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.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Web site and e-mail back up!

I have my web site back. Which means I'm getting e-mail from my HyperBear address again, too! Woohoo!

Apparently there were a couple of hardware failures but they seem to have been resolved. I can't complain, really. My web site is hosted by a guy in the U.K. I don't pay anything for it, and the service level has been excellent.

If you e-mailed me in the last few days, I probably didn't receive it, and I may not receive it.

Jason, I did get your e-mail about the date of our next game. You sent it on the 21st. I received it less than an hour ago...

Happy Turkey, everyone! (Even those of you in countries that don't serve turkey, period.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

U.S. to require passport for all inbound air travellers

The Department of Homeland Security (who have umpteen pictures of me on file) have set the date of January 23 as the day when everyone entering the U.S. by aircraft must have a passport. Previous to this, citizens of the U.S., Canada, Bermuda, and some Mexicans only needed a picture ID.

This measure is to increase security. They point out that within the U.S. alone there are some 8,000 agencies, from the federal to the municipal level, who can issue picture identification documents. By requiring a passport, only one federal agency in the U.S. (and only one federal agency in each of the remaining countries) can issue a passport. Passports can be forged, but they are far harder to forge than a driver's license.

This measure will probably affect Americans the most. Other nationals are already getting passports in order to simplify the border crossing procedure, even when it wasn't strictly necessary. Americans, though, typically do not have a passport.

The measure will only be in effect for air travellers for now. They are still working out the details for surface entry into the U.S. from Canada. A number of organizations, including border states, don't want a passport to be required.

I'm personally of two minds on this. A single photo ID is a good thing. The moment you allow exceptions, you end up with increased vulnerabilities. Passports are about the most secure document issued. On the other hand, no one has actually demonstrated whether or not this will have a major effect. The 9/11 terrorists all came to the U.S. from countries other than Canada, and they all had valid visas. Presumably a valid passport would be hard to forge, making it difficult for those on the FBI's lists to get in. That won't stop terrorists from using unknowns in their plans. Or sneaking in from Mexico (I hesitate to mention Canada, not because it's impossibly — on the contrary, it is very feasible — but because there are those who still think some of the 9/11 terrorists got in from Canada). Security is only as good as its weakest link, and there are a lot of weak links in the U.S.

Anyway, I guess this means I need my Canadian passport updated, as my green card won't be enough to let me in the U.S. This is only for emergencies, as I can't see us affording a "foreign" vacation for some time, and Alana's ex won't let Logan leave the country for reasons we don't quite understand. It's still a pain, as I don't have any guarantors down here that have known me for two years. In the new year I intend to send my paperwork, and my money, to Canada for my passport.

I should get my Euro passport updated, too, just in case...

HyperBear problems

If you've tried to e-mail me at my HyperBear e-mail address, or if you tried to go to my web site, you may have noticed a problem.

I don't know what has caused the outage, but my e-mail and my web site are both silent at the moment. I have e-mailed the person in charge of the site, but since the only e-mail address I have for them is also down I don't know when things will be resolved.

For now, if you need to contact me try e-mailing me at this address: with the ".takeout" part taken out.

(I put that in there so as to thwart spammers.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Gaijin Smash

I'm not a Japanophile. Japanophiles love everything Japanese regardless of quality, like crappy anime that foresakes story telling in favour of flashy visuals and screaming, unthinkably bad game shows that look like they dredged Microsoft's Tokyo office to cast American Gladiators, and candies shaped like poop. (I'm not saying all anime is like this. Most is not. Some is, and it has its ravenous hordes of non-Asian fans.)

(And I'm not kidding about the candies shaped like poop.)

I am greatly interested in Japanese history, and have been for at least 15 years. Most people who know me think of me as a "Civil War buff", not realizing that until the late 90s I'd actually spent more time studying Japanese fuedal history. I've always wanted to run a roleplaying game in Japan, or in a fantasy version, though it's unlikely I'll ever get to do it; none of the gaming groups I've been with have been particularly interested.

As a techie, I dream of visiting Tokyo. I know it's never going to happen, but I can still dream. Of course I couldn't just stay in Tokyo. I'd have to visit Kyoto, Osaka, and several battlefields that even the Japanese have pretty much forgotten. Many of these places are in areas where hardly no one speaks English. Even with four years of forced French in junior high and high school, I would much, much rather explore rural Japan than metropolitan France (though I do one day want to visit Normandy; another dream).

So, I'm not a Japanophile, but I am a very interested outsider. For one thing, I love samurai movies. I appreciate some aspects of Japanese culture, but I'm also very much aware of Japan's shortfalls. My Dad had an uncle die in a Japanese POW camp. I wonder if Japan will ever come to grips with the shame of how it treated POWs during World War II, and fear that it never will. At the same time I have an idea of how their mind set brought them to brutalize thousands of Allied prisoners.

In fact, it is learning the Japanese mind set that most interests me. For instance, we think of Japaese samurai as fighting to the death, and yet there are cases where samurai turned and ran when heavily outnumbered. Their morale seemed to break just as easy as Europeans, though they also seemed to rally much more readily. The 4th Battle of Kawanakajima (1561) saw the winner take 72% casualties. (I once e-mailed the Japan scholar Stephen Turnbull about this. He agreed with my assessment in a short e-mail. It was pretty cool uncovering something in history and have an actual expert agree with you!) That's just a taste of the Japanese military mind set from 445 years ago. The modern civilian mind set is equally fascinating.

For an idea of the latter, see the web site The writer is an American teaching English as a second language to junior high school students in Japan. The site is his blog. It is updated semi-regularly. Apparently it was on another site until earlier this year. He is reposting his old entries instead of posting new ones. Today's entry, for instance, was originally posted on October 31, 2005. If you haven't seen his old site, though, it won't matter.

