Friday, April 27, 2007

Canary In A Coalmine, Wearing A Tinfoil Hat (Updated)

Meet the electromagnetically over-sensitive.

This is Sarah Dacre of London. She claims to be affected by the electromagnetic noise being generated by modern living. That's not a beekeeper's mask: it's a fine metal mesh designed to block radio-frequency signals.

I admit I'm torn by this story: I'm not a technophobe, but I'm also aware of how technology has affected our lives in ways we didn't anticipate. I'm all but ready to dismiss this woman's story, based (if nothing else) on the notion that she thinks a tinfoil-lined home is going to be letting any signals in at all. These things are pervasive, but unless you live right next to a power station or a cell phone tower, they're pretty weak.

But it would be easy to laugh and dismiss her, and people like her, when the truth is that the overall safety (or lack thereof) of the constant radio-wave bath we're all taking 24/7 hasn't been nearly proved yet.

All I know is that a voice signal on a cell phone takes up a LOT more bandwidth than a text message ever could... and yet I'm still charged for every text message I send, whereas my voice calls are "included". At the risk of sounding like an old fart: people (especially teenagers) really DO have more money than sense these days...

Why haven't you heard more negatives about cell phones? Follow the money. As long as people are just alive enough to keep spending money, everything's gonna be just fine.

Besides, only crazy people wear tinfoil hats, right?

UPDATE, August 30/07: Most people seem to agree cellphones are harmless. At least, most people act that way. Maybe not the staff at Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel where a recent study indicates that using a cell phone for as little as ten minutes can trigger changes in the brain leading to cancer.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

This Little Piggy Ate The Market

Once upon a time there was a fine little piggy named Walton. Of the many pigs on the farm, he was easily the smartest and the most efficient. Pigs are a good thing to have around, after all... they produce so much more protein than a bean stalk usually will. So naturally, the farmer loved him. Walton gained weight better than any of the other pigs.

One day Walton had a brilliant idea. He decided that he could get plumper if he ate the feed for the other pigs while they weren't looking.

And he did.

Then Walton decided he could get even larger if he started eating the chicken feed too... which he did. He even cut special deals with the manufacturers of the pig feed and the chicken feed so that he could get more of it than anyone else for less. And Walton got bigger.

Then Walton started eating chickens one by one. There were an awful lot of them, so no one noticed if a few went missing. Even as more and more chickens (and the occasional pig and cow) went missing, no one asked any questions. Everyone simply marveled at what a huge, fine, powerful, gigantic pig Walton had become.

Then one day Walton ate all the chickens. Then he the farmer. Then he ate all the other male pigs, mated with the females, and produced thousands of piglets. The piglets moved to other farms where they ate all the feed and the chickens and the other pigs and the farmers too.

Soon the planet was overrun with huge greedy pigs, and everyone was forced to bow down before them.

In a related story, Wal-Mart has announced it is planning to open 6600 in-store medical clinics in the US in the next five years.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The News From Sirius

Our world sits inside an ever-expanding ball of electromagnetic noise. Some of it is manufactured by us -- radio, television signals, cell phones -- and some of it is merely the stuff reflecting off of us. All of it travels at a finite speed: the speed of light. Incomprehensibly fast in mundane human terms, but finite nonetheless.

Everything that has ever happened here, from the perspective on an observer elsewhere, is happening right now... provided someone is listening with the right equipment.

On an undiscovered iceball in the Oort Cloud, I am watching an earthworm make his way through the rain. Tau Ceti is just now receiving word of my marriage. Near Epsilon Eridani, it's Grade Six and I'm kissing Julie Raisbeck. Somewhere around Wolf 359 I am being handed my divorce decree. Near Proxima Centauri I am giving my heart away again. Around Capella I am in an incubator.

On Europa the idea to write this is just now occurring to me.

Whenever I start to feel small and sad and alone, I remember that things are going much better for me somewhere else. It's just the "here and now" part that's so challenging sometimes.

I live my life in ever widening circles
that reach out across the world
Perhaps I shall never succeed in reaching
the final circle, but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, that ancient tower.
I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still do not know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

-Reiner Maria Wilke

...and as The Smiths once asked: how soon is now?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Vaya Con Marijuana?

"... the law that we have in place has created an entire underground system of smugglers, inn keepers, and document forgers. And that's not the American way, by the way."
-George W. Bush, on immigration reform

I've never really understood what to make of the American fascination with illegal immigrants. Having a hugely wealthy nation just north of an incredibly broke one certainly provides the motivation for the immigrants. But Americans -- you know, the ones who had the common sense and planning skills to be BORN there -- always seem to be up in arms about it.

