December 13, 2005

"Ernest needs" - Playing the "Needs Meme"

Silly but fun: enter your name and the word 'needs" into Google and see what you get...

In order, my top seven results are:

1. Ernest needs to handpick current and future leaders by identifying critical...

2. ...Ernest needs to explore activity-based budgeting—calculating the actual costs of last year's products, services and consumption...

3. ...Ernest needs $39000 to attend his first year at the Ontario College of ...

4. Ernest Needs a Kidney.

5. Ernest needs help.

6. Ernest needs a family who can provide a lot of nurturing, love, attention, and patience.

7. Ernest needs to know what might happen before The children find out...

December 10, 2005

Still Waiting - The Bagnell Taser Case Continues

Robert Bagnell died in Vancouver on June 23, 2004 after being Tasered by police.

Reposted from A. Cameron Ward, Barrister and Solicitor, "Commentaries"

"Nearly 18 months after Robert Bagnell died suddenly in his Vancouver rooming house, Regional Crown Counsel of the Criminal Justice Branch, Ministry of Attorney General have advised his family that 'no charges will be approved for prosecution.'

"Robert's parents and sister are now looking forward to a mandatory coroner's inquest, where they hope to uncover the facts related to Robert's untimely death. The BC Coroners Service has not set a date yet. So far, the family has learned that Robert was unarmed and lying on the floor in the presence of at least five police officers when two of them shot him repeatedly with Taser weapons, apparently to subdue him so he could receive medical attention.

"Robert Bagnell is one of at least 160 North Americans who have died after being shot by the Taser, a high tech police weapon that emits a 50,000 volt electrical charge designed to incapacitate and inflict excruciating pain on, but supposedly not kill, the subject. This year alone, 66 people, including four Canadians, have died after being Tasered.

Critics, including Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, say that insufficient safety testing was done on the weapons before they were deployed by police forces in the United States and Canada. Police forces in Chicago and Montgomery, Alabama have discontinued use of the weapon, citing safety and liability concerns.

Meanwhile, people keep dying. The latest was race car driver Dale Earnhardt's first cousin, Jeffrey D. Earnhardt, 47, who died last Thursday, December 1, 2005, in Orlando, Florida after being shot twice by a police Taser.


Robert Bagnell, 44, died on June 23, 2004. The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) initially told his family that Robert died of a drug overdose, then a month later revealed to the media that they had Tasered him twice just before he died. Another month after that, the VPD acknowledged that he was not a threat to anyone and that he was not involved in the commission of a crime when they sent an ERT (SWAT) team into the washroom Robert was in. The police said Bagnell was shocked with 50,000 volts so they could "rescue" him from a "fire" in his building. The family is skeptical of these claims, but it has been unable to obtain autopsy reports or get a coroner's inquest scheduled, even though one is mandatory."

Related Links:

Is a Taser Enough Force? - Part 2

Journey from Dark to Light: A Web Tribute to Bob Bagnell

December 05, 2005

Superman: Triumph of the Geeks

The Canada Post stamp commemorating Superman

Material for this rant about Superman, history, and national pride came from the book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones.

Superman's creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigel have often been described as the two kids from Cleveland who dreamed up the "Man of Steel". But unlike Jerry Seigel, Joe Shuster wasn't actually from Cleveland. Joe was a Canadian.

In recent years, the Canadian Government made a point of reminding us that Joe Shuster, the artist who for many years drew that strange visitor from another planet, was actually born in the far-off land of Toronto, Ontario.

In 1998, Canada Post issued a stamp commemorating the 60th anniversary of the genesis of Superman. I bought a t-shirt featuring artwork from the stamp at the Postal Outlet in my neighbourhod 7-11. Not long afterwards, I saw a TV commercial depicting a young Joe Shuster saying goodbye to his cousin Lois, and waving a sketch of his new superhero character as he left on the train to Cleveland. The dramatic little scene closed with the words " A Part of our Heritage." It actually made me feel rather proud to think that one of the collaborators of a character strongly identified with the U.S. was a Canadian.

In Superman's early years, the first stories in Action Comics in 1938 said that the name of Clark Kent's employer was The Daily Star. This is likely a reference to The Toronto Star, Joe's home paper. Later on, the name was changed to the familiar "Daily Planet". Any vestigial references to Canada (which you'd have needed a microscope to have noticed in the first place) disappeared over the succeeding decades as Superman grew in the American comic marketplace, and evolved into an American icon, fighting for "truth, justice and the American way".

When Christopher Reeve used those same words "truth, justice and the American way" in 1978's "Superman: The Movie", it grated on me a little. Like it or not, I will freely admit to feeling skepticism and even anger towards the "A word" when used to refer to a particular ideal of morality or social values. To be fair, this might be resentment or frustration from what I'd call "Canadian Second Banana Syndrome" - the sense of having one's cultural identity overshadowed or even drowned out by an incessantly more dominant one. (Hey - I do whine about this from time to time...)

Anyway, at 12 years old back in 1978, I wondered why a figure like Superman, who is basically a demi-god on Earth, would bother to limit himself to only "the American way"? That phrase never seemed to refer to all the Americas, North and South either, but just the one that starts with "The United States of".

Superman's story is really an immigrant's tale. He came from an alien land, disguising himself and hiding (or even denying) his cultural heritage in order to be accepted into a new society. Joe was an immigrant to the U.S. himself, when his family moved from Toronto to Cleveland when Joe was in his high school years. Immigrants could relate to Superman, with their sense of cultural background coming into relief against the requirements of a large homogeneous society of American nationalism.

The "American way" expression used by Supes is a narrow association of Nationalism more suited to the post-WWII era. I guess it might have sounded a bit naive or refreshingly charming to movie audiences back in 1978, hinting perhaps at less cynical, less complicated set of values. But since that time, Superman has evolved into more of a universal, global icon. So, who's "way" would he be fighting for now? Questioning this leads us to where Frank Miller took Superman in "The Dark Knight Returns", where Superman was only allowed to operate as a Superhero if he defended U.S. interests and enforced a form of Cold War detente, where he serves as the ultimate weapon of mass destruction or mass peace.

Joe met Jerry Seigel at Glendale High in Cleveland, and they shared a geekish love of pulp fiction and fantasy stories. In many ways, they were each like that skinny little guy from the old Charles Atlas ads that you might have seen in comic books. Superman was Seigel and Shuster's symbol of freedom from and triumph over marginalization. The skinny guy getting sand kicked in his face was Joe and Jerry and every kid reading it, and the perfect physical specimen punching out the bully in the last panel was Superman and every other hero that made a geek feel empowered and accepted.

Jerry Seigel always had first billing before Joe. I might speculate that the quieter, less self-aggrandizing Shuster didn't mind who's name went first, so long as he was credited as one of the parents. I'll allow myself that blatant Canadian stereotype of the passive, polite Canadian "nice guy".

Joe's long-time collaborator, Jerry Seigel, fought tenaciously over the years to have his and Shuster's names restored to the masthead as the original creators of Superman. By 1975, with the help of friends, other artists and writers across the entertainment industry, and from the newer generation of management at DC Comics itself, an agreement was reached between Seigel, Shuster and Warner Brothers, who owned DC Comics and the stable of characters. The comic books and the credits for "Superman: The Motion Picture" would include the words "Superman created by Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster". The comic book geeks had won back official recognition for their character. By all accounts, relations between the Seigel and Shuster families and Warner Brothers/DC are fairly healthy and vibrant. Detente.

Joe's last interview (and he rarely ever gave them) was in 1992. Legally blind, he gave one last interview to the newspaper which he had sold in the streets of Toronto at the age of nine: the Toronto Star. "There aren't many people who can say they're leaving behind something as important as Superman," he said. "But Jerry and I can, and that's a good feeling."

Sources and Related Links:

The Original Superman, C. 1933 to 1938
Whatever Happened to the Heroes?
The Death of Christopher Reeve
127 Reasons why Superman is a Dick.

December 01, 2005

Little Hidden Sins: Sin City (and pulp) Revisited

Violence in Velvet - real cheesy pulp crap...

This is a continuation of my previous review of the movie, "Sin City", and a rant about pulp fiction in general.

When I first reviewed the movie "Sin City", I was severely put off by the portrayal of women in Frank Miller's grim and gritty world. The Vancouver-area missing women case with it's enigmatic DNA evidence and ghoulish rumours about Willie Pickton's pig farm (where the DNA evidence against him was gathered) were still fresh in my mind then, so watching a portrayal of a psychotic woman-killer doing his deadly deeds on an old farm hit me as sickly coincidental and put me off the movie big-time.

The violence of Sin City was excessive, and every male seemed to be a one-man killing machine. The story and characters seemed like 1940s stereotypes and that pissed me off. However, the movie's visual style was beautifully stark, unlike any movie I had ever seen.

A few months later, something happened to further tweak my attitude. My wife fell in love with the story, and bought the entire set of original graphic novels by Frank Miller. She read them from end to end in sequence, reciting detailed descriptions to me of the scenarios with analyses of her favourite characters and their motivations. (We had each enjoyed a similar obsession with Lord of the Rings a few years earlier.)

So when my turn came, and I got my hands on Miller's Sin City books, I gained a new appreciation of what he was trying to say and for the style in which he was trying to say it.