His take on Japanese culture, as mirrored by the kids he teaches, is excellent. Example: I always assumed that Japanese education was superior to that in the West. I didn't realize that Japanese school kids will receive a passing grade regardless of whether they even show up! He talks a lot about the physical violation of his body by his students while marvelling at the Japanese penchant for keeping their emotions to themselves (except for crying, which they do a great deal). He also describes what it's like to be a gaijin, both the negatives (being stared at on the subway) and the positives (his friend skips train fare simply because the booth attendant is too scared to come after him for the money). This is where the term "gaijin smash" comes in. I'll let the author explain it...

Reading his entries you realize just how much of what we take as "human nature" is actually a learned response based on Western culture and society. At the same time, we see that at our most basic we all want the same things: love, sex, friends, self esteem, and a decent future for our kids.

I highly recommend you go straight to the archives and start at the beginning. He does not spend a lot of time explaining terms and situations in an entry if he's already explained it in a previous entry. It will make far more sense to start at the beginning.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Game over!

The Grey Cup is over and I didn't get a rouge.

Montreal made a game with it in the 3rd quarter, but never got closer than a touchdown. The final score: B.C. 25, Montreal 14, but it wasn't as close as the score suggests, and thus it wasn't the classic it usually is. But that's okay, the Argos weren't in it so it didn't really matter, anyway! (He says, safe in the knowledge that he's at least a day south of the Canadian border.)


I decided not to buy the streaming video of the Grey Cup game, but I did find a radio station streaming the game on the web: TEAM 1040 AM in Vancouver.

So far the game is a blowout: the B.C. Lions are beating the Montreal Alouettes 19 to 3 at the half. It's probably just as well that I didn't fork over the cash to watch it.

Although I couldn't see the game, I could imagine it in my mind. I've seen both teams play many times. There were several distinctly Canadian points in the game. Montreal crossing the centre line and getting a first down at the B.C. 54 yard line. B.C. going "two and out". Montreal's field goal attempt going wide and B.C. running it out of the end zone to the 20 yard line. B.C. going for it on "third and inches", and — in spite of this being a "third down gamble" — no one really broke a sweat in the booth (in the CFL the defence lines up a yard off the line of scrimmage). Montreal carefully holding onto their single timeout in the first half. The three minute warning.

*sigh* I miss the CFL!

I'm hoping for a rouge, of course. Otherwise, I'm just enjoying the whole game experience, even if I have to live with AM radio personalities and can't see the game.

Grey Cup Sunday *sigh*

Tonight, at 5 pm Central, is the Grey Cup game, Canada's (usually superior) version of the Super Bowl. This year it kind of snuck up on me. I know it's usually the weekend before U.S. Thanksgiving, but I hadn't been paying attention to the CFL much this year and missed it.

I can watch it live, on a webcast, but they want $11.95 (Canadian, but these days the exchange rate isn't much different) to view it. I tested our broadband connection and it would run fine, but I'm not sure I want to pay C$12 to view it in a tiny screen. I don't mean that my laptop screen is tiny, but that the player window is pretty small. I suspect that seeing the details of the game would be difficult. I'd also be more prone to watch the game if I had seen more of the season. All that I found online suggests that the B.C. Lions are favoured by quite a bit over the Montreal Alouettes. My Argonauts lost to Montreal in the Eastern Final.

If it was half the price, I'd jump at it. I'd be more tempted if the screen was bigger, too. It's cheaper, too, to watch an archived game than to watch it live. Maybe they will offer the Grey Cup game at the archived price after tonight.

Maybe next year I'll be able to follow the Argos on the web, throughout the season.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


Someone on the infamous motivational posters thread posted this link. It is to a short cartoon titled Kiwi!. It is brilliant, and touching (and sad, too).

Friday, November 17, 2006

Violence, robbery, stupidity accompany PS3 sales

To put my previous entry in perspective, this Washington Post article explains how several people were attacked and/or robbed of their new Playstation 3s:

And then you have this guy who slammed into a flagpole during a poorly thought out promotion at a Wal-Mart in the Milwaukee area:

They come courtesy of Ctrl+Alt+Del web comic.

Death of a PS3

This video is quite funny. It is rated NSFW (Not Safe For Work) only because of the expletives uttered by the crowd and the guy at the end of the video.

On a busy street, a couple of guys from take a newly purchased Playstation 3, the first day they were available, and destroys it in front of the fanboys waiting in line to buy one. Some of the guys were there 18 hours, and apparently this was the first, or one of the first, purchased that day.

The video is here:

Oh, and Michael, if you watch this can you tell me if this happened outside the Eaton Centre in Toronto? It looks very familiar, but at the same time kind of alien...

Why I hate Windows Media Player

I haven't posted since Tuesday because work has been nuts, and as a result I've been exhausted at night. It doesn't help that I lost a day and a half from a "rush job" because someone else at work couldn't be bothered to take the rush seriously.

Anyway, I see that Microsoft's iPod killer, the Zune, is out. I first heard about this thing a couple of months ago, shortly after I got my own MP3 player. Microsoft is selling it for the same price as an iPod, with roughly the same capabilities.

The reason Microsoft got into this business, other than the fact that they want to own the world, is because they've been disappointed in the lack of market penetration by other MP3 players. Funny enough, I know only one person with an iPod and two (not including me) with another brand. Microsoft wants a device that connects to Windows like the iPod connects to an Apple.

Microsoft is likely to fall flat on its face with this one if the Zune's synchronization software is anything like Windows Media Player. This is the program my own MP3 player uses. I hate it.

I'm not a Luddite. In a previous life I was a programmer and systems analyst. I like techie things. I'm also, now, a dad. My time is precious. I don't have the time to figure out something that's unintuitive. Microsoft Media Player is not intuitive. If I have an issue with it, I can imagine the less technical being frustrated.

Most folks know Windows Media Player because they have it as the default sound and video player on their Windows based computer. If that's all you use it for, it seems easy enough. You can also use it to burn CDs. It's a little less friendly than a dedicated burning program, like those by Roxio, but it's not too hard to figure out. The MP3 synchronization part of the program is where the real ugliness hits.

