Archive for the ‘Images & ideas’ Category

Spreading Wings

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

The street gang minus Melissa went to see “It’s a Kind of Magic” – which is, yes, a Queen tribute band. Tuesday night. The players are 2 Aussies, a Kiwi and a South African. This is their full-time gig – touring the world doing Queen stuff. And I gotta say, it was very entertaining. Weirdly enough, the singers higher range was a good match for Freddie, but his lower range sounded less convincing – one would think it would be other way around.

The program covered most of the songs you’d think they’d cover, and a few lesser known ones which was good to see. They like to brag that there isn’t a Queen song in the catalogue that they don’t know. We were hoping for drama, strutting, costume changes, shirtlessness and shrieking cougars, and we actually got most of them. Including a drag set wherein an accounting type (still in business suit, prematurely balding, joined by his wife who was wearing “slacks”) experienced the joy of a good fake boob head rub. This being Kitchener, he blushed and cooed a bit then went back to sitting primly in his seat. However, it was a HUGE disappointment when we discovered the singer’s stache to be NOTHING MORE THAN PAINT. I’m sorry, but Freddie deserves better than a fake stache, sir, even if you got the call & answer intro to “Under Pressure” just right.


News of the World was my first full Queen experience – if it wasn’t my first album purchase, it was the second. 1977. I was 10 years old and listened to the album over and over again on a portable record player in my room. Once in a while I listened to it on the living room stereo and that was better cuz the bass was much louder.

One day, my classmates and I got our teacher to run out of the room in tears because we wouldn’t stop stomping and clapping to a silent version of “We Will Rock You” while she tried to teach us Algebra. After that stellar result, we did it again for about a week until Mr M from next door came in and yelled at us.

This was also when I got into a shouting match with Nolan S  - I said Freddie was gay and he said he absolutely wasn’t. He offered to beat the crap out of me to prove it. None of us thought he was gay like Eddy T was though. Eddy was a real live limpy wristed, lispy guy who liked to play skip with the girls at recess. But Eddy had it sweet, via the terrifying capabilities of his older sister (banned from our school for excessive bullying), who would show up after school to lay a beating on anyone who gave Eddy a hassle during the day about being “light in the loafers”.  Eddy originated the shorts and muscle shirt combo that Richard Simmons would later become famous for. Eddy was awesome in a time when it still wasn’t that common to be that awesome.

Nolan and I fought about lots of things when we hung out, but that was okay. Our friendship lasted right through junior high and into high school, but we kind of drifted apart by Grade 10. Then in Grade 11, he was driving, and probably had a few drinks in him, and he took a turn quickly, went off the road and died.

So when I think of News of the World, I think of Nolan and Grade 5 and Eddy T.

On equality

Friday, February 26th, 2010

and the right to drink beer:’s-gold-equality-and-the-ioc/

This is a picture I did not take…

Friday, January 15th, 2010

of a murder of crows, several hundred in number, squawking and flying in circles against a metal gray sky.

It was ominous.

You don’t say

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

I am a logophile. So, I was looking forward to reading Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language by Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman.

I like O’Connor’s approach (it’s her voice used in the book), since she knows her stuff but comes down firmly on the side of “the English language is changing and will always change, so we might as well get used it”, and she’s not afraid to tell sticklers to relax.

There were a lot of etymologies and word stories in this book that I already knew about (perhaps making me a word snob already, hmmm). In any case, there were a few items that I either chuckled at or realized that I had to revise my own misconceptions.