The Rodriguez/Miller movie, while beautifully-made and relatively faithful in it's own right, seemed pale in comparison to Miller's original books. Miller's intense, high contrast graphic style is striking and even more effective on the page than on the screen. Reading his drawn lines on paper feels personal, almost intimate, like the nuance of someone's individual handwriting, written in their diary.

Around this point, I decided that I had become burned out by reading way too much physics and math, and so "pulp" became my little reward to myself - my flavour of the month in fiction. I started reading and re-reading pulpy detective novels like "The Big Sleep" and "Poodle Springs" by Raymond Chandler, "The Thin Man" and "The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiel Hammett and everything by my favourite thriller author, James Bond creator, Ian Fleming.

I succumbed to the outdated, sexist, stereotypical world of loner tough guys, alluring dames, dumb cops, and wide-eyed children. The best pulp authors leave some complexity and contradiction in the characters and situations which make you think about the irony of life. The worst authors don't want to confuse the reader - just offer some emotional payoff using familiar imagery and expectations. Painted in such stark contrasts, the pulp world can look very black and white indeed, and very deducible.

In spite of the violence, melodrama, and near-ancient stereotypes portrayed in these stories (some admittedly 70 years old by now), I do feel within them a sense of longing for a simplistic, violent past life. But that is what fantasy is for. And who the hell am I kidding anyway? I wouldn't last 5 minutes against some vicious asshole like Mike Hammer (the original novel version, not the one played by Stacy Keach on TV).

I also picked up this little piece of crap 1959 novel called Violence in Velvet by Michael Avallone, featuring a stereotypical gumshoe named Ed Noon. I think this could be the worst detective novel I have ever read. It contained the most shallow stereotypes, an inhuman, two-dimensional main character who is prone to self-satisfied rantings about morality, and a one-dimensional little kid character who, while much of the story revolves around her, is the least realistic thing in the whole book. It was horrible, laughably so, but it still contained the basic elements of the pulp detective genre. It also served as a beacon of hope to me: If this crud could get published, I might be able to write something better than this dude, and get my own fiction published one day! (You can be the judge of this yourself...)

This whole rant must be about guilty little pleasures. Some women enjoy cheesy romance novels with Fabio arched masterfully across the cover. Some men relish a trenchcoated, gun-totin' loner who would break Fabio's beautiful ass in the back of an alley on a dark, stormy night in the lonely city.

Ian Fleming once admitted that his novels were best read in privacy, like in bed at night, or on the train going to work in the morning. I guess it's about the little tastes and desires, the personal sins, that you wouldn't want to share with somebody else.

November 20, 2005

Sense of Isolation. Sense of Connection.

Today, I'm a bit sick, feeling run down. It's a grey, incredibly foggy day and we're sitting in the upstairs Starbucks at Brentwood Mall.

I had a flash of a feeling of separateness, or isolation. It feels like isolation has been central to my outlook in many moments in my life. Whether I was alone or with others when I was born, it has always felt to me like I was essentially alone. Family and friends (whom I love) all go away eventually, as I will one day. "You're on your own" is how I feel sometimes - at least when my spirit is dragged down by a slight cold and general lack of energy. It sucks. This is also my self-centred or self-pitying outlook, coming to the surface, winning out over optimism and happiness.

I should talk about optimism as well. I also had a flash image of Christmas... An image of being surrounded by family in someone's warm livingroom, laughing and taking pictures. These feelings came almost immediately after the negative feelings. I suppose I have some psychological self-correcting feature or something.

Stupid cold.

November 07, 2005

The Misadventures of Negative Boy - atoms in the table

The Misadventures of Negative Boy - atoms in the table

"Negative Boy" weaves his (actually her) thoughts on the meaning of life generally, and spirituality in particular.

I really enjoyed her personal definition of agnosticism - essential and straightforward...

October 24, 2005

Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years

Finally, a refreshingly honest opinion about how long it takes to really learn something:

Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years

October 12, 2005

The Big Ideas Lead to Each Other...

This is a followup to this post:

I just watched "Einstein's Big idea" on PBS. This is an episode of the "Nova" science program which shows (dramatically as well as factually) how Einstein's famous equation E=mc2 came to be discovered, and the historical developments and personalities in physics which led up to it.

The historical development of physics seems to follow the concept of integration: ideas previously thought to be incompatible and unrelated (such as electricity and magnetism) were eventually found to share something in common or to be different sides of something else.

From my meager study of the ideals of monotheistic religions, I see a similar goal: a oneness with God and others in your society by internalizing and integrating examples of compassion, cooperation and self-sacrifice into one's personal approach to everyday life.

Buddhism, a non-theistic religion that's does not have a god, teaches that all people and things are interconnected and interdependent, and that ultimately, the very concept of one's ego (a personal concept of "me", and how it is separate from "you") is an illusion, an artificial division.

I also have seen an integration between religions and science. Eminent physicists such as Albert Einstein and Steven Hawking have often compared physics' search for a Grand Unified Theory with knowing the mind of God. Religion has likewise absorbed ideas of science, such as how some progressive Christians might claim that God created the Big Bang.

It's a shame that while this gradual compatibility of life philosophies is ocurring, old divisive (human) tendencies such as greed, selfishness or "me first" attitudes towards individuality seem to continue to undermine what we could otherwise have in common.

October 09, 2005

A Scientific Explanation of Government...

From 'Is Jinny Sims Going to Jail?'

Quoting a poster named 'Professor', who said:

"A major research institution has announced the discovery of the heaviest element yet know to science - "governmentium." It has 1 neutron, 12 assistant neutrons, 75 deputy neutrons and 111 assistant deputy neutrons for an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons that are further surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like sub particles called peons.

Governmentium has no electrons and is therefore inert. It can be detected however since it impedes every reaction it comes into contact with. A tiny amount of governmentium can take a reaction that normally occurs in seconds and slow it to the point where it take days.

Governmentium has a normal half life of three years. It doesn't decay but "re- organizes", a process where assistant deputy neutrons and deputy neutrons change places. This process actually causes it to grow as in the confusion some morons become neutrons, thereby forming isodopes.

This phenomenon of "moron promotion" has led to some speculation that governmentium forms whenever sufficient morons meet in concentration forming critical morass. Researches believe that in Governmentium, the more you re- organize, the morass you cover."

October 08, 2005

Does Beaver's Bark Have Bite?

Does the Beaver's bark have bite?

The other day, I read about Prime Minister Paul Martin's recent address to the Economic Club of New York. His language has become more blunt, (finally) echoing the feelings of many Canadian citizens who, since May of 2002, have been negatively affected by the imposition of $5 billion of tariffs on Canadian softwood by the U.S.

"Forgive my sudden departure from the safe language of diplomacy, but this is nonsense," said Martin. "More than that, it's a breach of faith. Countries must live up to their agreements. The duties must be refunded. Free trade must be fair trade."

"It's not because Canada wants it. It's because there's a small group of [people with] narrow interests in the United States, who essentially want to keep the lumber out to keep the prices up..."

The "small group of narrow interests" to which Mr. Martin refers are U.S. lumber lobbyists.

The statement from this address that stood out for me (and apparently had an impact on Martin's conservative audiences in New York) went as follows:
"He later noted in his speech that removing the tariffs on Canadian lumber would lower the cost of each new American home by $1,000 on average -- and make about 300,000 more Americans eligible for mortgages."

Full story here...

On CNN, Mr. Martin said:
"The American people who have got to pay $1,000 more per home or the American people who can't get a mortgage because their home prices are up, obviously are suffering from lumber costs which are artificial."

Full transcript here...

Martin sent a similar message in an interview for The Wall Street Journal.

In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the idea of getting more lumber into the American market to benefit construction efforts and lower material costs takes on serious significance. The idea of rescinding the tariffs to ease domestic reconstruction efforts is now beginning to stick with some American officials,

"Officials say the notion of lowering duties on softwood to increase the flows for reconstruction following the devastation from hurricane Katrina is being seriously discussed in Washington.

Not only would that help in the shorter-term crisis but could move along stalled talks to resolve the softwood lumber trade dispute that threatens to poison relations between the two countries, says U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins.

"Obviously, that's an idea that's being considered," he said in an interview Thursday.

"If this would help bring a resolution, I want to help bring a solution" to the long-running battle that threatens a $10-billion annual industry.

Mr. Wilkins said he's been working hard to keep top White House officials informed of Canada's position.

For three years, duties averaging more than 20 per cent on Canadian softwood exports have been collected by Washington, totaling more than $5 billion -- money the industry wants back.

The two countries have been battling at various trade tribunals over the penalties on Canadian softwood, which is used mainly in home construction.

Negotiations were going on at the same time, but broke down in early August after Washington shrugged off a major Canadian win under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"I understand Canada's frustration on this," said Mr. Wilkins, who has been Washington's envoy to Ottawa for just a few months."

Full story here...

So is progress being made? It seems so, but while Canada may take some hope that progress is being made in the softwood lumber dispute (with some opinions from Washington beginning to sound more moderate and open-minded), it's probably because the Eagle now needs to find a compromise with that pissed off Beaver up north, to avoid doing more damage to it's own nest.