When I first got my MP3 player, it came with a short tutorial on how to make a playlist and synchronize it with the player. It wasn't difficult, but I remember a step or two that weren't exactly obvious. When my old laptop crashed and I had to reinstall everything, I managed to create a new playlist but the process seemed more onerous than the first time I did it. Then I synchronized the device, and ended up with twice the number of files on my hard drive and the MP3 player filling up as Windows Media Player tried to fill it up with duplicate songs. This is because the player did not actually synchronize with the device, it just copied everything. There was no way, that I could see, to tell the program to just pull from my MP3 player.

The other issue is that Windows Media Player insists on creating files in WMA format. This is Microsoft's equivalent to the MP3 format. Microsoft claims they have better sound than MP3s. I disagree. They sound a little different, but neither is any better than the other.

I couldn't find a way of changing the bit rate on a file, either. This isn't something the average person will want to do, but it's something I will want to do. Sound and video files are measured in "bit rates". A bit rate is the number of bits of information that has to be read per second to decode the file into sound or video. The more bits of information the less the player has to "guess" (okay, it's an educated guess) to fill in the sound. The more bits, the bigger the file. If you use a smaller bit rate you save space on your computer or MP3 player, but you lose sound quality. The "standard" bit rate for MP3s is 128kbs (kilobits per second, or 128 x 1024 bits per second). MP3 editors will allow you to increase it in certain increments all the way up to 320kbs, and down to 56kbs. The 128kbs rate is good enough for most headphones and most places with noise, but a growing number of people are going for 192kbs for better sound quality, particularly if they are hooking the device to a home or car stereo.

At any rate, I can't see where I can modify the bit rate in Windows Media Player. This isn't something the average person wants. It's something that someone who can figure out Windows Media Player might want.

This is the dilemma. If you're a techie you'll have less problem with the program but find it limiting. If you are a non-techie you will find the program less than intuitive to use. In my opinion, of course.

Maybe I just have a mental block with regard to Windows Media Player and it's not as bad as I think it is. Or maybe this is another case of Microsoft over engineering its software.

From what I've read the Zune (which sounds like a stupid name to me) has a different software package with it. However, I'm not at all impressed with what Microsoft has done up until now with MP3 players. If there's a reason cheaper MP3 players haven't made any substantial dent in iPod sales, it's partly because of the difficulties with syncing via Media Player. Presumably Microsoft has made strides in this department with the Zune. They had better, if they want to capture iPod market share.

For the most part Microsoft's hardware is pretty good. I like their mice, keyboards, and Logan loves his X-box. I wouldn't be surprised if the Zune does well, as long as they have fixed the device's synchronization software.

(I see, on Wikipedia, that the Zune has come under some criticism. Here's the Wikipedia link on the Zune:


For the record, I plug my player into the computer. I drag and drop files onto the player as though it was a disk drive. I use three different freeware programs to edit files. Audiograbber lets me rip songs and convert them to WAV or MP3 files. Audacity allows me to edit a file (if one song runs into another, I can fade the song out at the end). Both allow me to convert from WAV to MP3 formats, and to change bit rates. MP3 Tag Tools lets me do anything I want with the tags in the file (like the name of the song, the album, the track number, etc.).

To burn CDs, I use Roxio's RecordNow, which came with the laptop.

I don't bother organizing my songs. If I wanted to do that, I can use a bunch of programs — including iTunes — that either came with the laptop or that I've installed.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Google Earth

I came across this picture via that wonderful RPG motivational poster thread I've been yammering about. (Click on it for a larger image.)

The picture was taken from Google Earth, a free download from Google that allows you to zip around the globe, zoom in, zoom out, and adjust the angle at which you view terrain features. A new geek game is to look for interesting pictures on Google Earth. A Google Earth user by the name of Supergranny found the picture.

The terrain is naturally formed due to uplift and erosion. It exists at 50° 0'38.20"N 110° 6'48.32"W (that's 50 degrees, 38.20 seconds north latitude, and 110 degrees, 6 minutes, 48.32 seconds west longitude). The closest settlement is Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. The image has been dubbed "the Alberta Indian". It suggests a native American ("American" meaning, in this case, a native of the Americas) listening to an iPod.

For more of the story, see

The image, of course, brings to mind the famous "face" on Mars, that was likewise a geologic feature.

Google Earth is a fascinating tool/toy. Unfortunately, it is restricted by the quality of the aircraft and satellite images available to it. Most cities in North America are well covered, and major cities elsewhere show a good degree of quality, but some other cities show surprisingly poor resolution. For instance, the area just west of Edinburgh, Scotland is reasonably well defined, but the central part of Edinburgh, where the castle is located, has such poor resolution that you can't easily make out where the castle is located.

By comparison, look at this:

That's our apartment in Monroe. I believe the black rectangle in front of the building is our neighbour's truck. The white rectangle in front of the building is our other neighbour's car or truck, parked at an angle. There are no vehicles in front of our house. The shot was taken during a work day (when I ran it over to Logan's school, cars were in the parking lot). It was taken on a day Alana and I both took vehicles to work.

I checked for the photograph of downtown Monroe, and found the parking lot beside where I work. Given that the lot is sparsely used, and that I usually park in one specific spot (though I started to change that spot this summer for a shadier spot), and there's a black rectangle in that spot, I think it was a day I had the Chevy Tracker (assuming both pictures were taken the same day).

Hopefully as time goes on, better resolution pictures will be made available for other locations. There's no excuse that Monroe should be available in better resolution than Edinburgh!

I checked out the city where I grew up, but most of Oshawa, Ontario is another poor resolution area. I looked at Toronto briefly, but stopped when I started to get a little home sick. I will have to show this to Logan, though, because the imagery for Lookout Mountain — where we went for vacation this year — is pretty good.