  • Best street name (though it’s been renamed since): Gropecuntelane. If you guessed it was a red light district of sorts, you’d be right.
  • The annoying quotation usage of the word “like” (as in She was like, I don’t know. And I was like, dude!) is a perfectly acceptable though recent development of the language that is here to stay.
  • The more proper pronunciation of “comptroller” is “controller” (the first spelling being an introduction into the language as an illegitimate spelling in the 15th century. O’Connor prefers the “pure” pronunciation, but I think she contradicts her advice elsewhere in the book to keep things simple, so if it says “omp”, then you probably should pronounce it.
  • “Female” has nothing to do with “male”. It’s etymology is from the Latin “femella”, whereas “male” comes from a different Latin root: “mascalus”. So no need to try to revise it as femyn or any other thing (except, I guess, “femella” if you want).
  • “Grandfather clause” has racist origins. It got started as a Jim Crowe law in the south, a group of laws requiring poll taxes and literacy to be able to vote, with an exception being if your ancestors were able to vote before the Freedom Act, and this right to vote could be passed down to sons, grandsons, and so on. Great way for illiterate whites to be able to vote, but not so much the black people of the time.
  • “Moot” means both “of no interest” and “debatable” or “worthy of discussion” (actually, the older meaning of the two).  Only one example of many where we allow a word to hold opposite meanings.
  • One last one, and one where I disagree with the authors: “they” as a singular pronoun. As they note, “they” was used as “he” or “she” or a singular person as early as the 1300s (Chaucer, even), but then it was restricted to the plural use after that and for a long time. In a departure I don’t really understand, since she argues for a democracy of language most other times, O’Connor is left at the end not wanting to use the singular “they” and concluding that we need another word to get around the awkward “he or she”. “They” is perfectly suitable to my mind, and if it has a pedigree for that usage from old times, all the better.

The style of writing in the book is accessible, and I like that they give anecdotes about how word citations are found in obscure newspapers, popular culture, and so on.

If you like words, you’ll probably enjoy the read.

Have at ‘er

Friday, November 13th, 2009

2012: yes and no

The blue hand

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

I’ve been thinking about blue hands lately due to Flash Forward.


If you’ve been watching, then you know that certain people with the blue hand are either trying to thwart the good guys from figuring out why the flash occurred, or they are simply the bad buys of the bad guys who did not see anything in their flashes, and are now following some nihilistic impulse to finish things off on their own terms.

Of course, one immediately thinks back to men with “hands of blue” in Firefly. These were the guys that had ESP zoning in on River, working with the secret government group who helped to create her.

Knowing that Flash Forward is very loosely based on a book by (gag) Robert Sawyer, and Firefly of course from the mind of Sir Joss, I wonder what the more base symbology of the blue hand might be. I can’t be sure that Sawyer included it in his book since I haven’t read it, so I guess it’s possible that it’s an introduction or maybe even an homage to Firefly.

In both cases, the hand is a symbol of knowledge–of life and death, maybe, rather than good and evil, though some might argue there’s layering of meaning there. In both cases, the wearer is identified as a bringer of death, and as one who wants to use others for a specific purpose–for sure in Serenity, and seems to be going that way for Flash Forward.


I thought for sure that it would be easy to find some older meaning for blue hands on the Interwebs, but there’s nothing directly involved. I’m sure there’s a Joss scholar out there who will know something. Here’s what I did find:

The eye-in-hand amulet. A popular one being a blue-glass charm from Turkey. Since the amulet is meant to be a magical protection from the evil eye. What can one make of a group of men who claim a hand of blue without the eye – that they are blind to their evil, or that they are immune from the charm because they are able to subvert its characteristics? It’s definitely true in the case of River that her life depends on avoiding the “gaze of evil”. Even as she has the extra “eye” of her ESP to sense when they are nearby.

This is one of those times when i wish Joss could stop by for tea. I need to know if this is based on something deep or just a tv coincidence…

If someone tried to take MY books, I would punch them in the throat

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

So, Cory. The talk I saw was “Copyright versus Universal Access to All Human Knowledge and Groups Without Cost: the state of play in the global copyfight“. This is another love story, not with a subject, but with books.

Doctorow started his lecture with a homily to books. How we feel about them, how we want keep them and pass them on to our children. I was physically repulsed as he described a job he had at a bookstore when he had to remove the covers and destroy the innards of books that were being returned to the publisher (which was totally his point).