Related Articles:

A History of Canada-U.S. Lumber Disputes (from CBC)
Should Canada Get Out of NAFTA? (The Blog of Love, Sept. 24. 2005)

October 06, 2005

Journal reveals Hitler's Dysfunctional Family

"Two historians on Wednesday acclaimed the discovery in Germany of a journal written by Adolf Hitler's sister, saying it offers remarkable insights into the dysfunctional nature of the Fhrer's family."

From a psychological and humanistic perspective, I continue to be fascinated by any early family factors that could contribute to later antisocial or psychotic actions. Hitler is one of the ultimate examples of this.

September 30, 2005

One-man "Book of the Month Club"

I have begun giving my street friend, Curtis James, my extra novels to read. Occassionally, I have had extra copies of James Bond novels or other detective/spy thrillers that have no room on my bookshelf. Curtis once told me that he really liked detective novels - the excitement, the action, the women, so I began to keep him in mind whenever I had a spare thing to read. Sometimes, this gift would be in lieu of pocket change when I was a bit short, and other times, the book would come with some silver.

I saw Curtis today on my way home from work. He had positioned his wheelchair along Georgia, in time to catch the crowds heading to the Canucks game. Smart guy.

He told me that currently he's reading "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", which I do think is one of Ian Fleming's best Bond stories. "I'm looking forward to Moonraker", he called after me as I wisahed him a good weekend.

It's nice to have someone to share my books with.

September 24, 2005

Should Canada get out of NAFTA?

Well friends, a lot of Canadians are pissed at the lack of progress in the ongoing softwood lumber dispute. British Columbia's lumber industry has been taking an economic pummelling because of this for the past few years now.

Numerous WTO rulings have gone in Canada's favour over the past few years, and the rulings generally state that the countervailing duties imposed by the U.S. on Canadian softwood are unfair and "illegal" (see the Canadian Gov't web site on this topic:

Here's a timeline of events from the "Epoch Times" web site:

Widely respected former Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, Lloyd Axeworthy, says:

The reality is that we are dealing with an American political system currently steeped in the ideology of "empire." It recognizes few rules, adheres only to those treaties that are expedient to basic interests, and believes that the only political currency that counts is the exercise of raw power.

In its mildest form, it practises a la carte bilateralism, co-operating only when it wants to, and when it suits short-term domestic or international objectives. In its bad days, it simply follows a strategy of "take no prisoners," "damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead," "don't tread on me," "America First," or any other of the clichés used by ultra-patriots. These are the extant policy directives from the White House.


Compounding these difficulties are new U.S. security measures at the border that increasingly restrict the movement of goods and people. Canada has been exceedingly compliant with these security demands, accepting with little challenge the U.S. view of counterterrorism, to the point of conceding an erosion of basic Charter rights.

Let's face it: This is a painful and uncertain time in our relations with the United States. Muddling through from crisis to crisis won't work.

Neither will listening to the chorus of continentalist claptrap promoting more U.S.-Canada integration — look no farther than the present disputes to see where such policies have landed us — or the calls for protectionism and retaliation that can still be heard from the Left. It's time for new policies and tough action to shift our trade and security strategies away from a preoccupation with continental matters to a more global footing.

Let's begin by seriously considering an end to NAFTA and reliance instead upon the World Trade Organization to regulate the terms and provisions of free trade.

It's pretty strong language, from a man who has an international perspective, and the experience to know what he's talking about. (Read Lloyd Axeworthy's full article from the Toronto Sun...)

Some other people feel that Canada should just get the heck out of the North American Free Trade Agreement altogether. According to this article by two guys who appear to be practically experts on NAFTA it might be a good idea:

The fact is, something like 85% of Canada's trade is with the U.S., so some of our politicians up here are quite rightly worried about jeopardizing that trade. Without more diversity in our international trade, the negative impact of the loss of it for some provinces would be devastating.

It will take time for other international trade markets (like China, or the European Union) to develop to such a degree that Canada would have a buffer against any potential worsening in the Canada-U.S. trade war.

My gut tells me that this agressive approach to trade by the American Lumber Lobby (as one example) hints at one thing: insecurity, economically speaking, from the American manufacturers and exporters. If I am correct, then this is a "me first - screw everyone else" approach that will only further damage U.S. foreign relations. The scent in the wind now is that the Bush administration is beginning to soften their approach overall - starting to become more conciliatory or middle-ground, and less polarized.

It's so weird. Canadian and American people on a personal level, have always had the capacity to be friendly and help each other when times are tough. Look how many Canadian rescue teams and supplies and equipment flew down to New Orleans (and are still down there.) We Canadians took our American friends in during 9/11. We have always had the capacity to care about each other and cooperate on a personal level as individuals. It seems to be the ideologues and the protectionist, "money before people" capitalists who screw up the happy vibe between our two countries.

It can be hard to find a balance between sharing and protecting one's own interests. But, this particular trade war is an example of the scale being forced too far to one side, to Canada's disadvantage, and I think a reassessment and some "insurance" is called for between the two governments. As the old saying goes up here, "The U.S. are our best friends, whether we like it or not".

Canada and the U.S. have had numerous trade disputes in the past, so perhaps that in itself is just part of our relationship. Maybe the dispute isn't the problem, but just a function of the relationship, and the real barometer of our collective health is how humanely and peacefully we solve our disputes.

July 15, 2005

Grokking Einstein's Big Idea: The Legacy of E=mc2

Albert Einstein has really got me...

I had seen the phrase E=mc2 since I was maybe eight of nine years old. To me, it was almost like Mickey Mouse's ears, or Groucho's moustache. It was an enigmatic icon of popular culture; a meme that seemed to be all over the place.

As a kid, when I read the letters on the page of a book or wherever I first saw them, I interpreted the phrase as "E equals em see two". I had absolutely no idea what an exponent was, much less what Einstein's famous formula actually represented.

It is still a bit of a struggle for me as an adult. I rank E=mc2 as one of the most important discoveries (or dare I say 'truths') of this century. As part of my belief system, I'm sure it would practically eclipse all religious beliefs in significance, it I could just figure out what it was all about. (Perhaps I am as blind in my faith in science as I assume religious zealots to be in their religion. I am comfortable being that guy.)

In my most recent attempt to read Einstein's book on the theory of Relativity, it stumped me. I got farther than last time, but it still lost me somewhere after the "Lorentz transformation". So, I dug out my copy of "The Illustrated Brief History of Time" and have now almost completed it. (Thank you Professor Stephen Hawking!)

That little detour sort of primed the pump of physics comprehension for me. However, in spite of that, I still didn't pick up the Einstein book again. Perhaps part of me was still a little bit intimidated. I thought that maybe there might be some good tutorials or explanations for kids (high school through college) on the web, which could help me even more.

And of course there were. Most notably, I found a PBS web site for a NOVA TV program called "Einstein's Big Idea: The Legacy of E=mc2". This is a documentary which will air on PBS in October 2005. On the program's companion web site, there is some good introductory and background material which I would recommend to anyone before diving into the Professor's book.

NOVA | Einstein's Big Idea | The Legacy of E = mc2 | PBS

Explanations and the impact of E=mc2, from 10 prominent physicists

July 07, 2005

Counting Angels on the Head of a Pin

I'm taking another crack at learning about Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

This is the second or third time I've tried to get through it, and it's been a tough bit of sledding. I'm reading "Relativity: The Special and the General Theory", which is sub-titled as "a clear explanation that anyone can understand".

Much to his credit, the great man does a good job of laying down the foundations of relative time and distance, and I have gotten past The Lorentz Transformation (Chapter 11), and more or less understood it - which might be the first time for me.

It describes a mathematical formula for translating quantities of velocity and mass from one base of reference to another (e.g. the speed/time of an event relative to a static location, like Einstien's famous embankment, versus the same event viewed from another moving location, like a passing locomotive).

All the same, Professor Einstein's best attempts to describe his theories have still left me struggling. Some of my difficulty could be due to his particular use of language, or the way the original 1916 text was translated into English. I have found many of his sentances to be slightly too long, academically detailed, and occasionally, just plain confusing. But, I feel like this is like an invitation to peek into a higher realm of understanding, so I must "press on" as my art teacher Tom used to say...

Looking for help from a more "base" base of reference, I grabbed "The Illustrated Brief History of Time" by Professor Stephen Hawking. This is the fully illustrated, updated 1996 version of his famous 1988 book, which traced the history of our understanding of physics from Aristotle through to the present day. Hawking's narrative style is light, plain, and infused with references to everyday experiences - easily-graspable metaphors which really clarify concepts which seem otherwise totally alien to our daily experiences.

So, why John, why? Weren't you studying religion or philosophy up until recently? What's with the sudden interest in physics?

I have asked mysef this too before. (I still haven't finished the Bible, and the Koran is gathering dust on my bedside. I feel like their all different facets of the same truths. The best answer I can come to is that studying physics gives me a real sense of the grand mystery of the Universe - it pulls me out of the context of my daily human scale and reminds me that there is so much still to be understood.

Perhaps other people feel this way when they comntemplate a religious mystery or a grand philosophical abstract idea. Physics and astronomy tend to do it most noticeably for me.

