pronounced "skoon") was returned to Scotland. All Scots monarchs had been crowned on this stone, until Edward I (the Hammer of the Scots) stole it in 1297. Ever since it was placed in an old chair upon which all the English and British monarchs were crowned. It's a piece of Scottish nationalist history, and Scots nationalists wanted it back. On Christmas Day, 1950, four Scottish students stole it. In the process, they broke it into two pieces. They managed to sneak it past roadblocks and had it repaired by a stone mason. They left it in ancient Arbroath Abbey in April, 1951. Rumours suggested that the stone was a copy and that the real stone was hidden. Nevertheless, it was returned to England. In 1996, though, Margaret Thatcher's replacement, John Major, decided to return the stone to Scotland when it was not needed for coronations as an attempt to gain Scottish support. The plan seemed only to inflame Scottish nationalism, and the Labour party was heavily supported in Scotland in the next general election.

Today there is talk of full Scottish independence, not just parliamentary devolution. The Labour Party has taken to fighting the Scottish National Party by suggesting that leaving Britain would be horrendous for Scotland. Certainly a country of 5 million would not have the clout of a country of 65 million. The European Union is all about unity, not disunity, it is pointed out. Still, within the EU smaller countries have been quite successful. These include Ireland, Denmark, Iceland and the Netherlands. The big fear is whether or not Scotland's economy would suffer. This would depend a great deal on how Scotland became independent. At least Scotland could accept the Euro as a strong currency without having to maintain the Pound. I remember seeing a show in the early 80s about how Scotland produced more natural resources than it used internally. At the same time, I've encountered English folk who see Scotland as a big subsidy sink hole; they feel Scotland is getting more than its fair share right now.

English feelings about Scots did not improve during the World Cup, where the Scottish First Minister refused to cheer for England and made it quite clear that he would not, causing a couple of English companies to boycott Scottish goods. This smacks of the trade sanctions that faced Scotland in 1707, forcing them to agree to the Act of Union that lost Scotland it's nation status in the first place.

The Labour Party is at a lower ebb in popularity right now. Like the Republicans in congress and the Liberal Party in Canada, it has been in power for too long. The Scottish National Party stands to gain seats in Scotland's parliament as a result, which could result in Scottish independence. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown finds himself facing off against Scottish Nationalists in the north, and anti-Scottish sentiment in England. If he becomes Prime Minister he might very well be the last Scottish prime minister in Westminster.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


A month ago I mentioned the disappearance of Laura Miller Edwards. She disappeared under mysterious circumstances on October 25. Laura was an employee of one of our clients, and I trained her back in June.

My original post is here:

I received the terrible, but not really unexpected, news today that her body was found. She was discovered on October 18, with the news being reported on November 22. I had been watching local web sites for information, but had slipped in the last week and a half, so I didn't hear about it until today.

Laura's Harley Davidson jacket was found in a ditch. In the pockets were a set of keys (possibly her truck keys), and a handwritten note. She was found 25 yards away from her jacket.

The autopsy results won't be available for another six weeks or so.

She was found about a mile from her car, suggesting that the police didn't do a very thorough search. You'd think that a proper grid search with people marching in a line could have found her, but I suspect there weren't enough people involved.

Here are some stories. The first talks a little about the search.

The news reported that she had a fight with her boyfriend, but so far no one has been arrested. The police haven't ruled out foul play, but from what I heard that hasn't been reported, I don't think that is likely. That's not to say that someone wasn't responsible for her death, though. I won't say any more on a public forum.

I will say that I am terribly saddened to hear about this. I didn't know her very well, but I did know she was smart, thorough, and consciencous. The world is worse off for her passing.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Unluckiest date?

In spite of Britain's increased secularism, the island nation is still fairly superstitious. I blame the Celts. Everyone in my family who had been born in Scotland, except me, is superstitous (and I hope to never become superstitious, knock wood). Friday the 13th is, of course, considered the most superstitious of dates. And, yet, according to an article in The Scotsman, the unluckiest day is actually Monday the 27th.

This idea apparently comes from an insurance study in Britain that found that Monday the 27th has more accidents than any other day on the calendar.

Of course the article that said this is pretty standard "soft news". Or, as I call it, "gosh news" (you read something with no context or no specific details and all that's left for you to do is say, "Gosh!"). The article suggests that Mondays are more stressful than any other day in the week, what with the week's work laid out in front of you, the after effects of a weekend (lack of sleep, hangovers), and just a general depression at being back at work. This also ties to a particular time of the month, when funds are short and yet there are still three or four days until pay day. It sounds good, anyway.

