Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I'm feelin' ick

I haven't been blogging much recently, since I've been feeling ick. My temperature started to bounce today, so I left work early. I suspect I won't be going in tomorrow, either.

I took yesterday off work as a vacation/comp day. I had to install a program at the local food bank. When I first moved down here, before I was gainfully employed, I volunteered to write the food bank's database. That was back in 2003. Late last year they found out the USDA changed their rules and they needed major changes done to the system. I installed that yesterday. I had to do some tweaking while I was there, but the folks there seemed to like the changes I made.

That's taken up a lot of my spare time. Much of the rest of my spare time has been spent reading Wild Talents, a superhero roleplaying game that we're going to start playing this weekend (okay, build characters...).

From a current events standpoint, I'm getting more than a little peeved at all the Windows Vista hype on television masquerading as "news". Okay, so Bill Gates was on The Daily Show. If big movie stars can plug a new movie, Gates can plug Vista (especially since Jon Stewart didn't let him talk much about Vista itself). It's CNN that really bugged me. What Gates did on CNN was nothing short of a product demo. I kept hoping someone would ask Gates to promise it was more secure... or to comment on the Vista exploit that's already out there... or to comment on Greenpeace's criticism of Microsoft for requiring folks to ditch perfectly good computers just to run Vista properly.

Hoping, but not expecting.

The best article I've seen about Bill Gates recently is one in The Scotsman. Instead of giving Bill the love, it lays out the criticism circling around him. It even mentions criticism of his charitable foundation, something you don't see much of, and certainly don't see it during this Vista love in.

The article is here:

For the record, one of the reasons we bought a new laptop last year (other than the fact the old one was dying when it overheated) was so I could get it with Windows XP instead of Vista. Besides the fact that the hardware requirements to run a frigging operating system are hideously high (particularly for the Ultimate edition), the rule of thumb is never run something from Microsoft until the third version. This means waiting for Service Pack 1, probably sometime next year.

I got to bitch about something. Woohoo! I feel better already. Until I cough...

Monday, January 29, 2007

Racism in Britain, as seen on reality TV

I saw last night that Shilpa Shetty won Celebrity Big Brother 2007 in Britain. This run of the reality TV show has been controversial due to racist statements made on the air against Ms. Shetty. I've been following the situation for a couple of weeks, but I wanted to see how it ended before posting about it. Compare this post with the one I made on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Big Brother aired on CBS in the U.S. in the summer of 2000, trying to capitalize on the success of CBS' other big reality show, Survivor. The premise: a bunch of people live in the same "house" — a set, really — outfitted with cameras that followed their every move 24/7. Each week someone became "head of household", giving them some perks, and two or more people were "up for eviction". The TV audience would vote on who would be turfed from the show. Big Brother is still running in the U.S. but the first season was the best/worst. I watched the first season, but stopped after that. It was a train wreck. Audience members — via text messaging — tended to vote out the most disruptive members. Unfortunately, that meant voting out the most interesting members. Then there was a minor "scandal" where one participant's home town voted en masse, and often, to keep him in the house. The whole thing almost came crashing down to its knees, particularly when the participant with the phone happy home town won.

The original season of Big Brother was actually based on a Dutch show by the same name. The original Dutch Big Brother is considered the "mother of all reality shows", airing in 1997. Like the U.S. show, viewers watched the contestants, two (or more) people were put up for eviction, and viewers would call in to vote for their favourites, the least favourite being thrown out. This format works in other countries, but failed miserably in the U.S. Telephone charges are more expensive in the rest of the world, making a vote worth more. CBS' casting for the first season was lame, and Dutch television allows nudity and sex, slanting the way people vote.

While the U.S. show changed formats (viewers can only vote to reward a player; the players vote each other out ala Survivor), the shows in every other country (Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, Great Britain, India, Italy, Mexico, Nigeria, The Philippines and a version played in Sweden and Norway) all follow the Dutch rules.

I seem to be diverging, but it's important to understand the differences between the U.K. version of Big Brother and the American version in case you've only seen the American version.

Britain has run seven seasons of Big Brother, with an annual spin off Celebrity Big Brother, which just finished its 5th season. It's this 5th season that's covered in controversy.

C-list celebrities were put into the house on January 3, 2007, and the last show was on January 28. The winner would be awarded a cash prize for their favourite charity. Several of the contestants I'd never heard of, being in that strange bubble that is British pop culture*, but I was surprised to recognize a few names: Jermaine Jackson (brother of the Michael), Dirk Benedict (The A-Team and original Battlestar Galactica actor), Ken Russell (British film director; he directed The Who's Tommy), and 1970s singer Leo Sayer. I didn't recognize most of the others, including the two at the heart of the controversy: Shilpa Shetty and Jade Goody.

Shilpa Shetty is a beautiful Bollywood actress, famous in her home country of India but not well known on this side of the Atlantic. That may change as a result of this controversy, but more likely she won't be recognized here unless she becomes the next "Bond girl", a possibility according to some rumours.

Jade Goody is pretty much the polar opposite of the refined, educated Shetty. Goody won Big Brother 3 in spite of coming across as a half-wit. From the Wikipedia entry on her, "She supposedly harboured the belief that Mother Teresa was related to Albert Einstein (which she pronounced Heinzstein) and Sherlock Holmes (whom she believed invented toilets), that Rio de Janiero was a person and East Anglia was a foreign country. Two of her most famous quotes, both of which indicate the alleged paucity of her general knowledge are: 'They were trying to use me as an escape goat' and 'Do they speak Portuganese in Portugal?'." Amusing at first, she soon became the target of vitriol in the British tabloid press. The producers of Big Brother allegedly told Goody how she was being portrayed, and started airing clips that made her more sympathetic (the producers deny this). The British press started treating her more positively, perhaps afraid she'd sue over the hatred that was building, and in the end she won the game. Details can be found in this Wikipedia entry. Goody went on to become a reality show celebrity, starring in a couple of other reality shows, selling a series of fitness DVDs (she has since gained back a lot of the weight she lost post-Big Brother), opening a restaurant (as part of a reality show; it has since closed), and releasing her own fragrance line.

While Goody has promoted her ditzy commoner-made-good image, that all fell apart in the middle of this month. Goody started targeting Shetty, presumably as a way of eliminating a strong competitor in the show. This is where the real controversy began. Goody started using racial slurs against Shetty. She began bullying Shetty with the help of a couple of other contestants, including Jo O'Meara, a member of the British pop group S Club 7, and Danielle Lloyd, a former Miss Great Britain.

The racial slurs were the kind I'm very familiar with. I used to hear them a lot when I worked on the assembly line at GM in Oshawa, ON. There is a large Indian and Pakistani population in Britain and in Canada. I don't begin to understand what causes people to start racist slurs. I don't know if it's insecurity, or just a fear of the unknown and different. For whatever reason, racist slurs often hit immigrants. I heard very few racist comments against African-Canadians growing up, but heard quite a few against Indians and Pakistanis. As an adult I heard more in Toronto aimed at the large Caribbean community and, during the Chinese influx prior to the hand over of Hong Kong, orientals. Slurs against Indians and Pakistanis were the most prevalent. (I should note that the slurs I heard in multi-cultural Toronto were far less prevalent than those I heard on the assembly line in the — at the time — largely working class white city of Oshawa.)

I won't go into details about the slurs spoken by Goody and others on this show. You can find them in the Celebrity Big Brother 2007 Wikipedia entry. They largely dealt with Shetty's colour, and the common (and entirely stupid) racial epithets about cleanliness.

The situation came to a head on January 16, when Goody's bullying and slurs hit a tipping point. The U.K.'s media regulator Ofcom, the British equivalent of the U.S. FCC, received 50,000 complaints about the show. In a typically British response there were calls for banning the show. It became an international incident when Gordon Brown, heir apparent to Tony Blair, visited India soon after. He was forced to explain and denounce the incident while the producers of the show were burned in effigy.