Not too long ago, while standing in line for a Pink Floyd Laser show at the H.R. Macmillan Space Centre here in Vancouver, I was looking at an amazing photograph on the wall. It was taken from a large telescope (maybe even the Hubble space telescope), and showed hundreds of little blobs of light densely packed together. Each light was in fact, a Galaxy, and the image was only a tiny section of a much larger photograph. I read that the section I was looking at was literally no larger than the head of a pin!

There was an old rhetorical, zen-like question, maybe hundreds of years old, that goes "How many Angels can dance on the head of pin?" To me, this question sounds useless - it has no meaning other than to evoke an impossible or fantasic, fairy-tale image. But perhaps to someone else, it has some meaning and spirit.

How many Angels, indeed...

July 01, 2005

Dear Akbar and Jeff: Go North!

Akbar and Jeff
"We must always remember that 'separate but equal' is not equal."

So spoke Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin during the second reading debate on Bill C-38 (The Civil Marriage Act) in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill on February 16, 2005.
(See the full text of the second reading.)

This quote is from the CBC web site's "Timeline of Events":
"The Liberals' controversial Bill C-38, titled Law on Civil Marriage, passes a final reading in the House of Commons, sailing through in a 158-133 vote. Supported by most members of the Liberal party, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP, the vote makes Canada the third country in the world, after the Netherlands and Belgium, to officially recognize same-sex marriage."

So, Canada becomes the third country in the world to recognize gay marriage. It's not quite a landslide victory - the vote tallied 158 for and 133 against - but still it's a significant-enough margin and makes a pretty strong statement.

This is not such a new development for those of us out here on the west coast of Canada in British Columbia, where same sex marriage has been legal since 2003, but this is pretty new federally-speaking; "the paint is still wet" on this issue, and there's likely to be a lot of noise and protest againt it from various social and religious conservatives who feel that their beliefs are being threatened.

I generally don't pay too much attention to CNN, Fox, or the other rightish mainstream U.S. media, but I wouldn't be surprised if the far-rightists and religious (funda)mental cases have lots to say about Canada's new level of moral decay...

More from the CBC:

A related story from "The Blog of Love":

June 05, 2005

Additional Thoughts on my Mum

If I had to sum up my curiosity about my Mother in one question, it'd be "Who is she?" I wish I could say that her and I'd had ever talked about anything substantial, or that she had ever told me anything about herself, but I would remember it if she had. So, that's how I know she didn't.

Whatever I think I know about my Mum's life or personality, I heard from my Dad or from her relatives - it's all second-hand memories, like the photos in our albums. I have second-hand pictures and words, records of other people's experiences with her, and very few of my own.

I always felt like there was some funny distance between me and her. Her main relationship was with her parents first, and then my Dad. Her children came third or less. Growing up, Kim and I were just "the kids" - as if we were in a whole different category. Even when I was small, I could feel some of that distance. I just didn't know my Mum well enough, and it got worse each year as I got older.

I've only ever seen glimpses of who she once had been - the beautiful, talented, loving person all her friends and cousins remember. I have seen her bored or upset or raving drunkenly. I have only seen her beautiful side a few times in brief glimpses, It always felt so rare because to me, it was.

More of the same:

May 30, 2005

Is a Taser enough force? Part 2

This is an update to my previous article "How much force is enough?"

A Taser gun
It has been months and months since the announcement of a full coroner's inquest into events surrounding the death of Robert Wayne Bagnell, which happened almost a year ago. A coroner's inquest had been set to start in May 2005, but I recently learned from Patti Gillman, sister of the deceased, that that date has been postponed.

So, it seems we're in a holding pattern still, waiting for the start of an investigation that could clarify the cause(s) of Bob Bagnell's death during an altercation with police in a downtown Vancouver Hotel in June 2004.

Meanwhile, Bob's sister Patti is following the progress of the Ontario Coroner's inquest into another Taser-related death, that of Peter Lamonday. In May 2004, Lamonday died after being "shocked several times by Police" during their attempts to arrest and restrain him. The inquest into the Lamonday death is the first Taser-related death to be investigated in a Coroner's inquest in the province of Ontario. No doubt the media and law enforcement will pay close attention to those proceedings.

According to what I have read in the media and online, many preliminary police coroner reports have said that Taser use was not to the blame in these deaths. Causes of death in many of the cases were attributed to excessive cocaine use, leading to a "drug induced psychosis" and heart failure.

Some people are more than suspicious of claims by law enforcement and the Taser manufacturer that this particular tool is not in some way contributing to deaths in these cases.

According to an article on the CTV web site:

"Amnesty International has said the weapon should be banned until more tests are done to determine its safety. The human rights group says the guns can be deadly when someone is in a weakened state because of heart problems or drug use."

Read more on this page from Amnesty International:

Below is Patti Gillman's recent letter to the London Free Press, detailing her observations of the Lamonday inquest and in general:

"Letter to the Editor:

I held my breath waiting for the Coroner's Inquest into Peter Lamonday's death. I was naively confident that the first Taser-death related inquest in Ontario would at long last provide an opportunity for a much needed and long overdue dialogue on the perils of continued Taser use in Ontario.

When I learned that no independent expert Taser witness would be called to testify, and that those who would testify were public officials who have been openly supportive of Tasers, it became clear that the results of this travesty were a foregone conclusion.

It is atrocious and a great disservice to Mr. Lamonday and the other 9 Canadians (including my brother) who have died, not to mention those who will surely follow – that the role of the Taser in Mr. Lamonday’s premature and senseless death was not more thoroughly examined but was, instead, hastily dismissed by so-called experts on day one of the inquest. From there, the Taser and its part in Mr. Lamonday’s demise were substantially ignored. It is indefensible that no one saw fit to challenge this colossal omission. It is said that justice must be seen to be done, to be done. Sadly, justice was seen to be absent from this inquest.

The police officers likely did not intend to use deadly force on Mr. Lamonday when they Tasered him. It is reasonable to believe that they did not know they were playing Russian roulette with a potentially lethal weapon, since they had been so artfully sold a "non-lethal" bill of goods. If Taser use is to continue in Ontario and in Canada, then the weapon’s place on the continuum of force must be increased to a level equal to deadly force, so that police officers can better predict a potentially deadly outcome and consider their force options more carefully.

The Taser may not have been the sole cause of Mr. Lamonday’s death. But its supporting role simply cannot be ignored, especially given that the weapon’s own manufacturer, Taser International, recently came closer than ever before to saying that use of Tasers can lead to death. Taser International stated: "Our products are often used in aggressive confrontations that may result in serious, permanent bodily injury or death to those involved. Our products may cause or be associated with these injuries."

The rising number of deaths validates the company’s announcement. What more do Ontario officials need before they suspend their own disbelief?"

As an observer who knew Bob Bagnell in my own small way, my motivation rests in the concern that the dead in these situations do not become dehumanized because of poverty, their lifestyle or because of the violent circumstances of their deaths. I do not claim to know much about the other 90-plus Taser-related deaths documented thus far in the U.S. and Canada - I can only claim some knowledge of one particular victim. His family and others are looking for information and closure. (My personal web tribute to Robert Wayne Bagnell gives a portrait-in-progress:

I'm skeptical of an article on a seemingly police-friendly web site quoting the deputy coroner at the Lamonday inquest. He stated that the Taser was not to blame in Lamonday's death because the man died much later, and not immediately after the shock. This kind of logic is likely the start of some precedent-setting somewhere... we'll see.

Sorry - but my concerns are not yet quieted. I can't help but feel a bit cynical when the ads surrounding this particular article are... Taser ads.

May 26, 2005

"Only in Canada you say? Pity."

Recently, my wife and I were very proud to attend the wedding of two friends. It was a small civil ceremony held at a private home, perched on a cliff overlooking a beautiful 180 degree view of Howe Sound. Even though the sky was cloudy, the rain had managed to stay away.

After making our rounds through the crowd, re-meeting many of my wife's former colleagues, we all assembled out on the sundeck. A small wooden stand held a register and some papers bearing the BC provincial logo. The Marriage Commissioner performing the ceremony asked us all to come closer. The deck was crowded with friends and family. We chuckled as we shuffled a foot or two towards our friends, two men who had been together for 22 years. They turned and faced each other and the ceremony began.

The couple, their mothers and fathers and long-time friends all wept with joy as they recited their vows and pledged their love and committment to each other. It was simple, heartfelt and absolutely genuine, without the pomp and circumstance of some of the large, church weddings we have also witnessed, but just as grand an event. Perhaps because it was small and intimate, it really had a strong impact on me. I could see how much these two guys loved each other, and how much their family and friends loved and supported them. The sun shone down through the clouds, voices cracked and tears flowed, and they each said "I do". It was beautiful.

When the Commissioner said "by the power vested in me by the province of British Columbia", I felt so proud of my home province. Same-sex marriage only became legal in BC in 2003. As of February 2005, it is legal in 7 of 10 provinces and one in three territories in Canada. All the same, same-sex marriage has been a pretty controversial issue in Canada. In the U.S., even more so.

At the end of the day, I feel that the act of marriage doesn't materially change the level of committment in a relationship. Our two friends have been committed to each other for as long as me and my wife, with the two of them only recently deciding to tie the knot, so I know their committment to each other is very strong, marriage notwithstanding. And these guys have withstood social tests, pressures and prejudices from our society that a heterosexual couple would never have to tolerate.

A marriage ceremony is symbolically, socially, and emotionally a powerful thing; an acknowledgement of a couple's committment to their relationship, done in front of others who are there to witness and support the union.

A little background on same-sex marriage from the CBC web site.

May 12, 2005

New Stories online in the "True Life" project

True Life - The history of me and my dysfunctional family...

Read True Life - The story of me and my family...

My family
After over a year's delay, I have finally begun the latest series of stories in my "True Life" web memoirs, covering the years 1975 to 1977.

"True Life" is a collection of illustrated personal stories about my family and my memories of growing up. I started writing and designing this project in 1998, and it officially went online in March of 1999. It has been a periodic effort ever since.

May 10, 2005

Obi-John Kenobi and a young Padawan apprentice...

Recently, my nephew Mitchell and I were talking about the soon-to-be released Star Wars movie, "Revenge of the Sith". Mitch is a huge Star Wars fan, just like his Uncle John and Auntie Grace.

I remembered that each of us had worn similar Halloween costumes before, and, well, as you can see, now there's an even Newer Hope in a galaxy far, far, away...

Obi-John Kenobi and a young Padawan apprentice...

May 08, 2005

I miss my mother.

i miss mom
I suddenly realized it was Mother's Day. It reminded me of my Mum. On a whim, I typed "i miss my mom" into Google, and the first site I saw led to a person who has expressed my own feelings very well:

"Hi mom,

It's been so long since I last thought about you. That's probably the worst thing I could say to you, but it's true. I haven't made a conscious effort to remember you, not like I used to. It is somewhat understandable I guess, you've been dead for almost ten years now. But I just don't like the fact that I haven't really thought about you or even just missed you these past few months.. months that feel like years. And then quite suddenly the world seemed to stop just now and in that moment of quiet I thought: I miss my mother."

Remember her for just a moment.

Try to remember something positive or happy. Remember that chain of belly buttons that connects you to your mother, her to her mother, and so on and so on.

Just for today, try to remember something good.

Read the entire letter here: I miss my mother. I miss you.

April 19, 2005

A cup of Earl Grey, and my favourite physician...

A Tardis in a pretty landscape...

CBC Television - Doctor Who

The new British Doctor Who series is great!

I only ever saw a few of episodes from the sixties and seventies series', which used to be replayed on KVOS TV Bellingham, and thought they were pretty cheesy and corny, with lousy special effects. So, essentially, I was really in it for the theme music, which is such a signature of the series.

When the new series started being broadcast on CBC on April 9th, I wondered if it would be even cheesier, and it kind of was - and it kind of wasn't.

The first episode combined a young London girl whose boyfriemns is eaten by a plastic garbage bin, a mysterious stranger who reappears throughout history (you know who), and re-animated department store mannequins on the rampage. Yes, reanimated department store mannequins.

"Oh God," I groaned, "it's just as stupid and cheesy as the old series..."

But you know what? the FX were actually very good! And the acting was... very good! And overall, I thought it was... very good!

* sigh *

It's nice to have a new once-per-week TV obsession...

April 15, 2005

Greed and Corruption Applied Liberally, North of the Border

Prime Minister Paul Martin fends off Conservative attacks. Illustration by Patrick LeMontagne, 2004. Used with permission.
Illustration by Patrick LeMontagne, 2004.

Used with permission.

Observations on the Canadian Liberal sponsorship scandal

"A British politician is usually caught with his hand up a woman's skirt while a Canadian politician is usually caught with his hand in the till." - Sun Media columnist Valerie Gibson

These days, the media is saying that the Canadian Liberal Government is in a state of crisis. For months and months, Canadians have watched nightly as the Liberal sponsorship scandal has unfolded. In fact, this is probably one of the biggest political scandals in the last 100 years. I think it might have the potential to bring down the Canadian Liberal government. Certainly, Stephen Harper's opposition Progressive Conservative party seemed ready to circle overhead, waiting for a political opportunity.

According to a recent poll, only 25% of Canadians would support the Liberals if an election were called tomorrow. Canadians are now more concerned about government corruption in Canada (and about the sponsorship scandal in particular) than about the state of health care: it's the biggest problem on the national radar today. That's saying something, since health care was a major issue during the election that brought Paul Martin to power in 2004. Now, a year later, he's testifying at a government inquiry into corruption by members of his own party.

The story thus far...

In the mid-'90s, under Prime Minister Jean Chretien, the federal Liberal government created a program to promote federalism in Quebec. This was the fed's response to growing Quebec separatist sentiment after the "Non" result from the last referendum on Quebec separatism. In that case, "Non" meant "No, we won't secede. We'll stay in Canada, for now". The federal sponsorship program was intended to allocate lots of money for advertising, trade shows and promotional activities in Quebec so that the Government could tell Quebecers how great Canada is. However, kickbacks and double billing by a small group of self-serving, greedy men turned the whole program into the biggest Canadian corruption scandal in recent years.

Now, the Gomery Commission, led by Justice John Gomery, is hearing testimony on the matter. Prime Minister Martin ordered the Gomery Commission, based upon the findings of a report from the Auditor General, Sheila Fraser. Martin is the first sitting PM to give testimony at a public inquiry since about 1873. Recently, he gave testimony regarding his knowledge of goings-on while he was the Liberal finance minister under Jean Chretien back in the '90s.

Now, Martin's minority Liberal government faces the possibility of an imminent election call, and a major loss of confidence by the Canadian public. The other parties represented in the House of Commons are the Progressive Conservatives (read: right wing), New Democratic Party (left wing), and the Bloc Quebecois (whatever is in the best interest of Quebec and French-Canadians).

Here are some of the main players and events

  • Paul Martin: Current Prime Minister of Canada, and head of the minority Liberal Government.

  • Auditor General, Sheila Fraser: Published the scathing 1994 Auditor General's report on the misuse of public funds from the Sponsorship Program, which led to the Gomery Commission.

  • Former P.M., Jean Chretien: Mr. Chretien claims no direct involvement in any wrongdoing or inappropriate activity. Mr. Chretien has a bit of history behind him - not exactly lily white history either.

  • Alfonso Gagliano: Former Head of Public Works, and close friend of former PM, Jean Chretien.

  • Chuck Guite: Liberal bureaucrat in charge of the federal sponsorship program. Alleged to have taken kickbacks in exchange for obtaining huge federal government advertising contracts for various Quebec ad firms.

  • Jean Brault: Former head of Groupaction Marketing. Charged with fraud and conspiracy, implicated senior members of the Quebec wing of the federal Liberals in kickback schemes involving sponsorship money

  • Jacques Corriveau: Another friend of ex-PM Jean Chretien, Corriveau is a graphic designer who admitted to double-billing and acting as a lobbyist for the Liberal party although he was not registered as a lobbyist (a finable offense).

How much money is involved? What is the Cost to the Canadian Tax Payer?

The sponsorship program was originally budgeted for $250 million. The Auditor General's report found that about $100 million was paid to various communications agencies in the form of fees and commissions. Thus far, the RCMP have laid specific charges in connection with about $2 million worth of contracts.

Impacts on the Canadian government and the country

In addition to the massive waste of taxpayer dollars, this scandal has also caused a huge loss of public confidence in the federal government. Opinion polls say that less than 30% of Canadians surveyed would vote for the Liberal party if an election were called tomorrow. Some federal Liberal Members of Parliament have even jumped ship to the Progressive Conservatives - which is kind of like a politician jumping from the middle-right to the farther right of the Canadian political spectrum. (For comparison, the Canadian "Conservative" political right is still a bit to the left of the American "Republican" political right. The difference between them is getting smaller and smaller each year, it seems to me...)

When Prime Minister Paul Martin came to power in 2004, he rode in with a reputation as Jean Chretien's fiscally-responsible finance minister, overseeing the largest Canadian federal budget surplus in recent times. That surplus continued to grow within the cocoon of successive Liberal majority governments, and that same cocoon gave the Liberals the leeway to make policy without the drag of a powerful opposition in the House of Commons. But, it has shown it's downside in unchecked corruption, arrogance and greed.

Oh, the Arrogance of Power...

I'd seen news reports about something called "Shawinigate", and had heard rumours about Jean Chretien being involved in some kinds of patronage or insider deals. When I heard stories about him and some corruption, I figured that he was just disliked. After all, this was a PM who didn't take crap from anybody. He described himself as "the little guy from Shawinigan", but I had also heard him called the street fighter from Shawinigan. His whole manner seemed to tell Clinton and Dubya that they could go F--- themselves. I think Dubya was really irritated by Chretien, and I liked that. Reagan's dead butt probably still has lip prints from our Conservative defac-eighties PM, Brian Mulroney. So, Chretien's arrogance looked like strength and defiance in my eyes.

Unfortunately, Chretien was similarly tough with his own countrymen. He was known to have grabbed a man by the throat when the guy got to Chretien before his own security men could during a public appearance. One comedian called this move "the Shawinigan handshake" (it's extra funny if you say it in Chretien's thick, gravelly Quebec accent.)