Monday, November 13, 2006

To Live and Die in LA (Louisiana)

This past weekend we played the first session of our All Flesh Must Be Eaten zombie roleplaying game. The game is published by Eden Studios and uses the "classic" version of their Unisystem game system. Everyone seemed to enjoy the game. It was the first time I'd run a Unisystem game, and part way through the session I was feeling pretty confident with it. The combat system is fast paced, which is good in a zombie game!

Rather than describe the game itself, I will point you here:

That is the RPG.Net "Actual Play" thread I started for our game sessions. I may or may not add these "quick" writeups to my web site. The advantage of posting to the thread is that people can leave comments.

Canada Customs

Customs officials are notoriously strict law enforcement officials. I've made a fair share of border crossings in my day, and while they usually go easily enough they are always a slightly stressful experience. Even when you aren't guilty of anything, having someone question your right to enter their country (regardless of whether or not it's also your country) is disconcerting.

There isn't a lot of difference in the efficiency of Canada Customs officers and United States Customs. The main difference is in their focus. Coming into the U.S., customs officers are worried that you are sneaking into the country to work. They don't ask you what you are bringing into the country (unless it's for business), and they don't try to collect duties. Canada Customs is the opposite. They aren't so worried about whether someone is sneaking into Canada from the U.S. to work, they are more worried about what you are bringing into the country, and whether or not it is taxable.

Canada Customs has also been known to collect materials they deem objectionable, even when the materialize are actually legal. In one particular case I heard about (but can't remember all the details), when the court ordered Canada Customs to return the materials, they had been "accidentally" destroyed. It sometimes seems that Canada Customs is a force unto itself.

So, with that in mind, I present the following poster that I found on (click on the picture to see a larger version of it):

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Synchronicity 3

I've mentioned previously the weird coincidences that sometimes pop up in life, where very similar things — from the middle of nowhere — slam into each other in a fit of unlikelihood.

I've had several of these happen recently, but three hit within the last couple of days.

A couple of weeks ago I prepared the first scenario for our All Flesh Must Be Eaten game, a roleplaying games about zombies. I finally got around to watching the 2004 version of the Dawn of the Dead. While watching I was surprised to see that the zombies I had designed for the game were almost identical to the zombies in the movie. Maybe this isn't a huge surprise — there are only so many ways you can define a zombie — but my zombies are a bit different from those in Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later. They are almost exactly the same as in Dawn of the Dead.

That was the least of the coincidences. On the DVD there are a couple of extra features. One of which is a fake news broadcast that takes place during the first couple of days of the zombie outbreak. The news anchor is played by actor Richard Biggs. He played Dr. Stephen Franklin on the television show Babylon 5. After doing some research, I found that this extra item on the Dawn of the Dead DVD was the last thing he did before dying of a torn aorta in 2004. Today, the Candorville comic strip had a comic mentioning Richard Biggs! Here is the strip:

Click on the image to see a larger, readable version of the comic.

(You can see daily Candorville comics at

Finally, on Friday someone posted motivational posters based on the movie The Boondock Saints to, in that huge motivational posters thread I've been talking about. Several posters included images of my favourite comedian, Scotland's Billy Connolly. Not knowing he was in the movie, and apparently playing an important character, I wrote in the thread that I'm now going to have to watch this film. Yesterday, out of the blue while we were in the grocery story, Jason started talking about The Boondock Saints and how he liked the film. This was just such a weird coincidence given that the movie had just really been brought to my attention the day before.

I just thought I'd share my life's weirdnesses with y'all...

Friday, November 10, 2006

Selling chocolate bars, and Girl Guide versus Girl Scout cookies

You know it's the Fall because Logan's school is selling chocolate bars and chocolate covered almonds. Last year they also had plain milk chocolate bars and chocolate covered crisp bars. His school didn't get them this year due to a mix up.

We're not doing a great job selling them. I think folks might be overdosing on schools selling the same old thing: chocolate covered almonds in the Fall, cookie dough in the Spring. I'm pretty tired of them, myself, as is Alana. It's the same old stuff all the time, and I think it's not having the effect it once did. They should try something new, preferably something that won't melt in a car (given that this is Louisiana).

I suspect that they feel people look forward to this stuff. I happen to like chocolate covered almonds, but I didn't buy any this year (at least not yet). They seem to be skimping on the number you get in a box. The first year we sold cookie dough was pretty successful, but last year was disappointing (I sold one container to someone at work the first year, but no one would take the stuff the next year). I don't think people really "look forward" to the cookie dough like they used to do. I think folks would have bought more chocolate if the entire batch that went to Logan's school didn't have nuts in it.

(Aside: Logan still doesn't understand economics. His friend, Dylan, came down to sell us chocolate. Logan didn't understand why we didn't buy any, why it really didn't make sense for us to buy one from Dylan and for Dylan's family to buy one from Logan.)

One thing that Alana does look forward to are Girl Scout cookies. This got us into one of our Canada versus U.S. discussions. They aren't the Girl Scouts in Canada, they are the Girl Guides. In Canada, the organization came from the original British organization, which was formed by Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouting movement. Originally the U.S. organization, founded separately but on the same principles, was called the Girl Guides of America, but they later changed to Girl Scouts.

In Canada, Girl Guides sell cookies, but they are entirely different from Girl Scout cookies. Girl Guide cookies are vanilla (yellowish coloured) or chocolate, and either have a vanilla or chocolate centre to match the cookie. This has caused us all sorts of confusion. Alana couldn't understand why I was shocked at the vast array of cookies they sell down here: Do-si-dos, Tagalongs, Samoas, etc. (see this Wikipedia article for more information). I, of course, couldn't understand why she had never heard of the plain vanilla cookies!

A typical discussion was like what we had today, driving home. She told me about how much she liked Girl Scout cookies. I explained that I liked the "original" cookies (not realizing that the Guides and the Scouts woudl have different bakers.) I described the Canadian cookies, while Alana looked askance at me. I then made a smartass comment like, "You know, plain cookies. Not like your fancy Somalians or whatever they sell down here!" To which Alana replied, "What, you mean like warring factions with a creamy filling?" At this point we just stared at each other with that look of horrible fascination one acquires upon anticipationo of viewing a particularly heinous car accident, and then I turned away so that I could drive along the road and not in the ditch.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

How Superman I should have ended

I came across this today. It's cute.