We are at the frontier of figuring out how to move forward in a world of electronic delivery of the arts – ebooks, digital media, and so on – can be accessed, downloaded and shared. But when you bring back the analogies of the “traditional” world of books and mixed tapes, then the absurdity of copyright law is revealed.

Doctorow also talked about “self help” copyright rules and the 3 Strikes premise, which essentially means that any ISP receiving an infringement notice, no matter how spurious, can and will cut off Internet access to the offending household, and you know that there are not many of us (except perhaps that guy living in a cabin in South Dakota, and even he needs access to the Anarchist’s Cookbook), who can make a living or have a life without the Interwebs.

Doctorow asks us to learn about the copyright law in our own countries and at the UN level (and he’s not so happy with the UN), and to participate in discussions as the law is being created.

For, as his informal poll pointed out, none of us are innocent within the system as it is being developed.

During the questions, there was one interesting one referring back to the session I saw with Neal Stephenson and Jaron Lanier – where Jaron had been talking about what he thinks is a more equitable system of delivery. Essentially, we all pay a few cents per use of whatever commodity we want to use — including art, writing, music… Doctorow’s response is that he thinks this is not tenable. He says that experimentation has shown that the cost of us having to decide whether or not this content is worth “5 cents” is  greater than the 5 cents, and so we won’t participate.

Unfortunately, the other questioner was an older “volunteer” with the festival who hijacked the time with simplistic questions (and she asked TWO, which is a no-no). Apparently she did the same at the later session, and I’d strongly recommend that someone explain to her why this is annoying.

I think for this kind of topic, each of us has to think it through and I at least agree that we should participate where we can in the discussion. I do believe that the ability to block someone from the Internet is a very harsh sentence, and needs to be used with care, and I don’t have trust that it will be, since the primary players are lawyers and ISPs.

Now I’m off to fondle my books.

But what publishers of books and music are trying to do, argues Doctorow, is develop a world where, at any time, and with no forewarning, they can reach into your home and essentially “take back” the books that you already purchased. That all that small print in the copyright (sometimes bigger than the ebook they are trying to sell) is basically you signing off on their right to do so.

The flippin’ ship caught on fire, but he found more butterflies

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Continuing the Q2C Lectures, this afternoon Melle and I went to see “Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species” (not uploaded yet, but you can see it here:

The presenter was Sean B. Carroll, an author and biologist from the University of Wisonsin-Madison, and whose book of the same name was recently nominated for the 2009 National Book Award.

This lecture really was a love story. Carroll’s love for the adventures, lives and personal stories of three key people in the development of the Theory of Evolution and Origin of Species. We all know Darwin, of course, but perhaps just as intriguing is the role that two friends: Alfred Wallace and Henry Bates.

Darwin set out on the Beagle in 1831 for a 1-year voyage that turned into 5 years on the sea (apparently, the stalwart captain wanted to recheck some measurements so they crossed the ocean twice). Considering Darwin was horribly seasick for every day he was on the water, you can imagine the excruciating day-to-day he must have had. But even before he got very far, he uncovered “some bones” which turned out to be fossils, including an extinct mega-rodent-mammal now known as Mylodon Darwinii (whose desiccated poo we admired just recently at the ROM!).

According to Carroll, when Darwin arrived at the Galapagos, he was more than underwhelmed – just some weirdo aquatic lizards, some big turtles and a crapload of birds. He described it as “hell on earth”. However, he did his job and detailed the various mocking birds in the islands. It was on the second voyage (while the captain was measuring stuff) as he transcribed his journals that he had the first inklings of what would become his theory. But of course, if you know the story, he did not publish his thoughts until a good 15 years later, in 1859 AFTER the concept was briefly introduced alongside another little paper called “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type” in 1858. By none other than Alfred Wallace.