It is widely believed that it was Chretien's office that was responsible for ordering all that pepper spray on protesters at the 1997 APEC Conference in Vancouver. Apparently pepper spray was necessary to keep the teeming masses from embarrassing the PM when foreign leaders like Suharto come to visit. Suharto's questionable human rights record was what got the APEC protesters all worked up. When asked how he felt about the use of pepper spray on protesters, the street fighter (who had gotten the Mounties to fight in the streets for him) replied dryly, "Pepper? I put it on my plate!" What a character. (On Canadian author Will Ferguson's Bastard or Bonehead scale, Chretien rates as a definite Bastard.)

So in recent months, Paul Martin has been working hard to distance himself from allegations that, as Chretien's Finance Minister, he could not claim ignorance or lack of responsibility for the sponsorship scandal. "How could the Finance Minister NOT know about this kind of thing?" Canadians are wondering. Many people feel that the federal Liberals deserve to be booted out. Being a minority government, Martin's Liberals are not in the same powerful position that Mr. Chretien enjoyed. The voices of the Conservatives and the NDP bear a lot more weight in the House these days. The popular maxim is that a minority government is a more accountable and less arrogant government.

As of today, both Mr. Harper and Mr. Martin indicate that calls for a snap federal election or a recall of the Liberal government might have been a little bit premature. I hope they will at least wait long enough for the Gomery Inquiry to finish, but stranger things have happenned in Canadian politics.

At the moment, I want to stay idealistic, and believe that our PM has integrity and is not just trying to cover his political rear end.

Read a timeline of events, courtesy of the CBC.

More background on the individuals and companies involved is available from the CBC web site.

April 14, 2005

Sin City. Sin World. Sin Life.

Mickey Rourke as 'Marv' (Sin City)

The world of Basin City seems to exist inside a brutal extremist universe, chock full of skeletons of old pulp stereotypes which creator Frank Miller has pushed to psychopathic extremes. Frank Miller's graphic novel Sin City takes the gritty, pulp novel style of film noir and writers like Raymond Chandler, and hard-boils the values down from gritty greys to basic black and white.

In the classic detective novel "The Big Sleep", Raymond Chandler depicted a suspicious, loner gumshoe detective, lying, vindictive women and loathsome greedy criminals. Miller gleefully pumps this genre up a violent notch or ten. In his world, single-mindedly violent male anti-heroes protect or avenge scantily-clad, slutty-looking females. Horrible violence is done to innocent victims and the response of the avenger is similarly horrible. Vigilante thugs hunt down psychopathic cannibals, an idealistic, fatalist, loner cop takes on a serial rapist and a community of Rambo-style prostitutes defend their neighbourhood against the city's corrupt cops and politicians.

I read somewhere that Frank Miller grew up in Hell's Kitchen, New York, a tough place to live from the rumours I've heard. During his time writing/drawing Daredevil for Marvel, Daredevil was based in Hell's Kitchen too. I can only assume that this place has a big influence on Miller's work.

Sin City is a world in which both crime and punishment are violent and bloody. There's no trial, jury, lawyers or media. Just the vicious act, and the equally vicious vengeance.

I really like the visual, technical style of the Sin City movie, and have a great respect for Miller as an artist. From what I've seen, the Sin City graphic novel is an amazing and striking piece of work. I accepted the world of the Sin City movie while I was watching it, accepting the stereotypes, the hard core violence, the impossibly tough male heroes, and the insanely, beautifully gritty and visceral visual style of the movie. I accepted and enjoyed all of that in terms of the world Miller and Rodriguez were presenting. I think it's an ambitious and original take on violent crime drama, like Pulp Fiction's gritter, more hard core cousin. But after the lights came up and I thought about the underlying themes of it, I started to get a rather sour taste in my mouth.

In my home city of Vancouver, BC, over 60 women have gone missing from the downtown east-side since police investigations began in earnest in 2002. Physical and DNA evidence has linked over a dozen of the deaths to a pig farm owned by William Pickton. The investigation and discovery of evidence is still ongoing. This case is one of the most gruesome and infamous murder investigations in Canadian history.

In Sin City, a psychotic young male serial killer who lives on an old farm, kills, dismembers and consumes multiple female victims. This reminded me too much of what is simply referred to as "the missing women investigation" or "the Pickton case" up here in British Columbia. Our cops were picking pieces of DNA evidence out of the ground for over a year. The similarity between this movie and what has happened within 20 kilometers of my own neighbourhood might seem surface and coincidental, but I found myself feeling very pissed off when the words "murdered women" and "farm" crossed my ears in the movie theatre. The thing is, most of the women in "Sin City" are prostitutes. That one-dimensional characterization of women as either defenseless victims or prostitutes seems shallow and pathetic at best.

I totally get that this is the genre that Miller is using. I'm a huge fan of James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, and his 50's style of Anglo sexism and racism is part of his own culture and steeps into the world of his characters. I still disagree with it personally, but accept it as part of the makeup of the creator's outlook or intended message.

Many of the women who have gone missing from Vancouver, I think the ones whose DNA was found on the Pickton pig farm, were also prostitutes. The fate of at least 15 women were discovered this way. Local public opinion has said that the investigation of the missing women case would have progressed further and faster if the victims had not been sex workers. So, Miller's scuzzy, depraved-looking vision of the role of women in Sin City resonates in my gut as a painfully negative image.

The Clown Prince...

Miller's ground-breaking 1991 graphic novel, "The Dark Knight Returns" brought Batman, Robin and The Joker back to life in another gritty world where an aging and out-of-touch Batman must take on the tactics of his villians in order to defeat (or at least outlive) them, and reclaim his identity as Gotham's resident anti-hero.

Resembling Batman's arch-nemesis more and more, that white-skinned, red-lipped media freakshow known in the U.K. as "Jacko", has now gone from being the self-proclaimed King of Pop to become our collective Clown Prince of Pedophilia. I so badly want to spit in Jackson's fake face the same way The Dark Knight's Batman spat in the Joker's face after the villian died in their last encounter.

Is our collective interest in (and seeming approval of) violent anti-heros an appropriate reaction to the violence of the real world? I don't have an answer for this, but it's the closest thing I can think of for rationalization. All I know is I still feel kind of pissed off, and Sin City, although beautiful, just made me madder.

April 08, 2005

"Little Guy" and "Homeless Dude"

There's this homeless man I call "the little guy". He's about 5 foot 4, with red hair and a beard. He always seems to have red marks or sores on his face and forehead. What strikes me about him the most is his hesitant, almost deferential body language. He stoops, has a little trouble making eye contact, and can be hard to hear over the noise of the street traffic. He seems like a harmless, gentle person.

A number of months ago, I saw him at Stadium SkyTrain Station, and he announced that he was going to go to his friend's apartment that evening to eat sandwiches and watch some colour TV. He seemed very happy about it, and it made me happy for him. I told him to have a good time, and he said "Oh, I will!"

A while ago, outside a Starbucks coffee shop, I gave the little guy my Starbucks card and some change. He told me he really likes coffee and sweet things. "It gives me a boost without getting me all full".

He told me he used to be a houseman at some big hotels, which he named, but I cannot recall. I pictured him in a uniform going from room to room, cleaning up, having friends among his coworkers, and getting a regular paycheque, while working inside where it's warm and dry.

The last time I saw him, he was about a half block ahead of me on Beatty street in the Yaletown area of Vancouver. He was wandering in front of the Terry Fox memorial, towards BC Place Stadium. He stopped a few feet in front of a woman who was walking her kids home. I could see his hands palms-up in front of him and knew he was telling her his story and asking for spare change in his quiet voice. She glanced at him for just a second looking either concerned or afraid, and then kept on walking away. Some days are better than others.

* * * * *

One Homeless guy I usually see at Stadium Station is a black guy I have been chatting with for the last couple of years. I cannot recall his name. He told me he's originally from back east, like Ontario or somewhere. My wife and I just refer to him as "Homeless Dude at Stadium Station".

For the first year and a half, he seemed to be ailing with a spectacularly runny nose. He said he had a lot of trouble with inflammed tissues in his nose. I saw him looking rather dusty or powdery on at least one occassion. Combined with the raw running or bleeding nose, I can only guess at what he was into.

Some days he was quite lucid, and other days, not at all. One time, he went on to me about God, and quoted a bunch of things from the bible, and a few things that I think he may have made up. He might have claimed to be Jesus' brother James or someone like that. I thought it was nice that he was finding some comfort in religion, although he seemed far too agitated about it.

This past winter, we had some extremely cold sub-zero nights, and I noticed that between Christmas Eve and late January, I didn't see this guy at all. I had started to wonder if he'd died or something, when I saw him sitting in a wheelchair at Stadium Station one day day in early February. He told me he'd sufferred frostbite from sleeping outside and had almost lost a bunch of toes. I told him that aside from that (which I said I was very sorry to hear), he looked quite well. I noted how his eyes looked whiter and less cloudy than they had, and his nose wasn't running at all. I figure he must have gone through some detox when in the hospital. He said he felt a lot better now.

The other day, I saw him sitting in his wheelchair at Stadium Station, laughing to himself. He told me that he was just sitting there thinking his own thoughts and enjoying watching all the people go by.