If you remember the first Superman movie, with Christopher Reeve as Superman and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, at the climax Luthor tricks Superman into coming after Luthor in his lair. Superman confronts Luthor, who tells Superman his plan to send the U.S. West Coast into the ocean with a nuclear missile while another nuclear missile was headed for New Jersey. Superman scans the room with his x-ray vision looking for the destruct button, discovering that Luthor is sitting on a lead box. Figuring this is where the button is hidden, Superman throws it open and is bathed in the radiation of the kryptonite hiding in the box. Superman collapses, Luthor leaves. Luthor's minion, Miss Tessmacher, saves Superman after he promises to stop the New Jersey missile, which is headed for Hackensack, New Jersey, where her mother lives.

The rest of the film's ending, including Superman sending time backward, follows from this set up.

The problem with omnipotent superheroes is that with a little thought it's easy to mess up movie plots. If Supes is fast enough to send time backward, he's fast enough to do... a bunch of stuff.

So, here's someone's reworking of the end of the first Superman movie:

I laughed.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

National Geographic Traveller: go to Scotland, not Stonehenge

The National Geographic Traveller magazine online has rated 94 of the world's 830 World Heritage sites.

World Heritage sites were created as a result of a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) program; the first country to sign the World Heritage Convention was the United States in 1973 (which is ironic, given that the U.S. has relatively few World Heritage sites). The magazine gave 94 sites to a group of panellists and had them rate the site, and the experience of visiting the site, on a scale of 0 to 100. The scale is as follows:

0-25: Catastrophic: all criteria very negative, outlook grim.
26-45: In serious trouble.
46-65: In moderate trouble: all criteria medium-negative or a mix of negatives and positives.
66-85: Minor difficulties.
86-95: Authentic, unspoiled, and likely to remain so.
96-100: Enhanced.

Sitting at a score of 56 is the world famous Stonehenge. The quotes from the panellists are as follows:

"Massive numbers of tourists cycle through the site on a daily basis, making for a crowded, noisy environment. Condition of the site is protected by fencing to discourage defacing the structures, but the visual sightlines are disrupted. It does not appear that local populations benefit from the tourist development of the site, which has been protected from excessive commercial and residential development."

"Aesthetic qualities compromised by existing road and adjacent development. Massive tourism is limited to a few hours' visit, so there are few benefits to surrounding communities."

"What a mess! Compelling … over-loved … certainly the current experience lacks magic."

"Crowd control is a good thing, but overregulation has made the visitor's experience rather disappointing, charm is gone. Would be good if something is done to surrounding landscape."

"Good interpretation and SO impressive. But you can get a similar impact from lots of other stone circles, especially up north in Scotland, without all the noise and intrusion."

The last quote is why this survey made it into The Scotsman newspaper. Basically, the magazine is suggesting that you'd get the same sort of impact with much more of the aesthetic charm by visiting Scotland.

I haven't been to Stonehenge. I have been to the Ring of Brogar and the Stones of Stenness on the island of Orkney. They are incredibly fascinating. Although nowhere near as famous as their southern cousin, and not as impressive as far as size and architecture, they are also older and very much accessible.

The stones at Stenness are in a farmer's sheep paddock. You don't need permission to access them, you just go through the little gate designed to keep in the sheep... and watch where you step.

The stones are about 4 metres high by 1.5 metres high (make that 13 feet tall and 5 feet wide). There used to be 12 in the circle, but now there are only five. While Stonehenge has parts that date from around 2950 BCE, most of what you see at Stonehenge was created by 2550 to 1600 BCE. The Stones of Stennes, on the other hand, date between 3000 and 2500 BCE.

The Ring of Brogar is a bit more modern, having been built sometime between 2500 and 2000 BCE. It is not far from the Stenness stones, and just as accessible. When I was there, in late September, 1992, there were no other tourists about (since it was now out of the "high season").

The Ring of Brogar (sometimes called "Ring of Brogdar") now consists of 36 stones, though originally it had 60 in a 104 metre (340 feet) diameter circle. Historic Scotland maintains the circle of heather in the middle of the field.

None of the problems the panellists mentioned for Stonehenge are present for the Orkney standing stones. You can walk among them. You can touch them. You can sit beside them. The sightlines are quite often beautiful. About the worst you have to worry about is sheep poo. It takes some work to get to them, but it is well worth the trip.

(The pictures, above, are from my own web site: I apologize for the exposures. The colour pictures were actually taken on slide film and transferred to Photo CD 13 years ago. Unfortunately, the transfer wasn't great. If I can ever find scanner, or a scanning company, who can scan them digitally with more light I will post better pictures. They look really good from a slide projector, though.

The monochrome picture was actually taken on infrared film. Instead of exposing the film to x-rays, I made the mistake of having the airport security guard hand search it. He took the roll out of its container and possibly caused it to fog a little.

To see better pictures, I recommend:
for Stenness, and
for the Ring of Brogar.)

Mile for mile, the island of Orkney is perhaps the best place in Britain for historic sites. Castle and palace ruins, burial mounds, a neolithic village, iron age brochs, and standing stones. I only made it to the Mainland island, not to any of the adjoining islands, over the course of a weekend. It's my fervent wish that some day I will be able to go back and explore the Mainland in more detail, travel to the island of Hoy where my paternal grandfather worked as a ship's carpenter during World War II, visit Balfour castle on Shapinsay, and the broch and cairns on Rousay.

The National Geographic Traveller article is here:

The rating for Stonehenge is here:

The Scotsman's article is here:

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day!

So, it's election day here in the U.S. of A.! I'm not sure I will ever get used to federal elections being held on the same day every two or four years. That's just weird!