So let’s dial it back a few years – Darwin already knows why species differ but he hasn’t talked publicly about it yet. It’s 1848. The boys (Wallace and Bates) put together a scheme to get the hell out of England for parts exotic in the Amazon – where they hoped to collect specimens for themselves and sell some to other collectors, all well hunting for the “origin of species”, already a hot topic in the fecund scientific circles of Victorian England.

They made it to the Amazon but decided to part ways after about a year. Wallace made his way up the Rio Negro, and as well as collecting specimens (i.e. killing and pickling things), he amassed a collection of live animals to take with him back to Merry Old. After about 4 years, and a couple thousand kilometers up the Rio Negro, Wallace was dang tired and he decided to go home. He made it back to port and caught a ride on the Helen – a ship headed back to England.

Oopsie. There was a fire. On the ship. Where all of his specimens, writings and those poor live animals were loaded. He made it to a leaky emergency boat with nothing except a small box with some sketches of butterflies. Then he spent 12 days on the open ocean before he was rescued. After recovering for 18 months in England, the wingnut decided to go back on the seas – this time to the Malay Archipelago (Malayasia, Indonesia…). For the next 8 years he island-hopped, gathered more specimens and had some deep thoughts. Here’s what he noticed about the butterflies–some were noxious to birds, and some were not, and some that were not really LOOKED like the ones that were, so he wondered why that would be. Dunno, maybe SURVIVAL, of the um, FITTEST?

Another thought he had was that there’s an invisible line through the islands — one one side were species that were Australian in nature (marsupials, even if they were in the trees instead of on the ground), and on the other were species that were Asian in nature (mammalian). The Wallace Line as it’s still called today was early evidence for co-location of species and species variation (never mind the fact that the land masses used to be attached).

Somewhere along the way, he was still writing to Bates, and came into correspondence with Darwin (who was already known for treatises on things other than species differentiation). Leading up to that fateful day when he sends Darwin a letter basically laying out the exact thing that Darwin has been writing privately for 15 years. Had Wallace not sent this letter, more than likely we would not seen On Origin of Species until after Darwin’s death.

And what about Bates? Well, he soldiered on in the Amazon for a crazy 11 years. He discovered something like 8,000 species (not specimens, SPECIES) and continued to be close friends with Wallace and Darwin and many other scientific types in the day.

The impact of the presentation was enhanced by Carroll’s use of primary documents like journals and letters. Nothing beats reading/seeing the science come together through the everyday thoughts or unguarded life of its thinkers.

He also reminded me of one of my favourite professors who taught Victorian literature. Thanks to him, I’ve already had the privilege of reading Wallace and Darwin and Lyell and Paley in the originals. His idea was that you need to understand the culture to understand the literature. Dickens is different when you’re immersed in the thoughts of his contemporaries. So holla, Dr Hair!

I still have a few more lectures to go, if you still have the stamina to read about them afterward…

State of the universe is science fiction?

Monday, October 19th, 2009

I went to the first two of scheduled Q2C Lectures last night.

The first one was “State of the Universes“. The panel was Neil Turok–Director at PI, Katie Freese –Physicist/Cosmologist at University of Michigan, and Larry Krauss–Director of Origins Initiative at Arizona State (and also author of The Physics of Star Trek).

The purpose of this talk was to give a state of the union on what we know about the universe from a mostly cosmological perspective. The moderator was Jennifer Ouellette–Science writer for the New York Times (and not the headband chick, as far as I know). I’ve decided that I really need her job, since I would very much enjoy going around to physics conferences and interviewing the geeks and then translating that into human language.

The discussion was lively at times: the three speakers holding true to the idea that a physicist is happiest when arguing with another physicist.

They talked about the knowns: flat universe, old universe at 13.72 billion (except for some people in Texas who think it’s 6,000, as Krauss pointed out), accelerating expansion. However, some theoretical models are opening up the question of the flat universe, and Turok in particular is wondering about an open universe given how much he likes the “bouncy ball” theory of the big bang(s) – whereby there is a bang, followed by deceleration, acceleration and then a collapse of sorts back to the next singularity.

Freese was very informative on some of the experimental work going on, particularly in the area of dark energy and dark matter, which are two of her favourite areas of research. She was confident that we would know/see dark matter within the next 10 years, though I’m not sure that Krauss was as convinced.

There was also some interesting discussion on gravity waves–the next big thing cosmologists want to measure. We are already doing so in a rather ingenious way via the leftover microwave radiation that flows through the universe from the big bang. The problem is how to measure waves that essentially travel through anything in our universe, including ourselves. Well, what happens is the gravity waves actual squish and elongate photons, which we can measure at very small scales. All 3 seemed pretty excited about this one, despite a dearth of evidence so far.

Ouellette was not bad as a moderator. She clearly has a good enough grasp on the subject matter to carry on a conversation, but she was a bit on the bubbly side for my taste. Krauss was both arrogant and funny (awesome combination), and definitely the “prove it” guy on the stage. I don’t think I learned much new from this one, but it was a very good summary of where things are in theoretical and experimental physics.

Their final word was this: we don’t know what we don’t know, and in the end, it’s science fiction until experimental evidence proves it.

Which leads us to the next session : “Seeing Science Through Fiction“. This one was one that all of us were really looking forward to. Speakers were Neal Stephenson–who needs no introduction, I think, but if you live under a rock, he’s the author of the Baroque Cycle, Snow Crash and Anathem, among others; and Jaron Lanier–attributed with the term “virtual reality” and a well-known computer science expert in the field, as well as a musician and a few other things I probably don’t know about.

The moderator for this panel was Lee Smolin–founder at Perimeter and author of some popular science books, including The Trouble with Physics (which I read last year).

So, a physicist, a bald writer and a dreadlocked white guy walk into a bar… The most entertaining part of this panel was the degree to which three socially awkward smart guys could interact in a semi-coherent and accessible manner. Smolin kept going OCD on his pen and water bottle, Stephenson had a bouncy leg and couldn’t look at the audience and formulate a response at the same time, and Lanier played the keyboard (or perhaps a weird wind instrument) on his knees for the entire time.

I think Smolin’s big thing was to get at a comparison of the cloistered environment in which the scientists live in Anathem, to the patently open Perimeter Institute, where outreach is a fundamental part of the institution. Stephenson wasn’t willing to say that the novel is proscriptive, but it did generate a discussion on how and when scientists (or artists) need to withdraw and to engage. Lanier in particular feels it’s very necessary for the scientist/artist to have time to really go through the essence of a thing before it can be shared or communicated–and that that process needs to be done in isolation.

Stephenson did give some insight on his writing process (totally doesn’t think about the audience–which, duh), and perhaps the bigger surprise was that he seems to subscribe to the ancient Greek conceit/belief that writing is really a channelling of the gods (Dionysus especially), whereby the writer is a vessel through whom the words flow. Of course, he didn’t go on about Dionysus (that was me)–no, he referred to Stephen King’s forward to The Dark Tower series (which presumably says something similar). And he also said, in an aside, that he liked King–the only writer he knows who wrote more words than he did (joke!).

I like what Lanier had to say on a few topics–when asked about the singularity (T2 kind, not big bang kind), he’s definitely in the “not anytime soon” camp. As he points out, we still can’t write software that works, so how the hell do we expect artificial intelligence to come along in our lifetime. He referred to a paper he did around 1974 where he said it would be okay to keep UNIX around for the next 2 years – since it’s a good “short term” solution (heh).

Smolin wasn’t the best in the way of moderators, and Stephenson was very thoughtful, if a bit wooden, but it was still a nice way to spend a Sunday evening.

The Ig Nobels are out!

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

Of course the media picked up on the full vs empty beer bottle as a weapon of choice. I think my favorite is about naming cows…