The insults might have been dismissed as the ravings of an idiot if it wasn't for the fact that Goody wasn't the only one contributing. Goody's mother and boyfriend were invited into the house as a twist in the show. They participated (and Goody's boyfriend was probably even worse than Goody herself) in the insults. O'Meara and Lloyd also jumped in. The prevalence of racism in the Big Brother House was what was most troubling to Britons. The incidents were brought up in Question Period in the House of Commons. Given that India second only to the U.S. as a foreign investor in London, the view of a racist Britain has far reaching economic implications. The furor was even enough for cable news in the U.S. to cover the story.

An anti-racist backlash began soon after. Goody was dropped from an anti-bullying charity for which Goody was, ironically, a spokesperson. Her fragrance was pulled from store shelves. Channel 4 (the network airing the show) executives tried to spin the slurs as ugly but not necessarily racist. That didn't stop Nokia from pulling its sponsorship. The number of viewers shot up dramatically soon after, which probably did more to hurt Goody than anything else. She was voted out by the British public by a vote of 83%. There was no live audience present when she left the house.

The racial insults didn't help the other co-conspirators either. O'Meara was bounced in the next vote, leaving six contestants for the finale. Goody's boyfriend came in sixth, and Lloyd was fifth. Dirk Benedict came in third, Jermaine Jackson second, and Shilpa Shetty won with almost 2/3 of the vote over Jackson. The worst off is Goody, whose reputation will probably never recover. She made millions from her initial appearance on the show, but now her second appearance — and her true colours — look to destroy her fame.

For her part, Goody admitted that her comments were racist, and she apologized on the air. Shetty has deflected the issue with class, saying that she didn't really find the comments racist. There are questions of how much of what was seen on TV was the result of clever editing. Editing did not put the words in the mouth of Goody and the others, though.

A week ago, The Scotsman reported another Channel 4 show with racist comments. Shipwrecked is apparently a Survivor clone. One of the contestants, Lucy Buchanan of Edinburgh, is an 18 year-old self-admitted racist, educated in "public schools" (which, in Britain, are equivalent to American and Canadian private schools; I think the idea is that the public, instead of the state, has to pay tuition to go there). To quote the article: "CHANNEL 4 found itself at the centre of a fresh race row last night after a contestant on a new reality show described black people as 'really bad', claiming the UK was now home to 'way too many cultures'."

The article is here: The readers' comments below the article are worth reading, if only for a cross section of thought on the subject. You see the same sort of reaction to race relations in Britain as you do here in the U.S., though there are far more calls for banning the program.

This incident received less of an outcry. Part of that is because other contestants came out and disagreed with Buchanan's statements from the get go. I've heard that she changes her attitude as the show goes along, but I can't confirm that.

The U.S. is, in part, defined by its handling of race relations. I have heard Britons talk of the U.S. in derogatory fashion because of the struggle the U.S. has with race. These incidents go to show that racism is not a national problem, but one afflicting every country on the planet. The U.S. may not have solved its problem of racism, but apparently neither has anyone else...

* American pop culture is the most omnipotent on the planet. A-list American stars are famous the world over, as are many B-list stars, and even some from lower echelons. One of the things that struck me when I visited Britain in 1992 was just how many celebrities there were that I'd never heard of. There are A-list Britons that have no presence over here, let alone the likes of British sports stars and minor celebrities. The same thing exists in every country. Every country has its stars, very few of which are known outside of the country. Canada even has this phenomenon inside its own borders. There are celebrities in Quebec who are virtually unknown in the other three provinces.

Such is American Cultural Imperialism that even the least worth of American celebrities is known north of the border. Yet aside from the odd ex-pat Canadian or someone who knows me, I doubt I could find anyone in Louisiana who has heard of Rick Mercer, Monika Deol or Ralph Benmergui.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

A weird kind of homesickness

The weather on Friday made me homesick for Canada. Oh, not homesick for Canada as it was on Friday, but homesick for Canada the way it will be in a month or two.

It's been cold (in the mid to high 40s Fahrenheit; okay, cold for Louisiana) recently, and overcast. Most of the rain hits the state in the winter and spring months, or so it seems. It hasn't been a torrential rain, but Lake Darbonne, about 40 miles away, was at flood stage, probably due to rain in Arkansas. It's pretty much a downhill run from the Ozarks to the Gulf of Mexico. It was raining again yesterday. Today was sunny with some occasional cloud, but pretty chilly.

Friday, though, was beautiful. There were no clouds. The temperature hit 56°F, but without much wind it felt warmer than that. It was the kind of day when you don't feel the least bit productive. It's the kind of day that signals that winter is almost over.

Or so it does when it hits Canada in March.

It's not surprising that so much of Canadian culture revolves around the winter. A few months ago I was reading a magazine on the convenience store industry at work. They mentioned Canadian convenience stores attached to gas stations, and how they just don't sell all the stuff you find in an American convenience store attached to a gas station. In Canadian stores it's mostly just staples and junk food. In American store there's a whole lot more. The main reason is that Canadians have different buying patterns. They tend to buy a lot of stuff all at once from a grocery store. They make fewer runs to stores. The reason is the weather. Canadians get home from work in the winter and it's likely still dark out. And it's cold. Actually, driving when it's very cold (-20°C, or lower) is not a problem. The roads are usually clear (salt melted the ice, and the dry air evaporated the water). It's when the temperature is close to freezing that you get lots of snow. Regardless, Canadians tend to visit grocery stores and get all they need at once. This is just one aspect of Canadian culture being governed by the weather.

January is the coldest month in Ontario. Usually you get a thaw in February, only to have it go cold again. Another thaw hits in March, and this is the one that I'm homesick for. I have vivid memories of blue skies, warm weather (from 0 to 10°C), and snow melt puddling in the street and on sidewalks. Suddenly everyone goes out, particularly if the weather hits on a weekend. (If it's a weekday, the streets are packed at lunch and productivity seems to go down the tubes.) People go out for walks. Stores are busy, particularly in city centres where stores are not necessarily buried in a mall. There's an energy you don't find at any other time of the year. I can see the waning light of 5 o'clock in early March, where the warm day starts to cool down rapidly. Time to go back inside, but this time you don't mind. It's been a glorious day.

These memories have flooded over me the last couple of days, making me a little melancholy. The reason was the weather on Friday. It was just like those March thaw days, except there was no snow to melt. There were some puddles from the rain, and I think that contributed. I wasn't very productive at work; it was all I could do to drag myself back into the office.

What's really throwing me, though, is that this is happening in January. It feels glorious... but it also feels wrong. I haven't even had a real winter yet, and already I'm feeling like it's spring.

So, if my mood seems subdued you now know why. But I'm okay. If my mood gets too down, I simply think about the way Canada is right now, and suddenly I don't feel so bad. Unlike almost everyone I know in Canada, I much prefer the heat (even with humidity, though northern Louisiana is less humid in the summer than Toronto) to the cold.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Path to 9/11 rears its ugly head again

I just received an e-mail from According to the e-mail, this weekend Sean Hannity of Fox News is planning on airing the bits of The Path to 9/11 — ABC's flawed docudrama about 9/11 — that were cut because of factual errors.

The e-mail, in part said, "According to his executive producer, Sean Hannity and Fox News "feel the American people deserve both sides." We can only assume that the producer means fiction vs. fact. It's our obligation to stand up for the facts. ABC Television omitted certain scenes not because they were partisan, but because they were blatantly untrue." (The emphasis is theirs.)

It continues with, "Fox News and Sean Hannity have a right to be partisan and express their own opinions. However, if they want to claim that they're journalists, they have an obligation to report the truth. It's time to step up the pressure on Sean Hannity and Fox News."

They provide a link to an e-mail you can send requesting that if Hannity intends to air the scenes that he point out that they are factually untrue. The link is

I really can't add anything more to this...

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Lou Dobbs, and the U.S. trade deficit with Canada

I was watching Lou Dobbs on CNN tonight. Alana was getting hot under the collar. Not for what Dobbs was saying, but because there's a group that wants to grant amnesty to illegal aliens, and to give them preferential treatment in any guest worker program. They were featured on Dobbs' show. Alana gets mad when she hears this stuff, probably because of the cost and time it's taken to keep me down here.