My day started off with an e-mail from our company president telling the staff (20% of whom are not citizens and can't vote) how he'd like everyone to vote. He does this every election and you can pretty much predict ahead of time who he will support. He's very much pro-conservative, pro-business. (In 2004 he suggested the office vote for David "New Orleans is not filling up like a bowl" Vitter for U.S. Senate, for instance.) This year it was a little... strange. He suggested that folks vote for the latest slate of Louisiana constitutional amendments the way the Citizens for A Better Louisiana suggest. Some of those suggestions, though, were at odds with the recommendations of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, which was attached to the e-mail. So, I'm not sure which way I should vote...

Oh, wait... I should use my own judgment!

Oh, wait... I can't vote! I'm still subject to "taxation without representation", as I do pay my taxes.

Anyway, this is the first election day, since moving down here, that I didn't go to the polls. Oh, I don't try to vote, but I always accompanied Alana into the polling station. I found those monstrous lever-switching polling machines fascinating. I remember watching the ABC affiliate out of Buffalo, NY explaining to people how to use the machines back when they were introduced. I was mesmerized. And I was a little disappointed when I voted in my first Canadian election and discovered they used paper (cardstock, actually) ballots. I just liked going to see the machines, view the process, and watch the odd looks on people's faces when I step out of the line and answer their "Are you not voting?" questions with "I can't vote".

This year Alana got to vote on one of the new electronic voting machines. She did not get a paper receipt verifying her vote, as this machine didn't provide one.

I'm of the opinion, as are a number of computer security people, that any official allowing the use of an electronic voting machine that does not supply a paper receipt from a manufacturer that does not allow its source code and hardware to be audited should be fired or impeached, depending on whether they are a bureaucrat or a politician. The use of these electronic voting machines is a monumentally stupid idea, and anyone authorizing their use is either too stupid to hold the position, or on the take.

I hear that Canada is planning to go with electronic voting machines. This is a sad state of affairs, given that paper ballots do the job just fine. I'm not saying this as a luddite, mind you. I am a systems analyst by profession. I usually embrace technology. That's why I know what can go wrong. That's why every competent computer security analyst has said that these machines are worse than useless. Without a paper receipt and a thorough audit there is no way you can know for sure that the votes were tallied properly. Ever since their use, and running through this year's primaries, electronic voting machines in the U.S. have had numerous problems.

Machine readable ballots are supposed to make the counting process easier. Tell that to the folks counting ballots in Florida. Paper ballots require hand counting, but the process is not difficult and has been in place for more than a century. In 2000, after the U.S. election but before the results were known, Canada had its federal election. Paper ballots were used. The results were mostly known that evening, and the "all but truly official" results were known the next day. Now Canada has apparently caught the same bug grabbing the U.S. and Britain, and they are introducing computer voting machines. In the last Canadian election I voted in, they used large card ballots where you inked in a gap in a black arrow with machine-readable ink to indicate your candidate. That seemed to be a good method, resulting in a paper ballot with a machine to count the ballots. I don't know why this is considered inferior to a computer that can be hacked, badly programmed, or set up incorrectly.

I wish I could have gone with Alana. She went early in the day; as a state employee she gets Election Day off, while I had to work. It would have been funny to see an official answer my question: "So how does she know the machine tallied her vote correctly?" On the other hand, maybe it would only cause the poor septegenarians manning the polling station to have an anxiety attack. (That last bit isn't hyperbole; the average age of people manning the polling stations is 70!)

At any rate, the election campaign is over. It as pretty quiet around here. I don't remember seeing any campaign commercials on TV for local candidates, and the only smattering of signs I saw were for judge candidates or for the school board.

I'm not sure who I would like to see win. I don't want to see the Republicans running all three branches of government. On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for one branch of Congress being controlled by one party and the other branch controlled by the other. Yes, it can cause gridlock, but it's not like Congress did much of anything in the last session anyway. With a split, at least some compromise must be made to get laws passed.

But, hey, what do I know. I can't even vote!

Monday, November 06, 2006

NRCC dirty tricks

Read this today on Slashdot. Over the weekend, the National Republican Congressional Committee was involved in some dirty tricks with telephone calls. In 53 districts the NRCC has been conducting a robocall (automated telephone message) campaign that makes it look, at first, like Democrats are spamming people with phone calls.

The NRCC spent $2.1 million to send automated calls to people in these districts.

The message starts with, "Hello, I'm calling with information about" followed by the name of a Democrat in the particular district. If the person hangs up at this point, they could get another call back. One person reported getting called by these automated systems 18 times. In another district a person reported receiving the calls as late as 2:30 a.m.

If the caller listens long enough, the message goes on to slam the Democrat. Often the information given in slamming the candidate is wrong or misleading. In Illinois one of the messages said, "Illinois families will be footing the bill for illegal immigrants who get government benefits," in spite of the fact that there is no evidence to support that this is a Democratic position.

According to the Democrats they used one set of automated "robocalls" for this election, a campaign so small it cost them $500.

These calls break a number of rules. Automated calls are supposed to say who they are from right up front. There are limits to how many times you can call one person, and how late you can call. New Hampshire has a law preventing even the NRCC contacting people on the state's "no call" list, but that was violated.

The idea behind this is simple. If someone hangs up early, keep calling. Unless you listen to more than the beginning, it sounds like it's a call from the Democrats. A number of people have apparently complained about these "Democrat" calls, so apparently the tactic works.

Regardless of one's political leanings, folks have to admit that this is an underhanded, dirty trick, and one that's illegal. I'm sure they'll be fined, but whatever fine they are forced to pay will be worth it to them if they retain control of the House.

The Slashdot article is here:

The Boston Globe as an article on it here:

Sunday, November 05, 2006

I came across while surfing today. We all talk about restaurants and waiters. This blog tells the story from the other side of the menu. The blogger is a 38 year old waiter/manager at a classy restaurant in New York.

It's pretty good reading. I liked the story about the time he was given a $50 tip on a $100 check and tracked the guy down to tell him he overpaid. His logic was that he'd rather be honest and have the guy come back again than take the oversized tip.