He told me that he still wasn't sure if he'd be able to keep his toes or not. The doctor told him that they had to heal more before they could decide. He thought maybe one of them was almost dead already. It had been frozen right up to the top knuckle. Now, he wears these little thick red slippers instead of shoes, presumably because his feet are still covered in bandages.

It was a sunny and relatively warm spring day. I think he could have lost his life on the streets. Compared to that, it's better to just lose a toe.

March 29, 2005

What ever happened to the heroes?

The original wool outfit worn by George Reeves on the black-and-white episodes of The Adventures of SupermanThe question is more than just the name of a cool old song by "The Stranglers". Every so often, I wonder where our heroes come from and where they go when their stewards pass on.

I think I have been a fan of fantasy and sci-fi almost since I was old enough to read. This is where my mythical heroes first tended to come from. Batman was the first Superhero comic book I remember reading back around 1972. As I grew up, Batman's simple toughness, lack of super powers, and driven humanity appealed to me more than some big-time invulnerable superhero. I felt gypped by Superman. I couldn't relate to him and I resented him a little, mostly because he was so all-powerful. However, as I got older and was exposed to more Superman through television and then through Action and Superman comics, I began to appreciate him more.

I also learned about other God-like beings from older mythic stories, or from other modern fiction. Everything comes from something else - there is no true originality - nothing is created in a vacuum. By the time I was 12, I began to understand the parallel between Superman and Jesus Christ. The famous 1978 Superman movie with Christopher Reeve made this theme apparent to me when Marlon Brando's Jor-El says "and that is why I have sent you, my only son." There is a resonance in this modern mythic superhero, kind of how the exploits of Hercules must have thrilled readers thousands of years ago.

A 1998 book called Superman: The Complete History does a wonderful job of illustrating the genesis of this character and his development over the past 60 years, but also brings the subject down to earth, describing the humans behind the character, and showing reincarnations in various commercial media.

Originally created by Toronto-born artist Joe Shuster and Cleveland-born writer Jerry Siegel, Superman is probably the most globally-recognized modern fictional hero around today. This fame and success did not come overnight however. "The Complete History" describes in detail how the teenage duo of Shuster and Siegel spent years unsuccessfully trying to get their favourite creation published as a newspaper strip and then as a comic book. During this time, Shuster and Siegel's original concept underwent continual refinement and rethinking. The idea evolved from a somewhat Nietzchean idea of "The Superman", a human adventurer with superior intellect and indomitable willpower (but who is still otherwise a human being), to a version based more in science fiction, where Superman is actually from another world - part of a race of highly advanced beings with great physical powers. In this version, the baby (originally unnamed and later called Kal-L) descended to Earth in a spaceship to become the world's greatest protector and hero.

(Over the years, the character Batman seemed to boast more Nietzchean qualities, being credited with an indomitable will, keen intellect, powers of deduction, and also being a perfect physical specimen, expert martial artist, etc.)

Humanity and Superhumanity

What I find the most interesting about the history of the Superman character are the stories of the humanity and frailties of the people connected to him. I don't want to short-change the incredible contributions of later Superman artists including Curt Swan, John Byrne, or Alex Ross, but I've decided to focus more on the TV and movie incarnations here, although "Superman: The Complete History" deals with representations of the Man of Steel equally well in almost all media.

With the death of actor Christopher Reeve in 2004, we were reminded of the tenuous connection between humanity and superhumanity. We watched while the actor replaced his physical strengths with what seemed like an invulnerable will to survive and rehabilitate, and were inspired as he created greater awareness and funding for spinal chord research. Robin Williams said of his friend that he went from being Superman to being Buddha.

A previous generation went through their own evaluation of the line between man and myth when Superman actor George Reeves died under mysterious circumstances in 1959. "The Complete History" describes Reeves' fame as Superman, his frustration at how the role had limited his acting career, and how he had devoted himself to living up to the part, for the sake of his young fans.

Once, when onstage as Superman, a young fan pointed a pistol at Reeves with the intention of seeing a bullet bounce off Superman's invulnerable chest. Reeves convinced the kid to put the gun down by calmly telling him that the ricocheting bullet might hurt someone. That's a heroic move in itself.

It disturbed me to see closeups of George Reeves tattered and slightly marked-up Superman costume. It underscored the travails of a normal man who had probably done his best to keep a fantasy alive. Closeups of Christopher Reeve's Superman costume look similarly down-to-earth.

Maybe the seemingly-super fabric looks so plain because we really want the cotton to stay pulled over our eyes, like how a child idolizes a parent, elevating them above all others, only to later discover their human weaknesses, like going through your Dad's closet and discovering his secret identity, but realizing too late that the costume had been the only thing stopping those bullets the whole time.

It's difficult to take the first time the fantasy breaks down in the face of real life. All the same, we try to believe that a man or woman can fly.

March 25, 2005

"Steamboy" by Katsuhiro Otomo

Steamboy almost doesn't run out of you-know-what...

I was a big fan of Japanese filmaker Katsuhiro Otomo's famous feature-length animation, Akira. Even almost 20 years later, that film's amazing visual style, interwoven story and massive-scale events still holds up against newer, long-form animated films, in my opinion. (Roger Ebert's review of Steamboy is much more critical than mine.)

Steamboy looks very different from Akira. Instead of Akira's futuristic post-World War III Japan, Steamboy is set in a modified version of Victorian England. It is a world and a time in which the Industrial Revolution is still in full swing, and steam power is still a major technology.

Ray Steam is a young Manchester boy whose father and grandfather have developed the steamball, a mysterious iron orb capable of generating vast amounts of pressure, thanks to a mysterious "heavy liquid" (an obvious metaphor for atomic energy). Steam drives the movie's symbolism as well as the mechanics of Ray's world. Everywhere, you see wisps of steam coming from underneath trains, or hissing out of various contraptions.

Ray's father has disappeared mysteriously (is there any other way?) A couple of strange and sinister-looking men show up at Ray's home, intent on collecting the steamball, saying they have been sent by Rays' father. Ray's grandfather appears suddenly (voiced unmistakably by Patrick Stewart) and warns everyone that these men are not to be trusted. Ray grabs the steamball and runs off. This is where we really start to see where the world of Steamboy differs from Victorian England. Ray hops into this contraption that looks like a motorized hula hoop and chugs off awkardly down the road. More bad guys show up, one of whom is driving a massive steam-powered automobile which looks more like a bulldozer than a car.

At this point, I went from "Wow" to "What the...?" Why does the bad guys' vehicle have to be so dang big - like the size of a small house - while Ray's steam-powered (albeit experimental) little escape vehicle is only the size of a large barrel hoop? Technologically, this and a few other things in Steamboy seemed inconsistent to me, but dramatically it worked very well, reinforcing Ray's smallness to remind us of his low odds of success. In this way, Otomo uses his technological symbols masterfully. It makes more sense symbolically than it would if you were looking at it purely from an engineer's perspective.

Anyway, Ray is pursued and captured, in spite of the best efforts of Robert Louis Stevenson (really), and his blonde-haired assistant, a young man whom I hoped and expected would provide some support for poor young Ray.

Ray finds himself in a fine dining hall, and this is where we meet the movie's most annoying and repetitive character, a snotty rich blonde girl named (get this) Scarlet O'Hara. I really disliked this character intensely at first. She had little to contribute to the movie other than to act as an opposite to Ray's background and values, and use the word "horrid" in almost every freakin' sentence. I suppose she was supposed to represent bourgeoise upper-class English society, but I really found her to be an annoying and useless character, with rare exceptions (read about this further down).

Ray's Dad walks into the room much to Ray's shock. This is handled actually very well, in an understated, almost comatose manner. Ray's Dad walks in, Ray's face is shocked, but instead of a confrontation, an attempt at a hug, or a long line of exposition, he just watches his father sit down and says nothing. I got the impression Ray was helpless or didn't know what to say, and that the differences in his Dad's appearance and manner had stopped Ray cold. This is a case of "less is more" in the movie's style and dialogue, and unfortunately, one of the few places where it happens.

Ray becomes essentially an employee in his father's creation, called "The Steam Castle", a massive architectural structure which sits adjacent to the London World's Fair. We see that his Dad has gone a bit bonkers as he raves about his plans to unveil his master creation to the world. Ray discovers his Grandfather limping around inside the guts of the castle, desperately trying to sabotage the machinery and undermine his son's plans. Grandfather convinces Ray that his father is now mad, and that nothing good will come of his plans. With his help, Ray steals the steamball back from the heart of the Steam Castle's engine, leaving his Dad with only two balls instead of three.

Ray is reunited with Robert Louis Stevenson, whom we had believed would be his protector, but is actually working in the interests of the British government, which sees the technology of the family Steam as a threat to British sovereignty and national security. Thus, a large battle ensues on the Thames between the British Navy and forces emerging from the Steam Castle.

In one scene, Otomo has Scarlet stupidly walking outside in the pitch of battle, vainly trying to find out what's going on, and looking for Ray. (This reminded me of the old Emporer from the movie "Ran", who had gone mad, walking along a beach in a daze.) For a moment I saw Scarlet knock-kneed with fear as her little red and white parasol was blown inside out from the shock wave of a big blast. This said to me that the aristocracy is ridiculous in the face of war. I had hated Scarlet because she was useless and incapable of taking care of herself (in spite of her arrogance and claims to the contrary), but for that moment, I actually began to feel sorry for her for that same reason.

While all this is happening, a slimy couterier/salesmen praises the efficiency of the Steam Castle military technology to a cadre of international arms buyers sitting on a balcony above the battle. We watch a scripted demonstration begin to go wrong, and the international arms buyers try to escape in a waiting drigible.

The realization that Stevenson is acting on behalf of the British government, and the cold and realistic emphasis on military purchasing and battlefield strategy turned Steamboy from a child's adventure movie into a more sophisticated drama. Ray is caught between opposing forces, and can hardly trust anyone.

At the height of the battle, Ray's Dad, sitting in his glass-enclosed control room (looking like a cross between a mad scientist and the Phantom of the Opera) unleashes his ultimate surprise of the Steam Castle. We watch something the size of ten city blocks and 20 stories high slowly propel itself into the air on massive jets of steam.

Briefly but strikingly, we observe the side effect of this: at the level of the London streets, massive billows of steam flow towards the camera, almost identical to the smoke and debris seen in the famous 9/11 news footage.

But, still missing it's critical third ball (which Ray is riding around on, trying to evade flying enemy soldiers), the Steam castle cannot stay aloft for long. Scarlet O'Hara says "horrid" a few more times, and we watch the Steam Castle crash into the ground.

This is where I expected the movie to end, with the bad (?) guys having been defeated, but I must say that Otomo's story kept the idea of good and bad ambiguous right up to the end. Even Ray's father and grandfather, whom I had seen as working against each other through most of the film, work together at the end, trying to get the Steam Castle aloft one more time. In a nice moment, Ray's Dad (whose delusions seem to have relaxed a bit by this point) tells his father that they can show off a bit of the GrandFather's original vision for the Steam Castle. GrandDad yanks on various levers and turns some large wheels (of which there are many in every scene), and we watch as carousels, flags and all kinds of mechanized entertainments fold out of the Castle. Pipey fairground music plays, delighting the Londoners as they watch from their apartment windows. The Grandfather's vision was one of benevolence and entertainment - fun - as opposed to the Father's seriousness and focus on military and economic power. We're shown a trail of air bubbles and a small periscope going down the Thames, telling us that Ray's father and grandfather have escaped together.

What's it all about, Otomo?

In this movie, Victorian England provides a metaphor for almost any first-world nation, but I immediately assumed it was aimed squarely at the United States. Steam power represents the atom of course. Similar to Otomo's movie Akira, the spectre of atomic weapons is present. Obviously, this still resonates for the Japanese people, most of all, as they have certainly paid the highest price of it.

Although the story seemed to run a little flat for me, with more emphasis on explosions and action than character or story development, I still liked this movie. Otomo apprently spent 10 years deveoping this movie, and I must respect the quality and beautiful style of his visuals. It has a cautious message to give about the applications of technology, and it helped me realize that on a moral and social level, we may not have yet evolved that far from the Victorian era after all.

March 16, 2005

Words from an Alberta RCMP...

This man's letter was send to me by a relative, and I wanted to share it with you.

(For further background, please read my previous post on the loss of four RCMP in Alberta)

"Things I feel that I must say in the light of the recent assassination of four of my brothers. First I must state that these are my personal views and are not necessarily the views of the RCMP or any governments I serve.

Before I start I would like to qualify myself, my back ground and training. I have been a very proud member of the RCMPolice for the past 15 years serving in rural Alberta. Prior to my full time engagement in the force I served as an Auxiliary member of the RCMPolice for 7 years in 2 detachments in B.C. I am an experienced and senior member of this force. My duties over and above general investigations and law enforcement include providing ongoing firearms and use of force options training to the members of this force.

We all deal with grief and loss differently and as such I suppose is the reason I feel I must write this. Throughout my career I have often wanted to write letters to the editor frustrated with our justice system or inaccurate details published by the media. On many occasions we as a police force have been unfairly criticized based on partial truths and limited facts presented by the media or persons of less desirable qualities. We as police officers quietly and professionally accept this as we are restricted (by civil and criminal liabilities, privacy laws, policies, and the potential of hampering good investigations) to reveal all the facts to the Canadian Public. If the citizens of this great country were provided with all the situational factors when officers were criticized I'm confident they would support decisions and actions taken.

The loss of the 4 members last week is gut wrenching sad and a gigantic loss that has produced unbearable grief. This loss meant many things to many people but it definitely was not a surprise. The citizens of this great country have no idea what police deal with every day and night, no idea at all. On an average day we receive at least two e-mails warning of people who are dangerous to police for various reasons. Many are know to carry knives or guns and are eager to use them if confronted by police.

Unfortunately with what the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has turned into limits police in proactively addressing the risk. In most of these cases we are unable to act until something bad happens leaving the public and police officers vulnerable. Police officers deal with violence more often than most people realize and are in fact put in very dangerous situations several times a day. Considering this, injury and death of our members is an expected occurrence. Unlike a soldier we often don't know who the enemy is.

In the near future we will see the media questioning and criticizing police action and policy over this situation. It is very easy when one looks back on a situation to provide a course of action to alter an outcome. Before the bashing starts I would like to state these facts in expectation of the areas of criticism that I foresee.

First of all unlike large municipal police forces we have very limited manpower to police vast areas. In most cases we work alone and are forced into situations with little or no back up. The limited resources we have are based on our Provincial contract. Despite our efforts to increase our numbers the Province has not provided more members and money requiring us to work with numbers allocated in the late 1980's. Despite population growth and crime rates I think we continue to provide an excellent service and have done a damn fine job. It would have been nice to have placed 10 or more members on that farm to watch over things however those resources and costs are not available to us. The fact that they had two members there shows due diligence to the situation as many times I have guarded crime scenes by myself.

I suspect that the fact of the members service level, experience and training will come under attack. I would like to say right now that if someone has the intention and planning to kill a police officer they will most certainly succeed. These 4 members were assassinated and provided with no warning or opportunity to react. Why would we place a junior member at a crime scene? How else does someone learning any trade or occupation gain experience and develop skills with out exposure. As far as training goes I am proud to advise that the Mounted Police has one of finest training facilities and curriculum in the world. Our training produces police officers of the highest caliber. If this was not the case we would not be in such high demand by the United Nations. We are continually called upon for peace keeping efforts and to rebuild and train police forces around the world. As for national pride it should be known the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is the only police force in the world that polices at the municipal, provincial, national and international levels.

That has to say something about our training and capabilities. Police officer safety is paramount in our training and recertification.

I further suspect that our justice system and Charter of Rights and freedoms will come under attack (or at least debate) as it most certainly should. I would like to state that I am (as are my colleagues) a strong supporter of our Charter as it guarantees our freedom within this wonderful nation. I further believe that the intent of this charter was based on solid Canadian beliefs and wholesome values. Having said that I further believe that legal defense sector has created a billion dollar business around cutting it up and making loop holes. I do not feel the present days accepted legal interpretations were intended when it was drafted. It is ironic that the very law that was created to protect freedoms as citizens has chained and handcuffed us. It has forced us without recourse to be victims of criminals and non productive members of our society. I would suggest that common sense, fairness, reasonable and probable are traits God has granted to most Canadians however
withheld from some of our political leaders and our law interpreters.

Allowing the Supreme Court of Canada the power to veto proposed laws based on charter/constitution interpretation, limits our elected officials power for change. This in turn makes our democratic elections very superficial which is a frightening consideration.

I heard the father of one of the deceased Mounties say "something good will come of this loss" I have been able to see two good things. I have seen the Canadian people rally around their police forces with heart felt condolences, warm acknowledgements and appreciation for the work we do. For this we thank you, your thoughts, prayers and kind gestures touched the hearts of everyone in our extended family. The second is that Canadians are looking at our justice system and I believe wanting change. If positive change is made and lives are saved because of it then these deaths have not
been completely without cause.

In closing I wish to say, despite what the media or any appointed committees disclose about this occurrence please remember what I have written. There was no fault with the members, policy or the RCMP. The only thing that may have changed this outcome would have been empowerment of police officers to effectively and proactively address this type of risk. The badly needed increased money and manpower may have influenced this but likely not as the killer was focused and determined on his actions.

If you feel change is needed (real change) to our Justice System I urge you do something about it. Flex your democratic muscle and force democratic change. As police officers we know who the drug dealers, rapists and psychopaths are but we need the tools to deal with them. The same law that defines their actions as illegal also prevents their actions from being stopped or them being punished. We must put proper deterrents in our court system ensuring the message of poor behavior is not acceptable. This is our country and I feel we must provide our police with the power to protect people again. We as citizens must also have the confidence that our police officers will not abuse this power.

If you feel change is not necessary don't feel obligated to do anything. Your police officers will continue to proudly serve Canadians in the professional way we always have but please understand the limitations restricting us. Most of all, please when the next police officer dies don't say it was a surprise.

For those of you who read this whole letter thank you for letting me vent and grieve in this way. Please feel free to pass this on if you feel it has any merit, if not hit delete.

Cst. S. (Steve) Smith
Cold Lake Det."