Dobbs then started in on a group who are looking at the possibility of a North American union. I assume that they mean to form a North American version of the European Union. Of course Dobbs focused on the security and sovereignty implications, and how he was against it, and how the majority of Americans were against it. He hasn't spoken to many Canadians (he admits this) so he couldn't say how Canadians feel about it. Actually, due to Bush there is enough anti-American sentiment that few Canadians would agree to such a union.

That's not the point of this post. At the end of the segment he said that it wouldn't be in the U.S.' best interest given the U.S. already has a $79 billion trade deficit with Canada.

This is something Dobbs has mentioned before. He's an American patriot, and he dislikes trade deficits. The problem is that he equates one trade deficit with another. That's not fair.

Much of what the U.S. buys from Canada is raw resources. The U.S. isn't losing gobs of jobs to Canada (though there has been job loss to Canada, Canadians have lost jobs to the U.S.; this is a natural result of free trade). The U.S. is buying manufactured materials from Canada, to be sure, but Canadians buy manufactured products from the U.S. The biggest part of the trade deficit with Canada is the purchase of natural resources.

In other words, the U.S. is buying a whole lot of stuff from Canada that it doesn't have itself.

Let's analyze the trade deficit. I found figures from 2005, which is where Dobbs got the $79 billion figure from (it was actually $78.485 billion, so it should have been rounded down to $78 billion). Last year the deficit was lower, probably due to the U.S. dollar plunging compared to the Canadian dollar. As of November it was around $67 billion.

Regardless, these deficits are on trade valued $500 billion. The U.S. bought $290 billion of Canadian goods, while Canada bought $211 billion in U.S. goods.

This is important because Canada has 1/8 the population of the U.S. If every Canadian spent as much money on American goods as Americans spend on Canadian goods, Canadians would have only purchased about $26.4 billion worth of stuff from the U.S. On a per capita basis Canadians buy way more American goods than the other way around. It works out to every American buying $967 worth of Canadian goods, and every Canadian buying about $6600 worth of American goods. You don't hear Lou Dobbs talking about that! If every person in China spent the same amount of money as the average Canadian on American goods, the U.S. trade surplus would be astronomical.

As I mentioned, the bulk of what the U.S. buys from Canada is natural resources. For the most part these are items that the U.S. needs that it can't produce locally. Some of it is lumber, which Canada has more of and sells it for less, but much of it is stuff like nickel and potash.

Complaining about the U.S. trade deficit with Canada is a little like me complaining about my trade deficit with Target.

Even if you compared Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and divided trade between the two countries based on that, the United States still sells more to Canada as a function of its GDP than the U.S. buys from Canada.

So while Lou Dobbs should be lauded for defending the United States' interests, he should also be taken to task for giving Americans an unfair portrait of trade with their northern neighbour.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A bunch of sickies

January has not been a particularly healthy month for us. Between the three of us we've been to the doctor a dozen times, with another two appointments scheduled for the end of the month.

Alana had a sleep study done and a bunch of tests. She's been off sick this week with various symptoms including a series of killer headaches.

Logan had vent tubes put in his ears. Again. This is the third set, the last set going in last year. One of his ear drums is still collapsed and touching the bone. If it doesn't pop back in a couple of months, then it's probably scarred onto the bone. That means another two operations for him. We haven't mentioned this possibility to him.

I'm okay. I only had a single doctor's visit (the result? Eh.) I had a fever on Saturday, and since Monday I can't stop popping my ears. It feels like sinuses are clogged. And I, too, have a headache.

So we things haven't been too smurfy this month. Maybe February will be better.

And depression set in

I was foolish. For some reason I let myself actually get caught up in a professional sports team.

Oh, I've done it before. I was a fan of the Toronto Argonauts, who until the late 80s had never won a Grey Cup in my life. I was never a major hockey fan; just as well, as the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup was when my family moved to Canada (forty years ago). I once followed the Toronto Blizzard of the North American Soccer League before it folded. So, I'm no stranger to sporting futility.

But this time I got caught up in all the excitement of the New Orleans Saints making a run at the Super Bowl. They hadn't won more than a single play off game in 39 years (now it's two). They'd never been in the Super Bowl at any time in their 40 year history. They had a dismal record last year, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

My mistake is letting myself think, hope, they could make it to the Super Bowl. In retrospect I started to worry when the Chicago Bears beat the Seattle Seahawks. I didn't like the idea of the Saints having to play Chicago in their outdoor stadium in January.

Logan's birthday party was Saturday. He had a Saints theme. He received a bunch of football stuff as presents. He just had to wear my mother's present to him, a Reggie Bush replica jersey. The gold and black balloons were still up at game time on Sunday.

Alana and I began watching the game. From the beginning you knew the Saints were in trouble. You can tell your players to watch "ball security", but you can't teach it unless they get out in the cold, wet weather and practise with the football. The Bears had that luxury, the Saints did not.

We turned off the television when the realization of their failure was becoming a certainty. Alana couldn't watch any more and requested that I turn off the TV. I was glad she asked.

And that's when the depression set in, followed by a self-berating for stupidly believing in a sports team, for feeling sorry for a team where the cheapest player is making at least three times my salary.

Oh, well, if they had made it to the Super Bowl I'd hardly be able to watch it. At least now Logan can cheer on the Colts and one of his favourite players, Peyton Manning.

And I now detest the Chicago Bears...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Stephen Colbert declares war on my home town

(Wow, all these posts in a single day! Some days are just better than others!)

Last night it finally happened. Stephen Colbert talked about my home town! No, not Glasgow, Scotland (where I was born, but of which I remember little), but Oshawa, Ontario. Actually "talked" is not entirely right. He dissed Oshawa.

Last year the Saginaw Spirit, a hockey team based in Saginaw, Michigan but playing in the Ontario Hockey League, held a contest to name their secondary mascot, an eagle. Colbert, who portrays himself as over the top patriotic, wanted the eagle named after him. He got it. The mascot is now known as Steagle Cobeagle the Eagle. Due to the name change — and Colbert's updates on the team's progress — the Saginaw Spirit had a big jump in clothing sales. They won their first seven games, too.

Last night Colbert was livid. The Spirit played the Oshawa Generals last month in Oshawa. The Generals won. After the Generals' first goal, Generals fans threw stuffed teddy bears onto the rink (for charity). Colbert is known for his hatred of bears. He took this as an obvious taunt. In retaliation, Colbert ranted against Oshawa.

I laughed my butt off (although that's not saying something, as I am a buttless wonder).

He started by calling the team and city "Oshawa Bin Laden". He mentioned that the Generals were named after General Motors. Oshawa is GM Canada's headquarters, as the McLaughlin Carriage Company became GM Canada (my high school was named after Col. R.S. McLaughlin, founder of the McLaughlin Carriage Company in turn-of-the-century Oshawa). GM was an early sponsor of the team (back in the 1930s). Colbert went on to mention GM's losses in their 3rd quarter earnings report, suggesting that if GM kept bleeding red ink they might have to disassemble the Generals' new arena for spare parts.

He did not suggest that Saginaw Spirit fans throw copies of GM's 3rd quarter earnings report on the rink whenever the Spirt score at home against Oshawa later this month. Nope, not at all. The fact that he announced a link to a PDF of the report was on the Colbert Nation web site was purely coincidental.

If you want to see the clip, you have to be quick. I couldn't find it on YouTube. I did find it on the Comedy Central site, but under a "last night's episode" link. It will probably be gone later tonight. Here's the URL though:

You'll have to scroll down to the video section.

Oh, and when talking about the teddy bears he mentioned the New Orleans Saints. "I have a lot riding on [the Bears'] next game against New Orleans. If saints can't beat bears, God is officially dead."

(Edit: I fixed the bit about the teddy bears, explaining that they were thrown for charity and not to taunt the Saginaw Spirit.)

Sleet day?!?

Alana called me at lunch. Her office closed because of the weather. It's around 35°F right now, and spitting. Due to the worry about freezing rain and/or sleet, they started closing schools and government offices.

It's really, really hard to believe that this state was founded by people born in Quebec...

This got me thinking about the number of times I got out of work or school due to the weather. In spite of some severe winter storms (and this in Southern Ontario, which doesn't get it near as bad as the rest of Canada), I remember only three "snow days".

My high school, McLaughlin Collegiate and Vocational Institute in Oshawa, closed once the entire five years I was there. (No, I was not held back a year! When I went to school you could attend high school for four years and get a general high school diploma, or you could go for five years and get the general after four and the honours high school diploma after the fifth year.) The one time they closed the school was in March of Grade 12 or Grade 13, I can't remember which. And, in fact, they didn't close the school. Our principal, in his infinite wisdom, kept the school open (the only one in the region; I hated you, Mr. Ridge) during a nasty freezing rain storm. We're talking layers of snow with a quarter inch thick crust of ice on them. My Mom apologized for not making me stay home at lunch. We got out a half an hour early, but all the other schools closed at lunch time.

For the record, as a kid I loved walking on frozen snow. You could almost stand up on it before it cracked and you crashed through into the soft snow beneath it. Lots of fun. It wasn't as much fun when I got older and went cross country skiing with my Dad. Frozen snow was hell on the wax you put on the skis, and could give you some nasty snow burns.

The second time I remember was in first year university. I made the unfortunate decision of going to university in Waterloo, ON. No, I didn't go to Waterloo University. I went to the other school, Wilfrid Laurier University, famous for its business program (so of course I went there for physics and computing; go figure). The first year I was there it snowed very heavily one evening (at least 6 inches, possibly more than a foot). The story I heard was that someone at the school phoned the local radio stations saying that the school was closed. Very few people ventured out to class. I stayed in an on-campus residence. A bunch of us ended up playing touch football that afternoon. It's probably the best memory I have of a very lacklustre university career. (Okay, second best. I have a wonderful memory of several of us sitting around our apartment in second year just gabbing away. I sat in the door way of my friend Steve's room. I still look back fondly on that night.)

The third time was Friday, January 13, 1999. This is a famous day in Toronto history. It was the day the mayor asked people not to go to work, and the day he requested help from the military in clearing snow off the city's streets. A series of five snow storms hit the city from January 2 to January 15. The worst was January 2, but the one that affected Toronto the most was January 12. Toronto usually gets about 125 cm (about 4 feet) through the entire year. In 1999 the city had 118.4 cm (just under four feet) dumped on it in a two week period. There's usually blowing and evaporation that keeps the amount of snow on the ground at any one time well below that depth. At its worst (by memory, this would be January 13) there was over two feet of snow on the ground.

To understand the magnitude of this nastiness you have to understand that Toronto's downtown core was built in the horse and buggy era. There are many neighbourhoods where people don't have driveways. The house I lived in had a "parking pad". People park on the street in several large areas (and pay for the privilege). Many of those streets are only one lane wide when there are cars parked on them. So, imagine narrow streets with two feet of snow on them.

It took me four hours to drive 17 km (a little over 10 miles) the night of January 12. I was in no mood to go to work the next day, and the mayor pretty much told people not to do it anyway. He called the military in to help dig out the city, much to the laughter of most of the country. Some 80 residents of Prince Edward Island came to Toronto to help clear the snow. To put it into perspective, Toronto had a budget of C$32.2 million for snow clearing that year. In two weeks they spent C$70 million clearing the snow, and lost about C$2 million in parking fines.

Somewhere I have pictures of my next door neighbour digging out her front lawn. It looks like she built a white corridor leading to her house...

So, those are the only "snow days" I remember having lived in Southern Ontario for 35 years.

Today Monroe, Louisiana is shutting down because it's 35°F and there's a sprinkling of rain...

Lost to end... but not yet.

I'm a fan of the TV series Lost. I found this article yesterday suggesting that the series will have a definite ending. That is, instead of the series marching along until the ratings — and artistic merit — trickle out somewhere around the 8th or 9th season (I'm looking at you, X-Files *sniff*), Lost will tell a coherent story with a definite conclusion.

That's if the original creative team have their way. So far ABC seems to agree with them, but that doesn't mean anything, especially if the ratings are high near the end and the fans ask for more.

The intention was always to tell the story within the framework of about 100 episodes. They will be somewhere in the 90s at the end of next season, meaning that the show will probably only last 5 years. This would be similar to the sci-fi series Babylon 5, which was supposed to go for five seasons. Hopefully what happened to B5 doesn't happen to Lost. B5 was supposed to run five seasons, but early in the fourth the producers found out the series would be cancelled at the end of that year. They accelerated the story line to finish the main story arc that year. However, near the end of the fourth season they were told that the show would be extended for another season. The fifth season was, thus, disappointing since a lot of the action stuff planned that year was done the previous year, and a disappointing secondary story arc became the primary arc.

At any rate, the comment about Lost having a definite end is promising. The only issue I have, really, is that it sounds like the writers are making up the story as the go along. Nothing wrong with that, really. A lot of novels are written that way. Hopefully they've at least outlined what will likely happen by the end of the series (assuming ABC doesn't mess it up).

Speaking of ABC messing it up, I was pretty peeved at ABC for running only six episodes of Lost in the Fall and then going into hiatus until February. They replaced it with a show called Day Break. It smacked of ABC tricking Lost fans into supporting another quirky show with a vaguely sci-fi premise. I was so peeved that I refused to watch Day Break. Maybe a bunch of other folks felt the same way, because Day Break was cancelled.

Also cut was the show The Nine. This had an interesting premise. Nine people (including two criminals) get caught up in a bank robbery. We see the start of the robbery, and we see them getting rescued. We don't see what happened. The characters were changed by their experience, mostly for the worse. As the show progressed, we saw what happened in the bank in short flashback snippets.

I watched a couple of episodes of this. It was an interesting way to tell a story, but while the acting was good the story fell flat. Most of the story was what happened after the robbery, and I really didn't care much to find out what happened to these people after the robbery. It was during the robbery that I wanted to know about, and that information came out in little bits. It might have worked as a movie premise, but it didn't grab me as a weekly show. It, too, has been cancelled, though it will likely come back in May and finish the rest of its 13-episode season. Unfortunately that won't give them time to finish the story arc. So why watch a show you know was cancelled before the end, with the mystery likely to be left up in the air?

On the other hand, that's what happened to Firefly, and I was very happy to watch it! I doubt that there are enough fans of The Nine to justify a movie, though.

Brad and Angelina in New Orleans

Here at Designated Import we're all about news you can use. We're not into all that celebrity gossip stuff.

Until now!

Apparently Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) have moved to New Orleans. Okay, "moved" is kind of hard to pin down when you have three or four homes. Apparently, though, they intend for New Orleans to be their primary residence. Pitt, an architecture buff, loves the city. They just bought a very expensive home in the French Quarter.

Okay, so this is more a "New Orleans rebuilds" article than a celebrity gossip article. Yeah, that's it!

Here's the story.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

300th anniversary of the Act of Union

Today is the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union, the act that created the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

As I mentioned in my St. Andrew's Day entry, the Act wasn't exactly negotiated between the two countries. Scotland was the victim of economic blackmail; sign the Act or be ruined. There were protests in the streets by commoners who wanted no part of the Act of Union, but the Scottish parliament ignored them.

Today, the question of Scotland's full independence from England is being debated. There will be Scottish parliamentary elections later this year, with a possible referendum on independence if the Scottish National Party takes power.

The debate is over whether or not Scotland should split completely from Britain, or whether Scotland should get stronger fiscal powers within Great Britain. The debate has wide ramifications for England. English voters don't like the fact that Scottish Members of Parliament (MPs) in London can vote on English affairs, but English MPs can't vote on many of the same issues affecting Scotland since they fall under the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. At the same time, the last ten years has seen people in England feeling less "British" and more "English" (though there are Scots that would point out this is mostly a matter of word usage, that Englanders always felt Britain = England).

The pro-British side point out that tiny Scotland — with a population around 5 million — would lose clout in the world. Admission into the European Union would not be automatic. Britain's permanent position on the UN Security Council would go to England. Independence would spark cross-border protectionism in England, and exacerbate — not dampen — resentment that's been festering for about a decade. All this at a time when more Scots are living in England and more English are living in Scotland than ever before.

The pro-independence side has, of course, a different view. They want control over fiscal affairs. They want control over fish, oil, and other natural resources in Scotland, resources that the small country would have in abundance after serving its own needs. It's likely Scotland would become a member of the EU, giving Scots access to a European passport, the Euro as a currency, and the EU as a diplomatic entity (something that, say, an independent Quebec would not have access to). Proponents of an independent Scotland point to the economic success of small countries like Ireland, Iceland, Denmark, and Norway within the EU. Independence would give Scotland control over its own destiny. For instance, there is a strong anti-nuclear and anti-Iraq War sentiment in Scotland, but Scots have no say in whether or not Trident missile sub bases in Scotland should be closed, or whether or not Scots should be involved in the war in Iraq.

Regardless of what happens, it seems likely that the Act of Union as it was forged in the 18th century is likely doomed. Scotland will become independent, or Scotland will have a new role within an altered Great Britain. One way or another, it's likely that this year will be a major turning point in British history.

Here are some interesting articles in The Scotsman. Of particular interest are the comments (even if they do quickly become monotonous variations on the same themes).

Monday, January 15, 2007

A reflection on racism

Alana and Logan had today off for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I didn't have it off, because the holiday is not statutory. Most Americans don't have it off, either; as is the case in Canada, several holidays are "optional" for businesses (read: businesses don't want anyone taking a day off if they could get away with it).

I don't know how many Americans outside of the media reflected on racial relations in the U.S. on this day. Probably very few. I did reflect on American race relations (but, hey, I'm not an American).

Racism here in the Deep South is more prominent than in Canada. That's not to say that Canada is some racial utopia where everyone just gets along. No, not at all. Canada has its share of racists. Most racism in Canada involves specific nationalities rather than race per se. When I worked on the assembly line at GM in Oshawa I heard a fair bit of racist comments, particularly aimed at East Indians and Pakistanis. While working at Kodak I remember one day when a couple of people were talking about how the crime in Toronto was largely the fault of Jamaicans (in spite of the fact that most Canadian criminals are white). The most spectacularly absurd piece of racism I ever saw took place in a parking lot in a mall in Toronto's west end. A black woman, who had parked illegally, cursed a young black security guard who forced her to move her vehicle. The woman, with a strong Caribbean accent, called the young man a "f---ing African!" The young man couldn't help laughing at her...

That having been said, I've noticed more racist comments in my three years working in Louisiana than I had in my whole life up until that point (quite a feat given my comment about the GM assembly line). Most of it is small, passing stuff, but some of it is serious. Whether it's deeply racist jokes, or a whispered comment in Arkansas last month where the speaker felt it necessary to point out they lived in the white section of town. The most baffling (at least to me) was an overheard comment at the shock (shock!) of a car dealership sending out a black salesman to talk to a white male customer.

While watching the Saints game on Saturday, Logan asked why so many people were wearing Drew Brees jerseys instead of Reggie Bush jerseys. I remembered a lot of Bush jerseys in New Orleans last month. Looking up at the screen I saw that everyone in the shot wearing Brees jerseys were white. Now, that may be a coincidence. I do remember that most of the Bush jerseys were worn by blacks. I couldn't help but think that this was race related, though. Since the Saints started playing well I'd heard a lot of comments along the line of, "Drew Brees is a great quarterback. And *whisper*, he's white." Honest, I've heard this line, or something similar, several times. Not only are the fans happy to have a winning team, white fans are ecstatic that they have a white player to cheer on. I didn't explain this to Logan (who is too young to see racism, thankfully).

I don't want to suggest that racism is a feature strictly of white society. It's not. Alana told me stories of what she heard at work, where actual black people work. The difference is that black racism tends to be reactive while white racism seems to be proactive, or culturally ingrained.

It's not all bad news on the racial tolerance front, though. Perhaps surprisingly, the person I get along best with at work is very conservative and very religious. While I don't always agree with him, his opinion is well thought out and I always come away rethinking my own opinion. It's that kind of discussion that's missing in modern media. Anyway, one day we had an amazing discussion on race. While most of the openly racist people at work are self-admitted Christians (they usually say things like, "I consider myself a good Christian, but..." This person is very much a Christian, but he lives his belief. It turns out he's very much against racism. He told a story about growing up in a ubiquitously racist area of the country and yet developing a deep hatred of racism.

Racism is still very much a problem in the U.S. For the most part it has been driven underground. In public the races intermingle and talk amongst each other in a cordial, even friendly manner. It's when you are accepted into that special "club" that the racist comments come out strong. It's a learned thing, too, because kids aren't naturally racist. Kids of all races play together outside together without thinking about it. The "thinking" only shows up later. There are some encouraging signs that the youth of today are less likely to think that way. I hope so, because the United States has a long, long way to go before it achieves anything close to racial harmony.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Geaux Saints!

We ordered pizza tonight and watched the Saints play the Eagles. Before the game my loyalties were slightly divided. The Eagles were led by veteran quarterback Jeff Garcia. I saw Garcia play quite a bit in the CFL when he was with the Calgary Stampeders (he took over as the primary quarterback after Doug Flutie left Calgary to join the Toronto Argonauts).

When the game started, my loyalties were no longer divided. I was a Saints fan. So were Alana and Logan.

It was not an easy game to watch. I thought the Saints had the upper hand in the game, but as usual their big weakness is the big play. Two of the Eagles' touchdowns were from the Saints' defence giving up a big play.

In a way this reminded me of the 1997 Eastern Conference final between the Toronto Argonauts and the Montreal Alouettes. I was reminded in the sense that the favoured team was at home for a playoff game, and I was emotionally attached to the team. I seem to remember that game being close, too, though it wasn't as hard to watch as this evening's game. Maybe because Toronto didn't fumble the football, turning it over with enough time for their opponent to score to tie or win the game.

That happened tonight, when Drew Brees pitched the ball to Reggie Bush, only to have Bush fumble it and an Eagle recover it. I was so ready to pull my hair out at that point!

But, in the end the Saints' defence stopped the Eagles (though I thought it was a mistake for Philadelphia to gamble on stopping the Saints when they could have tried one more play on 3rd and 11). The Saints took over, got a first down, and ran out the clock. Saints won 27 to 24.

This was only the second playoff game the Saints have ever won, and the first time they got to a conference final in their 40 year history.

I'm cheering on Seattle and the Chargers tomorrow. Seattle because a win over the Bears will give New Orleans home field advantage next week for the NFC final. The Chargers because I would really like to see the Saints and the Chargers in the Super Bowl, particularly with the Saints' quarterback coming from San Diego.

For now, New Orleans, Louisiana, and surrounding areas can celebrate a tough game that was far more exciting than I was hoping it would be. Geaux Saints!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Who to believe?

Today's Doonesbury comic strip references a story that the National Park Service is not allowed to tell visitors the estimated age of the Grand Canyon for fear of offending Creationists. Here's the strip:

(If you can't read it, click on it to see a larger version.)

I hadn't heard about this issue, so I did some digging. It apparently came out at the end of last year. I found a press release for the organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) online. Here is a part of the press release:

Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

“In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is ‘no comment.’”

According to their website, "PEER is a national non-profit alliance of local, state and federal scientists, law enforcement officers, land managers and other professionals dedicated to upholding environmental laws and values."

Here is their full press release:

So, with the idea that the National Park Service is suppressing the age of the Grand Canyon, I did some more digging in the National Park Service web site. I found this information:

The Grand Canyon is considered one of the natural wonders of the world largely because of its natural features. The exposed geologic strata - layer upon layer from the basement Vishnu schist to the capping Kaibab limestone - rise over a mile above the river, representing one of the most complete records of geological history that can be seen anywhere in the world. Geologic formations such as gneiss and schist found at the bottom of the Canyon date back 1,800 million years.

Later on the same page:

Did You Know?

The Cambrian seas of the Grand Canyon were home to several kinds of trilobite, whose closest living relative is the modern horsehoe crab. They left their fossil record in the mud of the Bright Angel Shale over 500 million years ago.

The page is here:

So, on the one hand you have a press release — quoted by a number of liberal, anti-administration, and skeptic blogs — saying the National Park Service has been told to keep the age of the Grand Canyon a secret, and on the other hand we find the age listed on the National Park Service's own web site.

Who to believe?

It's possible that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It appears pretty clear that a Creationist book is sold in the book store at the park (assuming PEER is correct with that). Could it be that someone took that book as an issue and then added the part about the National Park Service suppressing the age?

On the other hand, given the Bush administration's other scientific pronouncements — a desire by the president to teach the Intelligent Design, and his vetoing of the stem cell bill — this approach is not hard to believe. Here is a quote from a February, 2005 post on the web site:

The voice of science is being stifled in the Bush administration, with fewer scientists heard in policy discussions and money for research and advanced training being cut, according to panelists at a national science meeting.

Speakers at the national meeting of the American Association for Advancement of Science expressed concern Sunday that some scientists in key federal agencies are being ignored or even pressured to change study conclusions that don't support policy positions.

The page is here:

The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, we shouldn't be left reading about this on comic strips and blogs. The news media should investigate and discover what is really happening. But we don't hear about it. Instead, the news is full of celebrity gossip. David Beckham, an English soccer icon, has been signed to the L.A. Galaxy soccer team for a contract worth $50 million over 5 years and possibly worth 5 times that with endorsements, etc. This I hear about in a segment on CNN that went on for two minutes, explaining how Beckham and his wife Victoria — known to pop music fans as Posh Spice — will be the next Hollywood "power couple". Apparently knowing about Beckham is more important than deciding whether or not the Bush administration is suppressing science.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Road hazard

Here's a road hazard that you are unlikely to find in Canada...

If you've been reading my blog, you heard about the two tires that were punctured on my trip to Arkansas. I related this story Tuesday to someone I worked with, who is also a trainer. She mentioned how she hoped she didn't have to replace on of her tires, as she owns a Tahoe or something and the tires are expensive.

Today she came in and told me she has to replace a tire. Last night, her vehicle threw up a warning about air pressure decreasing in one of her tires. She got out and checked, but the vehicle looked okay. To be safe, she drove to a nearby tire place. Sure enough, there was something in the tire.

That something was a shell casing. You know, the metal cylinder that holds gun powder and a bullet? From the way she described it, it was part of a spent casing.

We discussed how she could have picked it up. It's possible that it was in the vehicle of a hunter, and it ended up in the parking lot here at work after someone got out of their vehicle. Someone might have disposed of it around here, or on the street. For that matter she could have picked it up pretty much anywhere, and her car only warned her when it has worked its way to the point where it affected the tire's pressure.

Or, someone nearby could have fired off a gun.

We work on a road that delineates the northern part of the city with the southern, primarily very poor, part of town. The guy at the tire place apparently wasn't all that surprised to see the casing in the tire. Oh, marvey...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

NASA goes metric for the moon

NASA announced that any future missions to the moon will be done in metric. This will simplify communications with companies and organizations from other countries, and it will allow things like metric hand tools — used by the Russian space agency — to be used on the NASA missions.

Besides simplifying tools and making communication easier between countries, it also avoids a particular form of disaster. NASA has used the metric system since 1990, but to make it easier for American contractors they used a dual system, with both metric and imperial units in play. This had disastrous consequences in 1999. The Mars Climate Orbiter was destroyed on insertion into Mars orbit because of a metric conversion error. A thruster contractor gave NASA thrust data in imperial measurements (pounds of thrust per second, or pound-seconds). Most of the data was in metric, since the programs came from the Mars Global Surveyor. There was a conversion factor for converting pound-seconds to newton-seconds, but it was buried in a formula... and was left out of the Mars Climate Orbiter's software.

A pound-second is the amount of force produced by a thruster in pounds of force per second. The metric equivalent is a newton-second. A newton is the amount of force it takes to accelerate a kilogram at 1 metre per second per second (or metre/second2. There are 4.45 pounds in a newton.

When the Mars Climate Orbiter had to make an engine thrust to put it into Mars orbit, it was told to fire its thrusters for a certain length of time. The program thought that the thrusters were less powerful than they were. Instead of putting the robotic orbiter at an altitude of between 140 and 150 kilometres, the orbiter was thrown into an orbit 57 km high. Before it had a chance to slow down. Friction and forces tore the orbiter apart.

NASA also says they will use standard Internet protocols for communicating with moon missions. This will make it easier for private companies and smaller organizations to get involved.

This is assuming that a moon mission actually happens in my lifetime. There's some question as to whether or not a moon mission will get off the ground, or if it was just thrown out there for the sake of politics, or for the sake of the current administration's legacy.

Here's the story about NASA and the metric system:

2006 the warmest year on record

I got into an argument a month ago with someone at work about global warming (now being called "global climate change"; I've heard some say this is an attempt to defuse the severity of the problem, while I've heard others say that it's more accurate since there are radical changes happening to all aspects of the world's climate). This person, whose opinion I usually respect, argued that there was a lot of evidence for global warming and a lot against it, so therefore he doubted it.

I, on the other hand, have talked to a bunch of different people about this — including a marine biologist on one of the mailing lists I'm on — who clearly believe a) something is happening to the planet's climate, b) it is the result of human interaction, and c) there could be serious repercussions if nothing is done.

The problem with global warming is that it consists of small fluctuations in temperature over a long period of time, a slow trend in small increments. These small changes can be wiped out in an given year by natural variances in weather. If a given year is warm in the winter, people start saying "Aha! Proof of global warming!" only to have climate scientists say, "Uh, actually, it's an El Nina winter, so it's going to be warmer than normal." Likewise, the next winter could be warmer than usual, allowing skeptics to say, "See, it's all a sham."

Global warming is debated because of what it means to the economy of the world. If global warming is caused by human activity — particularly the generation of greenhouse gases — then the only way to stop this process is to reduce the creation of greenhouse gases. This requires industrial nations to change the amount of pollution they put into the air, a process that costs money, thus making a company less profitable. It's not surprising, then, that most of the skeptical studies have come from scientists employed by various industry and business groups.

For a good look at the debate, see these Wikipedia entries:

This leads me to Dr. Jeff Master's Wunderblog ( This is an interesting blog put out by a meteorologist.

The most recent blog entry talks about 2006 and how it was the warmest on record. He points out that you can't draw too many conclusions from a single year's weather. Global warming is seen through trends, not through individual years. This winter is affected by an El Nino event, so it was likely to generate temperatures above average. Jeff Masters even says, "And I agree that one warm month of winter in one country in its warmest year in 112 years of record keeping is not evidence of global warming, particularly when there is a moderate El Nino episode going on." Further, he goes on to say, "Taking a look at average U.S. December temperatures for all years in the historical record (Figure 2), we see that these temperatures do show quite a bit of noise, and there is no evidence of dramatic warming in the past 30 years."

It's when he investigates the December data a bit deeper that you realize he's concerned about global warming. He compares temperatures from other warm Decembers with December, 2006. December, 1957 is now the second warmest on record. While it was warm in the U.S., it was offset by a cold winter in Alaska, Siberia, and northern Canada. What's really different about December, 2006 is that this offset didn't appear to occur. According to Masters, "In the past, an exceptionally warm winter month in the U.S., like December 1957, was offset by much cooler weather elsewhere, such as we see in Alaska, Greenland, and northern Siberia. However, December 2006 had no such offsetting cool temperatures — it was more than 1° C above average over almost all the land areas of the Northern Hemisphere north of 40° north latitude. Colorado, whose three blizzards were cited as evidence that winter was severe elsewhere, still recorded temperatures about 1° C above normal in December 2006."

He points out that since 1979 the Arctic ice coverage in the summer has decreased quite significantly. This was reported last year with regard to the decline of the polar bear population. It has important implications for the albedo of the planet.

Albedo is the term used to describe the reflectivity of a surface (i.e. how easily a surface can reflect light). Most adults realize that dark colours absorb heat and light colours reflect heat. Anyone who's grabbed a black steering while in the middle of the summer understands this.

Ice increases the albedo of a planet. White ice reflects a lot of sunlight back into space. By corollary, if there is less ice, more of the dark Arctic ocean is exposed. The ocean absorbs heat while ice reflects it. If there is less ice, more heat is absorbed by the Arctic ocean. This increases water temperatures, which hampers the production of ice, and continues a trend toward more heat being abosrbed.

It's this kind of process that worries scientists. Opponents to global warming like to point out how the Earth's temperature hasn't changed that much over the years; about a 1° F rise world-wide over the past century. That doesn't seem like much, not at all something to worry about. Except that it's an average world-wide temperature change. Some places saw virtually no change, while the change is greater in places like the Arctic and the Antarctic. These areas are important because of ice production. That small a temperature increase is enough to shorten the days where ice covers the arctic, and decrease the ice coverage. This gets us into a dynamic situation where a decrease in ice coverage results in more energy absorbed from the sun, and thus global climate change due to more than just greenhouse gases alone.

It should also be pointed out that the world is only 5° F warmer today than at the end of the last ice age, so clearly small temperature changes have a large impact on the global climate.

According to Masters, we may see a total absence of Arctic ice in the summer months by 2040.

The slow pace of climate change gives us the illusion that there's plenty of time to determine if there's a problem, and figure out what to do about it. Unfortunately, the slow pace of climate change suggests that a fix will be slow to take as well. Scientists' big worry is that if we leave it long enough a fix could take decades to work.

I probably won't be around to see the worst of climate change. Logan, though, will be. It's his generation who are going to have to live with what we do, or don't do, in the next few years.

Firefox 2.0 upgrade

I upgraded to Mozilla Firefox 2.0 yesterday. I had been debating it for a while, but heard there were bugs. Someone at work (our project manager) told me that it was stable. I upgraded for one reason in particular: Firefox 2.0 has in line spell checking. If you type text into any web site text window — like the Blogger text window where I'm writing this entry, or Gmail's or Hotmail's edit window — Firefox will underline in red any word that is misspelled. Since I post fairly often to web forums like that don't have spell checkers, this is invaluable!

Firefox has a number of language packs. I'm currently using the Canadian English spell checker!

It also doesn't hurt that one of my favourite extensions didn't work in the most recent version of Firefox 1.5 (I think it was 1.5.7) but works fine in Firefox This is the Duplicate Tab add-on (Firefox 2.0 calls them "add-ons", not "extensions"). You can take the content of any tab and duplicate it to a new tab, including history. I use this add-on all the time.

There are some other feature upgrades, including functionality only available in add-ons previously, but these were the two most obvious to me.

Internet Explorer 7 has tab browsing now. This is where you can open several browser windows in different "tabs" instead of opening them in different instances of the program. Firefox had this ability since... well, since it was called Phoenix (then Firebird, finally Firefox). The web browser Opera (which I only use to check my web site) has used tab browsing for a few years now, too. This is a new feature for Internet Explorer. I heard a couple of people at work saying how much they liked it. I pointed out that I've had this ability in Firefox for, literally, years.

As far as I know, IE7 still doesn't have in line spell checking! And it does not have add-ons. Firefox allows you to customize the program with add-ons, little program bits that work within Firefox. The ability to duplicate one tab into another is not built into Firefox, but there is an add-on for it. I have FoxyTunes in the browser, allowing me to play music from my CD drive, iTunes, whatever using controls built into the browser itself. DownLoadThemAll! allows me to download all the files on a page, based on specific criteria, instead of having to click on each link individually. PDF Download lets me choose whether I want to open an Adobe Acrobat (PDF) file in the browser, or download it, or open it in Acrobat as an external application whenever I click on a PDF link. I even have a silly little add-on called Fuzzy Time. As I write this, Fuzzy Time is telling me that it is "twenty to nine" instead of "9:42".

One of the more useful add-ons is IE Tab. You can set up a page so that it it opens in an instance of Internet Explorer within Firefox. This is very useful because there are still some sites that were poorly coded so that they require IE to work. The State of Louisiana's employee site is like this. In some cases it's bad site writing; in other cases it is so that a site can use Microsoft ActiveX controls. Microsoft's download site requires IE, obviously. Alana tells me that Chatropolis, a chat site, works best in IE.

I have to shake my head at McAfee, the security company. They require IE to check your McAfee account. It must be due to ActiveX controls, because it doesn't make any sense otherwise, especially given that IE is far less secure than Firefox. Here's an article on Slashdot about IE's security flaws:

According to the article, there were critical flaws in Internet Explorer 6 that remained unpatched for 284 days last year. Criminals were actively stealing data through security flaws in IE for at least 98 days, while Microsoft still hadn't patched the flaw. By contrast, Firefox had a security flaw in it last year that left it vulnerable for... drum roll... nine days.

Reading this kind of makes you question McAfee's dedication to security.

Finally, I hear that the online community Second Life will soon embed Firefox within it, allowing people to web surf within Second Life using Firefox.

You can download Firefox here:

Mozilla Firefox, and Thunderbird — Mozilla's e-mail client — are free and open source.

Home today!

Logan wasn't feeling well this morning, so I'm staying home with him. Actually, he appears to be fine now but every time I ask him he says his stomach is still a little bit upset. He was feeling bad earlier, but I think he just wants to stay home now.

Truth be told, so do I!

So, this will at least allow me to get caught up on my blogging...

Monday, January 08, 2007

To Live and Die in LA (Louisiana), session 3

This weekend we played another sesson of our All Flesh Must Be Eaten zombie game. This session saw our first character death!

I posted a write-up to our Actual Play thread on You can see the post, and the previous posts, here:

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

Friday, January 05, 2007

More on (pun intended) RPGNow credit card hacked

More information has come out about the credit card data hack that hit the RPGNow site. Apparently it only affected people who had their credit card information saved on the RPGNow site. This was a convenience (saved you having to enter the credit card information each time you shopped), a service offered by sites like Amazon. The difference is that Amazon has greater resources than RPGNow.

The data was hacked by a Brazilian spammer. The data was stolen sometime in October. Some folks noticed fraud on their cards a couple of months ago, but only yesterday did someone figure out what had happened.

This is a classic case of what happens when a) people trust their financial data with companies on the Internet, and b) those same companies are small businesses that are not quite capable of handling the complex nature of their chosen business model.

It's also another reason where spammers and hackers should be hung by their toenails.

My data is safe. I no longer have the credit card I used when I bought from RPGNow a year or two ago, I never clicked on the checkbox to save my data on their site, I may even have used Paypal with RPGNow last time, and my most recent purchase was after the data was hacked. Still, it's kind of scary.

For the most part, the community has been fairly positive about RPGNow's handling of the situation, but there has been some backlash. I know I'll be thinking twice about using them again...

Thursday, January 04, 2007

RPGNow and RPGShop credit card data hacked

It was announced tonight on that the credit card databases for the online web stores RPGNow and RPGShop were hacked.

Someone posted a message that said they found their credit card data via Google. They posted the link, then removed it. The thread itself was closed by the time I saw it, and then it was deleted entirely.

In its place is this thread, started by someone from RPGNow, stating that "Public warnings are more damaging than helpful right now" and "In asking to remove the thread, I'm not trying to stifle outcry, just mitigate damage."

I'm not entirely sure what damage he is mitigating, except perhaps to his company's reputation. This smacks of "security by obscurity".

The site sells roleplaying games and modules in Adobe Acrobat format. I bought a Godlike module from their site about three weeks ago, so I'm understandably concerned about this.

They list on their privacy statement that they only save the data on their servers in an encrypted format. There is, as yet, no information as to how this data was hacked, when it was hacked, or who could be affected. They will be contacting affected users, but there is no way to know what constitutes an affected user...

Needless to say, I'm not happy. I'm monitoring the situation.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Gerald Ford eaten by wolves

When I heard of Ford's passing I couldn't help it, I turned to Alana and said, "So, he was finally eaten by bears!" I was wrong... it was wolves.

Okay, it was wolves according to Dana Carvey. On Saturday Night Live in 1996, Dana Carvey did a skit where he played Tom Brokaw about to go on vacation. In order to cover the eventuality of some major event happening when he was gone, Brokaw was recording clips of potential news items. The skit covers Brokaw reporting on the death of former president Gerald Ford. Note that this skit was back in 1996, so it got the last digit of the year right!

The skit is one of the funniest I ever saw. It covers many strange eventualities, like Ford dying on the same day that France was destroyed. It's one of my favourite SNL skits. I, of course, couldn't help but think of it when Ford died.

Last week I searched the web for the clip, but couldn't find it on a search of '"dana carvey" "gerald ford"'. Thanks to the tubes of the Interweb, it's now on Google video. Here is the skit, in its entirety:

Canada and Gerald Ford

The memorial service for former U.S. president Gerald Ford was today. This has been shown a lot on television. From a personal standpoint it was an inconvenience; the post office was closed today, much to our consternation. Other folks at the post office were not happy with the impromptu closure.

So there are some people in Monroe, LA who will look at Gerald Ford's passing as a minor inconvenience. This contrasts with television coverage that has been quite thick with praise for the unelected ex-president. (Ford was the only president to hold office after never having been elected vice president or president. He was appointed vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 over charges of tax evasion, and he became president after Richard Nixon's Watergate resignation.) Ford's term in office was short. He is best known for pardoning Nixon, an act that was much reviled at the time though it has now been termed "necessary" to heal the country after Nixon's scandal.

I saw PBS's coverage of the eulogy service today. They didn't mention the presence of former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (who was not in power when Ford was president) and Canada's ambassador to the U.S. Michael Wilson. I'm guessing this was missed by the major networks, too. Also missing is mention of the fact that Canadians are flying the Canadian flag at half staff in memory of Ford, a rare occasion when a foreign country gives tribute to the death of a former leader.

Ford was known as a friend to Canada. He grew up in Michigan and visited Southern Ontario frequently. More importantly, it was through Ford's efforts that Canada became a member of the G7, now the G8.

The G8 is the self-proclaimed group of the most powerful nations in the world. The G8 consists of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, Italy, and Russia. Russia was invited to the G7 meetings starting in 1991, and by 1997 it became a member of the Group of Eight (though it is still excluded from the G8 financial discussions because its economy isn't strong enough, thus the G7 still exists as the financial component of the G8).

Canada has a strong economy. According to Wikipedia, Canada is between 8th and 12th in the world in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), depending on whether it is calculated based on exchange rates (the former number) or "purchase power parity" — the ability people have to purchase things — (the latter number). In terms of exchange rates, the top 8 include all members of the G7 (G8 minus Russia) and China, thus Canada is — by this calculation — one of the Group of Seven. Based on purchase power parity, Canada is only 11 or 12, with Brazil, India and sometimes Spain ahead of it. So, depending on how it's calculated, Canada does fit the criteria of having one of the strongest economies in the world while also being an industrialized democracy (a term stretched in Russia's case, but Russia was allowed in a) because membership was seen as a carrot to help them with the reforms that broke down the iron curtain, and b) Russia has nukes, lots of nukes).

(If you calculate GDP per capita — by person — Canada is either fourth or second among the G8 nations, depending on how GDP was calculated. The U.S. in both lists is number 1, at least it was before the national debt started climbing astronomically under Bush.)

So, a good case could be made for including Canada in the initial group of nations that met in the mid-70s. It was not. In 1975 the G5 nations, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Japan, met to discuss the problems of inflation and the oil crisis. French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing invited the Group of Five to the meeting, but he was adamant that Canada be omitted from the group. This apparently peeved Ford, who thought his friend to the north should be there. In fact, Ford was even considering not attending over the issue. France invited Italy to the meeting, and the group was dubbed the G6. In 1976 the meeting was held in Puerto Rico, so Ford got around the issue by inviting Canada, thus forming the G7.

In a very real sense, Canada's stature on the world stage is in large part due to Gerald Ford. Ford got along well with the late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a rare case where Canadian and American leaders of opposite party leanings had a warm relationship. Canada remembers Gerald Ford this week by flying its national flag at half staff. Not that most Americans will even know that...

Hogmanay addendum

Apparently the big Hogmanay parties in Scotland were mostly cancelled due to a nasty winter storm that swept the country. Glasgow, Stirling and Edinburgh all saw their official street parties end early because of the nasty, cold wind and rain storm that swept through. Edinburgh's party organizers have been patting themselves on the back for the orderly way in which they cancelled without any major problems, but others have criticized the same organizers for waiting until 9:30 p.m. to call it off.

So, while Hogmanay might be Scotland's Mardi Gras, New Orleans rarely gets the kind of weather that would cancel Mardi Gras celebrations.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Atheism, religion, and morality

Alana is going in for a sleep study tomorrow night. Her doctor suspects she has sleep apnea. I haven't noticed, but then again I'm a deep sleeper (and when I snore, she pokes me until I roll onto my side... hmmm, TMI?).

Last week a nurse phoned her to ask some pre-study questions. Alana said everything was fine, they were getting along well, and then the woman asked The Question! "Religious preference?" Alana answered, "None." There was a pause, then the conversation's tone changed. Things, apparently, got weird for the nurse.

This isn't the first time that Alana's run into this kind of "weirdness". The folks in her office have a hard time reconciling the fact that she's an agnostic with the fact that she, like, helps people. She volunteers her time for a couple of committees, she goes out of her way to help her clients, and she regularly works outreach events. Yet she's not a member of any specific church and she's not religious. The fact that you can be altruistic while not being religious is hard for people around here to believe.

There is a belief that's pretty common here in the Bible Belt that religion equals morality. It's probably the one belief that spans the major religions. It's also a myth.

Morality doesn't come from religion. If it did, atheists and agnostics would be immoral and the religious would be moral. We all know that the vast majority of history's most infamous people believed in an afterlife. This was shown this week when Saddam Hussein apparently called out "God is great!" before being hanged. I don't have statistics for atheists and agnostics with regard to morality. All I know is that each of the dozen or so people I know with no particular religious following are some of the most tolerant, helpful, caring individuals you'd ever care to meet.

Altruism is hardwired into humans. A conscience is an evolutionary advantage, as it helps societies survive; the good of society can take precedence over the good of the individual.

Most religions have morality as a basis. The major religions stress the necessity of doing the "right thing", even if they stress it by saying, "do the right thing or you'll be in Hell for eternity". Unfortunately, the major religions have a tendency toward, oh, let's call them "mixed messages" to be gracious. This was most obviously seen on September 11, 2001, when religious zealots killed thousands of people in the mistaken belief that they would be going to paradise because of it. The Koran, the Torah, and the Bible are full of stories of vengeance and intolerance. Look at the number of hate crimes committed by the devout. The Southern protestant denominations in the U.S. developed due to a schism over the morality of "African slavery". Even the "peaceful" Buddhists have their share of violence, like the Buddhist revolts in Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries.

I'm not saying that atheists and agnostics are better than the devout. I'm saying that religious or non-religious, people are people.

For a more detailed look at what I'm getting at, check out 10 Myths — and 10 Truths — About Atheism (Alana sent me the link). It's a good link. I thought it could have been a little more forceful in defending point 2, the myth that the greatest crimes in history were committed by atheists. There's no mention that Hitler was a Roman Catholic, or that Saddam Hussein invoked the Koran when it helped his cause. It didn't point out that the war crimes committed by the Japanese during World War II were largely the result of men who were staunch Buddhists and Shinto practitioners.