Sometimes he's pretty bitchy. There's an article back in 2004 when he gives us peons rules for going out to eat. It's interesting seeing his perspective, understanding what could happen from the restaurant's point-of-view. As I said, though, he can be bitchy. Telling me to tip 15%, preferably 20%, is all fine and good, but you'd better be damn good for 20%.

(Aside: when did it become 20%, anyway? I grew up understanding that tips were 15%, pre-tax. Suddenly it's become 20%. A restaurant association is trying to get 20% added to the bill automatically. Geez, yeah, that will go over well.)

Sometimes there's... something more. The April 27, 2004 entry about Carl was particularly eerie. Mostly he is a mixture of funny and poignant. Check it out.

CFL football on a computer???

I hope Michael sees this article when he gets back from Texas!

The "holy grail" of Canadian Football League fans is a computer or console game based on the Canadian league. At one point it looked like it might happen, but the project apparently never materialized. Let's face it, when you have the choice of rabid American football fans (NFL and college) out of a population of 300 million people and a dedicated core of Canadian fans, who find themselves outnumbered by NFL fans in Toronto and Vancouver, in a country of about 35 million, it's not hard to see why no one has bothered to create a CFL Playstation or X-Box game.

I always figured that the best option was someone doing a "World Football" title, capturing the CFL, NFL Europe, and arena football. This would be a "curiousity" title, but it could happen. I even had a little hope last year with the NFL football licensing controversy.

What controversy, you ask? In 2004 ESPN came out with a budget football console game. Brand new, ESPN NFL 2K5 sold for US$20. It was laughed at by the leader in the computer/console sports game world, Electronic Arts. After all, the game to play was their Madden football franchise, which sold for about twice as much new. They stopped laughing pretty quick when it turned out that the ESPN game was actually better than Madden 2005. (Yes, the 2005 game was out in 2004. Computer and console sports games are dated like car model years.) ESPN football did very well, indeed. Logan and I have been playing it a lot in the last couple of weeks. He's taken a huge shine to football all of a sudden. I have Madden from 2003, which I bought used when we got the PS2, and while it allows Logan to play the Saints while I play the Scottish Claymores of NFL Europe (and the game play is a bit more forgiving), we keep returning to the better graphics of the ESPN game.

Okay, so what's the controversy? Last year, the NFL signed an exclusivity license with EA. Now the only NFL football game you can buy is an EA game (Madden and their NFL Street series). ESPN was shut out. This will continue at least until something like 2010. This is unfortunate for everyone except EA (who have a monopoly) and the NFL (who got a boatload of cash for the license).

Anyway, my hope was that maybe ESPN could try for an arena league game, and maybe grab the rights to the CFL while they were at it. I would prefer they throw NFL Europe in there, too, but it's tied up in the NFL license.

That hasn't materialized yet, but another game has. Matrix Games is known for their computer wargames. They create niche games for a niche market. Kids would rather play Halo than recreate Gettysburg, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for a Gettysburg sim. The same can be said about sports, apparently.

Matrix Games has a game called Maximum Football. It is not intended to replace console games. Instead, it's intended for players to handle the role of a coach, setting play books, drafting, creating the starting line up, etc. It's a serious simulation view of the game of football.

(Aside: sports simulations have been around for years. Classic wargame publisher Avalon Hill had football, baseball, and racing games. Their most famous is Statis-Pro Football, which is still sought after by fans. Folks are still developing up-to-date statistics cards for the long out-of-print game. Then there's the simulation company SPI who took "football as simulation" to greater lengths. In their magazine Strategy and Tactics they once included the game Scrimmage. This was football done as a skirmish wargame. It could take you half an hour to an hour to play out the results of a single play! Football is the inspiration for a number of less "realistic" games. Games Workshop has Blood Bowl, a fantasy game based loosely on the gridiron game, and Milton Bradley did Battle Ball: The Future of Football a couple of years ago. It's essentially a sci-fi version of Blood Bowl.)

The interesting aspect about Maximum Football is the customization that you can do with it. You can decide the field size, the number of downs, the size of your league, all of this.

For CFL fans, it gets better. The game comes pre-loaded with the rules and the playbooks from the NFL, the arena league... and the Canadian Football League!

This is the game I've been waiting for!

Of course, every silver lining has a cloud. The game requires 512 MB of memory and 128 MB video card (not integrated video, is what it says). Our desktop only has 512 MB of memory, and an integrated video card. To play it on that we'd have to get a video card. The laptop also has integrated video, but it at least has 1 GB of RAM, so it might run the game just fine. On the other hand, it's apparently a processing hog, so that worries me.

For anyone interested in the game, the information is found here:

I checked the forum. The game is relatively new, with comments starting in May of this year. Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of the comments are from CFL fans, and a lot of work has been done on CFL rosters.

Interesting article with Collins and Dawkins

There's been something of a science establishment backlash against religious fundamentalism in the last couple of years. I think the tipping point came when President Bush vetoed the stem cell bill, for religious reasons, even though a majority of Americans (and a majority of Congress) supported it.

This isn't the only case of Bush's presidency being "anti-science". The administration is famously antagonistic toward the idea that humans are causing global warming, and Bush is a proponent of Intelligent Design pseudo-science.

As a result, scientists have started to become more vocal in their beliefs. A number of books have come out on the topic, and this month's Wired magazine has an article titled "The New Atheism", provocatively subtitled, "Inside the crusade
against religion".

Time Magazine has an article of its own, "God vs. Science". The article is more than just some reporter's view, it is actually a Q&A dialog between a Time reporter and two scientists on the opposite sides of this question.