I don't see what the fuss is all about. Every time I've been in the States I've seen a lot of Mexicans, and they always seem to be terribly busy, clearing tables and sweeping floors and nannying babies and such. And apparently Dubya seems (unlike others I've heard from) to grasp that these immigrants are much-needed human beings.

The one thing that puzzles me about his comments on illegal immigrants today? Given that these immigrants are human beings responding to natural human motivations, it's nice that Bush is concerned about the huge underground economy and crime that such a thing naturally generates if it's made illegal.

But what about the billions of dollars in associated crime and thousands of lives wasted by the "War On Drugs"? Just as people have a natural urge to feed themselves and their families (and will take risks to do so), people also have a natural urge to get messed up in the head. Alcohol, THC, nicotine, caffeine, cocaine, chocolate, Ecstasy... all mood-altering substances.

The Republican Party may finally be ready to recognize that illegal immigrants are human beings. That's a step int he right direction. Maybe if they can keep up the momentum and finally recognize human nature, America will be a saner and wiser place.

Nah... I must be stoned.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

An Open Letter To My Buddy, Cliff Hesby

Dear Cliff:

Remember the good old days when you and I used to walk in circles around the Telus Tower, wearing signs and letting everyone know that things were going to go straight to hell with the phone company if we voted to approve the company's offer?

I hate to say it, but I think we were right.

This is a picture of the phone pedestal behind my place. It's an older one, but should still work just fine. I've lived here since last summer, and every time it rains water gets into a huge gaping hole near the base and makes the phone and Internet connection bad and/or useless for a couple of days afterwards.

I make my living on the phone. Did I mention that, Cliff?

Anyway, as you can image I have called Telus a few times about this. And as you can well imagine, the problem hasn't been taken care of. Had you heard that Telus has installed a system to prioritize your calls based on how much money you're worth to them? Man, technology is cool. It can replace so many people, and do it so efficiently! If only I had Telus TV and a Telus cell phone and Homesitter and such, I'd be up to my eyeballs in service, service, service!

I know a lot of these people personally. They are, for the most part, decent hard-working people. They just seem to be trapped in a place where that hard work and decency is being thwarted by the structure of the corporation they are working for.

Despite all these kind and talented and wonderful people, after ten months I finally had to go out back and seal the pedestal up with a garbage bag and tape, as you can see in the picture. It seems to be working just fine now.

My question to you, Cliff: should I feel bad because I went out and did a Union job myself, rather than waiting another ten months for the van to show up?

Yours in righteous fury,


Saturday, April 14, 2007

Less Than Human

Someone, somewhere, wants you to die. Right now. Someone you haven't even met is more than willing to push a button or pull a trigger or sign a document to kill you simply because you were BORN.

Specifically: because you were born Jewish. Or Kurdish. Or Bosnian or Hutu or Tutsi or Armenian or Gypsy or white or black or...

A few pebbles acting in concert can start an avalanche. A few malcontents can gather over beer and form a political party. Add some organization and some motivation, and you have Hell On Earth.

Today is Yom HaShoah... Holocaust Day. Remember.

Dedicated to my great-grandfather, a Zigeuner, made to wear a brown badge and devoured along with ten million others in Europe during the Holocaust. There, but for the grace of human decency, go all of us.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

I Lost A Hero Today: Kurt Vonnegut,

"Once upon a time on Tralfamadore there were creatures who weren't anything like machines. They weren't dependable. They weren't efficient. They weren't predictable. They weren't durable. And these poor creatures were obsessed by the idea that everything that existed had to have a purpose, and that some purposes were higher than others.

These creatures spent most of their time trying to find out what their purpose was. And every time they found out what seemed to be a purpose of themselves, the purpose seemed so low that the creatures were filled with disgust and shame. And, rather than serve such a low purpose, the creatures would make a machine to serve it. This left the creatures free to serve higher purposes. But whenever they found a higher purpose, the purpose still wasn't high enough.

So machines were made to serve higher purposes, too. And the machines did everything so expertly that they were finally given the job of finding out what the higher purpose of the creatures could be. The machines reported in all honesty that the creatures couldn't really be said to have any purpose at all.

The creatures thereupon began slaying each other, because they hated purposeless things above all else. And they discovered that they weren't even very good at slaying. So they turned that job over to the machines, too. And the machines finished up the job in less time than it takes to say, 'Tralfamadore.'"

-Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

"I've had a hell of a good time. I tell you, we are here on earth to fart around and don't let anybody tell you any different."

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Stem Cells Save The Day, Again

Science marches on!

Okay... why were you opposed to stem cell research again, exactly...?

Oh. Right. You were afraid it was going to lead to THIS...

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

An Earthworm Spoke To Me

"If worms have the power of acquiring some notion, however rude, of the shape of an object and of their burrows, as seems to be the case, they deserve to be called intelligent; for they can act in a manner as would a man under similar conditions."

-Charles Darwin, "The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms with Observations on Their Habits" (1881)

It rained in Calgary last night, and the earthworms came out.

I've seen a lot of worms in my time, having spent my first eight years of life in the temperate rain forest climate of British Columbia... and of course the ages of four to eight are The Golden Years Of Invertebrate Studies.

I encountered one particular worm last night... huge by local standards, about 25 centimetres at least in its relaxed state, and fat. This struck me as unusual, because although worms can have a natural lifespan in the wild of four to eight years one doesn't usually see nearly as many big ones here as you would in Kelowna, for example, and I always presumed this was because a prairie winter is hard for a dormant earthworm to survive.

This lead to a lot of worried amateur speculation on my part about global warming.

But even more remarkable was the performance to follow. Please refer to the above diagram. And no, I'm not an artist.

The lot slopes down to the sidewalk and has some drainage issues, as does most of the block. There is one particular step out front that is askew. It is a standard old school 30 inch by 24 inch (76 by 60 cm) cement block, with a drop of 15 centimetres.

I discovered the above described Superworm (whom I immediately dubbed "Shai-Hulud") with his front end at point number two on the diagram. Following his trail, he had emerged from the mud at point one and was headed in a straight line, roughly northwest, towards where I found him.

The worm tested the 15 cm drop by extending himself slowly downwards and feeling around. He came close to touching down, but stopped and retracted. He then slid along the edge to the north a bit and tried it again. I watched the worm repeat this process, and realized that he was following some sort of fairly simple algorithm -- "extend 30 percent of your mass this way, and if you don't find anything pull back, because you might fall otherwise" or something like that.

The rule still applied when Shai-Hulud hit the ledge at point three, which could have been confusing for him. He pressed on to the north end of the step and found the same conditions. So he proceeded along the north edge. Here the slope soon picks up and eventually I thought he'd poke his way along to the first spot he felt comfortable with and take the leap, so to speak.

However, once the worm had made three attempts and had encountered dirt at ever-increasing closeness, he then RAN (by earthworm standards) to point four on the step and climbed down from there. By my very informal calculations, point four is the closest point the worm could have lowered himself to the ground where he could still have more than 30 percent of his total mass on the ground and the rest above.

To summarize: it appears that this earthworm was able not only to hold in his blind, deaf, almost literally brainless head (hell, he doesn't even have a head!) an image of the terrain around him, but also to project the best destination based on incomplete data. He had calculated a slope as surely as a surveyor.

This sent me off to the Internet to look up "earthworm intelligence." As you might expect, there isn't a lot out there. However, I discovered that one of Charles Darwin's lesser-known works was on earthworm intelligence. It seems he was ahead of his time -- again -- with the notion that earthworms partake of a certain intelligence.

I've done some reading about animal intelligence. It's fun stuff, teaching chimps to gamble and such.

Then I got all mystical with it, wondering about whether all living things, or all things with complexity, or all things period partake of some kind of universal consciousness. By this point everyone reading this should be an adult enough to form their own opinions on such things, so I won't bore you with my beliefs. But they're pretty wacky, let me tell you.

There was some comfort in the notion of Shai-Hulud and I both feeling our way along, blessed with the gift of Life Itself, both part of a Grand Design.

Or, of course, the worm and I could simply both be deaf and blind things stumbling along without Clue-Fucking-One, except for our (probably wildly inaccurate) speculations about what the Grand Design is... or whether there is one at all.

Either way, Shai-Hulud and I have questions.

"Freude trinken alle Wesen
An den Brüsten der Natur;
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.
Küsse gab sie uns und Reben,
Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod;
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott"

(All creatures drink joy
At the breasts of nature;
All the good, all the evil
Follow her roses' trail.
Kisses gave she us, and wine,
A friend, proven unto death;
Pleasure was to the worm granted,
And the cherub stands before God.)

-Schiller, Ode To Joy