The article, such that it is, can be found at

In an unrelated note, today is "Cyber Monday". This is, apparently, the busiest day for shopping online in the United States. It follows Black Friday. Apparently folks are still in a shopping mood, they get back to work on Monday, and they avoid work by using their high speed internet access to buy presents on Amazon. Assuming, of course, that they didn't damage their hands in a tragic Monday the 27th finger accident.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Peter Weller, historian?

I spent far too much time today watching The History Channel. They had on the Engineering an Empire series about the engineering feats of various empires throughout history (they ran episodes about the ancient Greeks, Alexander the Great, the Aztecs, the Mayans, and Carthage). Then they ran the 2005 episode of Rome: Engineering an Empire. The host of the series, except for the Rome part, was actor Peter Weller.

Peter Weller was the lead in one of my favourite films, the campy cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. He also starred in the first two Robocop movies, and acclaimed movies like Naked Lunch and Mighty Aphrodite. According to Wikipedia he has been in over fifty films and television series. He's not an A-list actor, but he is still respected and recognizable.

I figured he was just another paid actor acting as host of a cable television series. He did come across as pretty well informed, though. Not just informed, he seemed genuinely interested in the subject matter. There was something about his delivery. It seemed less like he memorized the script and more like he knew the subject and was simply explaining it to the camera. The language he used, which could have been scripted (probably was) made him come across as intelligent. You can usually tell when the host is just a reader, and when the host is... a smart reader. He made a comment at one point that where he talked about I think it was Carthage in terms of "back when I hadn't even heard of them". I attributed this to him being a Hollywood type who first heard the word "Carthage" when he read the episode's script.

Then we get to Rome: Engineering an Empire. He is not hosting it. Oh, well. I like him, both his delivery and his voice, but it was no big deal. I watched the episode, anyway. I was listening to it while reading something on the laptop when I heard Weller's voice. Oh, he is hosting this! I looked up. That's when the surprise hit me. He was dressed in a suit. Beneath him was the caption "Peter Weller, Syracuse University". He wasn't hosting... he was one of the experts!

According to Wikipedia, Weller went to the University of North Texas for theatre. At some point after starting his acting career, he got his Masters Degree in Roman and Renaissance Art from Syracuse University. He was an expert! This suddenly explained a lot. He apparently does a lecture series about Hollywood and the Roman Empire. The Carthage comment wasn't about when he was reading the script, it was when he was getting his degree.

I shouldn't be as surprised at this as I am. Hollywood actors come in all shapes and sizes, so it shouldn't shock me that they range in intelligence from Jessica Simpson to, well, Peter Weller. I did sort of wonder what he'd been up to recently when I saw him hosting the first episode. I guess he hasn't been sitting around waiting for scripts to cross his desk!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Why is this news?

Every Black Friday, television news has shots of people (usually in New York) streaming into stores before sunrise, running for the few units the store has of their loss-leader items. Every year it's the same coverage. Every year they have someone standing in the middle of the mob, asking people what they bought.

Why is this news? Why is it news worthy of taking up valuable air time?

If people rushed into the stores in unusually large numbers, that's news. If someone is hurt or crushed in the melée, that's news. If no one went, that is certainly news. When the numbers come out as to how much money was spent, that's news (at least it's an economic indicator).

People rushing into the stores on Black Friday is not news! It's like reporting that people open presents on December 25. The mere fact that people rush to these stores is not news, and should not eat into the precious little time television gives to serious news. This makes me angry. We hear squat about equipment problems among British forces in Afghanistan, the killings in Darfur, Pakistan's long-needed reform of their rape laws, or that biologists have discovered the first extinctions due to global warming a decade sooner than predicted, but we hear all about how the big toy this season was the 10th anniversary Tickle-Me Elmo!

I'd complain about our priorities, but this sort of thing has been happening for millennia. As the Romans coined it, "bread and circuses"...

Black Friday and how we're not exhausted tonight

Yesterday we went down to Deville, Louisiana (outside of Pineville/Alexandria) to visit Alana's family for Thanksgiving. Her step-sister's husband, Tim, fried the turkey and cooked some duck. I made my Mum's popular dish, Black Forest pudding cake (known colloquially as sex in a pan). Alana made a caserole, leaving her step-mom with not a lot to do, for which she was pretty grateful.

The dinner was wonderful. I had never had duck, so I gave it a try. I think I surprised a few people by enjoying it. Alana poiinted out that I was an "adventerous" eater. I found that hard to take. For years I would get bad cramps from eating... well, something. I've never been able to pin it down. Raw onions pretty much do it all the time, but chopped up in meatloaf I can handle them. Eggs sometimes do it. Frozen custard almost always does it in a shake, but not always in a concrete. I suspect it's a mixture of sugar and something else that causes fermentation. Since giving up sugared drinks eight years ago, I haven't had the same bouts as I used to. I can actually eat food with taste: spices, and garlic (which I tried to avoid as much as onions, but which don't seem to bother me now). I have eaten calamari, and octopus, both of which I really like. I enjoy sushi, haggis, and black pudding (also known as blood pudding). Yes, I've injested things that make many an American squemish. Duck was no big deal. It is tougher than turkey, and a bit "gamey", but I liked the taste. I'd have it again.

I just checked last year's Thanksgiving post. Alana had the flu or something on Thanksgiving weekend. This year we all had some sort of bug, to various degrees. Last night was the first night in two weeks I hadn't awakened with my nose draining. I've been sniffling since then. It hasn't developed into much; I attribute this to massive amounts of vitamin C I've been taking. My voice goes in and out a bit, but that's it. Alana lost her voice almost entirely on Wednesday from whatever it was we have. Logan has an ear infection from the same thing (he was sniffling last weekend). Looks like I got off the easiest, probably due to the vitamin C regimen.

Driving down, Alana bought a paper and went over the fliers to find out what was on sale today. Today is Black Friday, so-called because it's the day that retail stores can sell enough such that they can make a profit that year. Canada doesn't have anything like Black Friday to signal the beginning of the holiday shopping season. The whole thing still floors me a little. Two years ago, when my mother was visiting, Alana got me up at 5 a.m. and we drove to Target, gettiing in right at 6 a.m. We got some great deals (like a Simpsons and a Buffy The Vampire Slayer DVD set for $15 each). We were home again by 8. It was wild, chaotic, and pretty cool. Last year we went wild, arriving at the mall before 6, then to Target, then to a bunch of other stores, followed by a late breakfast and a nap. We were looking forward to doing the same thing this year.

We didn't.

We just didn't find anything that really grabbed us. There were a couple of items we wanted for ourselves: a $10 bluetooth headset, a 1 GB jump drive for $10, a 1 GB Compact Flash card for about the same price, and a headset for the PC so that Alana could play World of Warcraft more easily. That was it. We're cutting back on presents this year; Alana and I are getting Christmas stockings, and we are going to get each other a present from Logan, but that's it. Her family has decided just to buy stuff for her parents and the various kids, but not for the adults. Daniel, Alana's adopted son, is... well, let's not go into that, but he may or may not be around for Christmas and isn't getting as much as last year. So, we had less to get. That might have tainted our look at the sales. I saw plenty that I would have liked to have had, but nothing we had to get. Certainly nothing worth getting up at 5 a.m. for.

We didn't leave the house until 2 p.m. The bluetooth headsets at Radio Shack were gone in less than a minute, so we didn't feel bad about missing those. The jump drives and the memory were gone. Alana did get the headset. Office Depot was out of the Compact Flash memory, and their jump drives. We went to Books-A-Million and bought some more presents, and I bought a magazine. We went to the nearby Wal-Mart for some groceries and some clothes for Logan; it must have been a zoo this morning but by 5 p.m. it was less busy than most Friday nights. I didn't even go to Target this year (they had 512 MB jump drives for $7, but I'm sure they were gone already). There wasn't any point.

It was fun shopping with Alana and Logan, but we missed the nutsy early-morning rush. There's something energetic about shopping in crowds while you're still half a sleep. I'm sure there's some sort of primative gatherer instinct at work, probably mixed with an adrenalin/endorphin rush due to the lack of sleep. It's all very surreal.

At the same time, it feels good to sleep in! Hopefully there will be more of a reason to get up early next year. As it is, I'm awake, and my wallet is much less abused this year. I've yet to see the post-mortem of today's shopping sprees on the news, so we've yet to find out whether we were bucking a trend or riding a trend by not spending as much this year.


Canada does Christmas better than the U.S. (I'll talk more about this around Christmas time), but the U.S. beats Canada at Thanksgiving.

In Canada, Thanksgiving is on the U.S.'s Columbus Day (the second Monday of October). It lasts one day, and the "big day" is on the last day of the long weekend. Canada being colder, the harvest is earlier, which is why Canadian Thanksgiving is in October instead of November (even though there is virtually no difference between the growing season in Southern Ontario and New York or Michigan; there is quite a difference between Quebec or Atlantic Canada and Virginia or the Carolinas).

I never thought of Thanksgiving as a big holiday. Now, I was an immigrant to Canada, so I'm not the best person to talk to about the emotional connection to Canadian Thanksgiving. We had a turkey dinner, but to my family it was just slightly more important than Labour Day, mainly because we had a turkey dinner for it. For many Canadians, Thanksgiving is the traditional weekend when you drive out of the city to your cottage (or the cottage of a friend), and close it up for the winter. Perhaps other Canadians have a more emotional connection to the holiday. Certainly Americans assume that I would have an emotional connection to Canadian Thanksgiving. I've had those who know about the holiday go out of their way to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving in October. I smile and say, "Thank you", but other than memories of past dinners with my family I don't have a particular tie to that day off. As I said, other Canadians may feel differently. I am not a typical Canadian.

In school in Ontario we learned the same pilgrim story as American kids, but with the serial numbers filed off. There were pilgrims with blunderbuses and friendly natives willing to share food, but there was no direct Plymouth Rock connection. Miles Standish and that lot were American artifacts. Canadian kids had nameless pilgrims in the same tall black hats and pantaloons, but without any of the "mythology". It felt like a pale immitation. I've never fully understood why Canadian school kids were given this bastardized American tale as their own "origin" story. For years I thought it was Canada succumbing to American cultural imperialism. Today I have a different theory. I think I may have figured out where this story came from.

Canada was settled by the French in Quebec and Atlantic Canada until they were defeated by the British in the Seven Years War in North America (known to Americans as the French and Indian War). There were no "pilgrims" (Puritan settlers from Britain escaping religious intolerance) as such. They were French colonists, and almost all of them were Roman Catholic. The first French settlers were traders and trappers in the area around Quebec City. The first "permanent" settlement, led by Samuel de Champlain, was almost wiped out due to scurvy and smallpox during the winter of 1608-09. Twenty of the 28 settlers died. Late in the winter, members of Canada's First Nations tribes saved the remaining colonists by giving them a tea made from pine needles. Indians bearing icky tasting tree tea to sick Frenchmen with bleeding gums isn't quite as attractive as the American thanksgiving story, which always ends with natives and pilgrims sitting around a picnic table with corn and roast turkey. America has always come across as sexier than Canada.

After the Seven Years War, the British settled Atlantic Canada forcing out the Acadians in what we would now call "ethnic cleansing". (These Acadians escaped to Quebec, and to other French possesions, including a large number who travelled to the territory of Louisiana, where "Acadian" became corrupted into "Cajun". In a very real sense southern Louisiana was settled by Canadians.) Ontario was originally settled by British settlers, most of whom were United Empire Loyalists (citizens of the Thirteen Colonies who were forced out because they thought the American Revolution was a bad idea; you don't hear much about them in popular portrayals of the Revolution, surprisingly enough). In order to speed up the development of the land, settlers were awarded good sized tracts of land virtually for free. This resulted in a lot of landless Americans moving to Ontario. (There were fears during the War of 1812 that these settlers were still "American" and would help in the invasion of Canada; that fear turned out to be unfounded.)

To make a very long story short, I think this may have been where the Pilgrim story swept into popular Canadian history. Ontario was largely settled by people with a connection to the original American Thirteen Colonies, one way or another, and thus English-speaking Canadians of Eastern and Central Canada have roots common to Americans. Quebeckers have a different "origin" story, of course, and the pilgrim story told in Ontario grossly simplifies (and confuses) the story of Canada's settlement. At any rate, I was always confused as to why the story of the Pilgrims had any connection to me living in Ontario when it was so obvioiusly an American story. It appears that it was just an easy way to explain things to grade school students who would not appreciate the story of war, displacement, and rebellion that was the story of English Canada's founding.

Regardless of the origin story, Canadian Thanksgiving is a three day event that has the big feast on the last day. American Thankstgiving is just... better.

It takes place in late November. That's a biggie. In Ontario we had a long weekend at the end of May (Victoria Day, around the 24th of May, also called the "May two-four" weekend, mostly because "two-four" is slang for a case of beer), July 1 (Canada Day), the first Monday in August (a civic holiday, known as Simcoe Day in Ontario, and a very civilized thing to have in the middle of a summer!), Labour Day in early September, and then Thanksgiving in early October. Then there's nothing until Christmas day, two and a half months later, while the weather gets bad. There is Rememberance Day (equivalent to the U.S.'s Veterans Day) but only government workers, or people working in government controlled industries like banks, got that day off. I know we got Rememberance Day off from school when I was younger but they abandoned that. Sad, really, but I digress. Those two and a half months, coming as they do in bad weather, are interminable. Having the holidy in November is much better. (I think U.S. Thanksgiving is actually a little too late, as it's only five weeks until Christmas. Earlier in the month would have been better still.)

In the U.S., the big feast is on the first day of the holiday! How refreshing! Most Americans get the Friday off, too, so you have a three day work week, a feast, then three days to recover. How terribly civilized (except for the shopping on Friday morning, but I'll get to that next post). And, of course, there's football. There's football in Canada on Thanksgiving, too, but not like down here, because Saturday and Sunday are big football days. (Relatively few of us who followed professional Canadian football followed Canadian college football.)

So, while I miss my family on Canadian Thanksgiving, I really enjoy American Thanksgiving, and prefer it to its northern cousin. However, as I said earlier, Canada does Christmas better... and that will have to wait for another time.