On the "pro-religion" side is American Francis Collins. Every biography of him points out that he was an athiest until the age of 27, when he converted to evangelical Christianity. He does not believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Collins is the author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, published earlier this year. For his bio, see this Wikipedia entry:

On the "pro-secular" side is Richard Dawkins, a British ethologist and evolutionary theorist. He, too, published a book this year, The God Delusion. Dawkins' Wikipedia entry is here:

The Time article is quite fascinating. You can find it here:,9171,1553986,00.html. I will warn you, Time's web site keeps asking if you want to take a survey, once per page. It is annoying. Even after I answered the survey as a 90 year old man from Angola and, later, as a $250K a year white/black/hispanic/Asian/Martian corporate vice president they continued to ask if I wanted to take part in the survey.

Foot in mouth disease?

For the record, Alana is not a big fan of Hillary Clinton. In fact, I think it's safe to say that she pretty close to despises the woman. Nonetheless, she should probably be Hillary's spokesperson.

A couple of weeks ago, John Spencer — the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate — accused Hillary of having "millions of dollars" in plastic surgery, claiming that Hillary looked "less attractive" in the past.

Now, in response Hillary said, "I thought my high school picture was cute." I mean, what do you say to something like, "I thought you looked worse in the past"?

I read this out to Alana, and she immediately shot back the comment that Hillary should have said, "Some of us grow old gracefully. Others grow old with their foot in their mouth."

I laughed...

Friday, November 03, 2006

Immigration stuff

A week ago I went for to have my biometrics captured for the USCIS. It was a pretty straightforward thing. They took my fingerprints (again) and took my picture (again... they have more portraits of me than my mother!). That was pretty much it. For that I had to travel 2 hours and then find a place to park. Maybe there is a place in southern Louisiana that could have "captured my biometrics" (a term that suggests they were going to take DNA samples and scan my retina, but noooo!); apparently the closest place to Monroe is over in Mississippi.

I was a bit of a scofflaw, though. I had to go through a metal detector. They asked me about my Palm Zire. I turned it on for them to show it was real, and the female security guard asked if it had a camera. I said "No," and she let me go after looking it over a little more. I didn't mention that my cell phone, on my belt, had a camera. I didn't realize until I was leaving that they had a sign on the door saying that no cameras were allowed into the building. Oh, well! If any USCIS agents are reading this, a) I did not take any pictures inside the building, okay?!? and b) you really need to put those signs up closer to eye level, not down below my waist!

I was reading online in The Scotsman something interesting: the Scots are upset about immigrants. Since Eastern European countries like Poland, the Ukraine, and the Czech Republic were allowed into the EU, Western European cities have seen a big influx in immigrants. The article in question detailed complaints about the amount of resources taken up in one particular part of Scotland due to Polish immigrants. Translation services and the extra time it took to explain to a Polish speaker the different services available were mentioned in particular.

In the EU, workers are free to travel anywhere in Europe for employment. I think they are also allowed to have social services, but I don't know if there are any limitations or stipulations on this. As an aside, I have a British passport so I can actually work in the U.S., Canada, or anywhere in Europe (and yet I'm living in Monroe. Hmmm...)

Some folks talk about opening up the U.S. a little more to Mexican workers. In particular, right now Mexican truck drivers have to stop within 25 miles inside the U.S. border and either switch out the truck's cab, or change drivers. Mexican nationals working as truck drivers can not drive further into the U.S. (I don't believe that Canadian truck drivers are limited this way, nor are U.S. drivers in Canada.) Critics see this as the beginnings of a North American version of the EU. Considering the criticism of the EU levelled by Britain and other countries, the U.S. would do well to pay attention to what's happening in Europe before going too far.

Of course the U.S. is not the only country dealing with "poor neighbours". Mexico complains about the treatment of their nationals sneaking into the U.S. while they treat Central American "immigrants" like dirt. China apparently has a problem with people sneaking in from North Korea in spite of the secure border. Iraqis have fled into Iran, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. People flow from areas of poor options and conditions to areas of better options and conditions, just as they have for millenia. I suspect that in 200 to 500 years the world's economic regions will have equalized. In the meantime the transition will be painful, particularly given that for the poorer nations to be elevated, the richer nations have to be reduced. Hopefully the world will survive the transition.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

More motivational posters

Here are my latest motivational posters, which have been seen in that mega thread on (I posted my last poster, below, to the thread this evening; it was message #11761).

As in previous cases, click on the image to see a larger version of it.

The picture is of the character Henry Gale from the TV show Lost.

This next set requires a little bit of explanation. There have been a number of "tunnel" posts, where one person includes the last person's poster in their own, creating a string of posters leading into infinity. This one was from a series of posters about wargames. The original poster mentioned the game Star Fleet Battles, one of the biggest, most complex games developed. It's a Star Trek combat game, but it went from a humble game (that I once owned) into a horrendous monster. Someone trumped SFB with Advanced Squad Leader, which has literally hundreds of pages of rules (though not all are needed to play). This was followed by Squad Leader which, with its add-ons, was actually more complicated, with fewer pages of rules, than ASL. I trumped them all with this poster. Yes, the game I mentioned does exist (no, I don't have it, and if I did I'd throw it on eBay immediately).

Someone suggested taking the Squad Leader poster and doing a tunnel back to what is considered the first recreational wargame, Little Wars, written by science fiction author H.G. Wells. I did the last three that you see in this poster, taking the tunnel back to the 1920s and the Fletcher Pratt naval rules (and a contemporary, and acquaintance, of H.P. Lovecraft). I don't think anyone ever did a Little Wars poster, unfortunately.

Someone on the thread mentioned a female friend of his wanting to play in an oriental roleplaying game, but she was having problems getting past the limitations on women in feudal China and Japan because of societal restrictions. He put out a call for posters showing strong female roles in feudal Japan or China. I did these.

The first two are of the female samurai Tomoe Gozen (the first is a photograph of a woman re-enactor, the second is a picture of a mannequin).

This is from a photograph of a different female samurai re-enactor:

And this is another picture of Tomoe Gozen, but much more fancifully done:

And a return to funny posters, with two I posted this evening. The first is from the Ctrl-Alt-Del web comic:

And this is from the Least I Could Do web comic: