Archive for January, 2008

Enough Snow For One Winter, Thanks

January 31, 2008

The snow is finally starting to melt.  I can see the deck and roof outside again.  The familiar Vancouver puddle is returning, and not a minute too soon.

I’m not a winter person, as you’ve probably figured.  The fact that California and Arizona are on the wrong side of the border is nothing short of a travesty of international justice.  I’m still waiting for our government to take action at The Hague.

Sure, winter snow is great for the skiers and boarders, but I’m not one of them.  Besides, there’s still plenty of snow on the mountains over on the north shore.  At least, I assume there is behind that low cloud cover obscuring the view of the top half of the mountains.

The season has its benefits, of course.  I love hockey enough to endure the kind of abuse I took from some idiot on the Skytrain yesterday for wearing my Canucks toque after they lost again, continuing their current bad stretch.  But, if I’d wanted a ‘Canadian’ winter I’d have moved to the prairies.  Prairie people know what I’m talking about because half of them are here.  Every other person you meet in Vancouver is a climate refugee from Alberta, Saskatchewan, or, occasionally, Manitoba.

It’s only the end of January, and we’ve already had more snow on the ground down here near sea level than we usually get in an entire winter.  Several days of snow cover and freezing temperatures is just not natural here.  I know we have it easy compared to everywhere else in the country – except Victoria, maybe – but I still expect the worst precipitation induced obstacle I encounter to be a puddle.  Damn you, El Nino!  Or is it Nina?

Normally, I say I could do without the rain and puddles but, after the cold spell of the past week or so, they now seem pretty palatable.

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Does Canada Lack Ambition?

January 30, 2008

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about the pending takeover of MDA’s space division by an American company and the threat to national security it represented.  I asked readers to write their MPs, cabinet ministers, and the prime minister.  I don’t know if anybody did, but I did and it seems to have been noticed. 

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty recently announced plans to begin examining foreign takeovers for national security threats in the near future.  See this article: http://www.mytelus.com/money/news/article.do?pageID=ex_business/home&articleID=2860914.  The article also discusses something else I’ve noticed:  the lack of leadership in this country has not only been at the political level, it’s also in the boardroom.

Many of our biggest and best companies are being bought up by foreign companies that aspire to be the global leaders in their sectors.  You may not realize it, but Tim Horton’s isn’t even Canadian owned anymore.  It was bought years ago by Wendy’s.  If you’ve wondered why they’ve started sharing premises, now you know.

Why don’t Canadian companies aspire to be the global leader and start buying others?  It seems that even our companies lack ambition.  They just don’t think big, or big enough.  Or maybe they’re just lazy.  Why make all that effort to make the market, when there’s a huge market on your doorstep?  Let the Americans do the hard part, we’ll just sell them the materials they need to build their vision of the world.

Why don’t we build our own vision of the world?  We’re sitting on three and a half million square miles of everything you need to build an economic monster, an empire, and what do we have?  One of the most underpopulated countries in the world, where governments typically rely on primary industries to drive the economy, sometimes at the expense of other industries.

This happened recently when government regulators dragged their feet while two Canadian electric car companies waited for approval of their vehicles.  It finally came for one after the story was featured on the news, but it was too late for the other.  The Richmond, BC based company had already decided to move overseas.  A Canadian car company lost because the government relies on oil revenue.

We need visionary leaders, in government and business, to build the kind of country we are capable of being.  But right now, they’re not there.  I hope they come along soon because if this keeps up, before long none of us will work for a Canadian company.

The True Origins of a Specious Argument

January 29, 2008

The faithful often try to tell us that without god the world would collapse into chaos.  They claim that god provided us with laws or commandments to live by and that societies base their laws on them.  This strikes me as a rather arrogant assumption that overlooks some very basic history.

In fact, the relationship probably works the other way around.  Religion took its laws from those that already existed.  Let’s look at the ten commandments, for example.  It is claimed that they brought rules to a world without any.  The implication is that people ran around killing, stealing, and raping with impunity before them.  But codes of law had been written long before the alleged burning into stone.  Hammurabi’s Code was written 400-500 year’s earlier, and there were others before that.

Another thing about Hammurabi’s code that may seem familiar from the first testament is the eye for an eye justice it espoused.  Fire and brimstone Christians will recognize much of what they believe and stand for in it.  So, rather than codes of law being based on the ten commandments, it seems to be the other way around.

This is not the only time that the old was recycled into something new by a religion.  Many older ideas, stories and myths from various cultures have been integrated into them.

So, where did these laws come from?  What inspired them, if not some kind of divine intervention?  Where did the moral authority come from?  The answer is rather mundane, actually.  These laws were come up with as a practical solution for managing the problems of the growing city states in the ancient world.

As settlements grew into towns, and towns grew into cities, it became necessary to govern the behaviour of the growing populations.  A system was needed.  Property had to be recognized.  Order had to be established.  Rules were needed to make clear what was allowed and what wasn’t.

The fact that civilization emerged at all probably indicates that those who would kill their neighbours and take their property were always in the minority.  If they weren’t, they would have killed off the more passive minority and then fought each other.  So, it seems the majority of people have always been inclined towards co-operation and peaceful co-existence, at least at the local level.

Practical problem solving using rationality and common sense.  Isn’t that how most things get done?

Belief Does Not Make You Good

January 28, 2008

There is no correlation between morality, or ethics, and religion or belief in god.  The one doesn’t require, or guarantee, the other.

China is officially atheistic but they have strong traditions and morals.  Women are taught to be modest.  They might even be considered prudish compared to western women, including Christians.  They believe a man wants to marry a virgin, so – no sex before marriage.  I’m not saying this modesty makes them better, but a religious zealot would aspire to a society of such ‘virtue’.

Things are changing, now that the country that used to talk of western decadence has adopted the mantra, “It’s glorious to be rich”.  So, it seems that economics and the pursuit of material wealth have more to do with influencing ethics and morals than belief or non-belief in a god.  You could be a highly ethical atheist or a sleazy believer.

I was once in the presence of someone who I think may have actually killed someone, and he told me he believed in god.  I found myself in the London flat of someone who knew someone I knew.  Someone else was there, too, sitting across the coffee table from me.  The conversation revealed that he was twenty-six and he’d just got out of prison after serving eight years.  So, he was sentenced at eighteen.

Maybe the situation is different in Britain these days, but at the time the papers were screaming about wishy washy liberal judges who were soft on criminals and more concerned with their rights than the victims’.  They also complained about parole being automatic.  So, if he served eight years, he was probably sentenced to at least twelve to fifteen.

I wondered what an eighteen year old kid had to do to get a twelve to fifteen year sentence from a wishy washy judge who thinks he deserves another chance and that, given the position of disadvantage he started from, it was inevitable that he would make some bad decisions.  The only two things I could think of were murder or a particularly brutal rape.

But, he believes in god, so, according to his fellow believers, he’s a better, more ethical person than me.

God’s Free Gift

January 27, 2008

A couple of years ago, on my way to the supermarket one Sunday, I was walking along East Broadway and passed a church.  There was a man standing just inside the church’s property line facing a couple of young girls, who were probably about twelve or thirteen years old, standing on the sidewalk just outside the property line.  As I approached, I heard one of the girls say something like, “So, if we come in, do we get to keep the presents?”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Had the religious really stooped to such new lows?  Luring unaccompanied children – without parental consent – into their churches with presents?  I glanced at the man.  Incredibly, HE shot ME a dirty look.  I guess I offended him by catching him doing what he must have known was wrong.  If he didn’t know it was wrong, he would have carried on nonchalantly and wouldn’t have noticed me passing.  Couldn’t he hear his own conscience?

Imagine there wasn’t a church behind the man.  You see a man offering young girls presents to come inside.  What would you think?  Utterly abhorrent, predatory behaviour.  For some reason, religions get away with things we would otherwise find offensive, or even criminal.

Although this was the first time I’d ever seen such blatant and crass religious marketing, I later found out it was by no means an isolated incident.  A Korean student told me last summer that it’s common in Korea.  Christian churches routinely offer children presents to come in and join a mass.  Korea and Asia are ‘growth markets’ for Christianity.  Make no mistake, they’re in the god ‘business’.

Looking back, the guy standing just inside the property reminds me of the legal fine line the girls standing in the doorways of the ‘hostess’ bars in London’s Soho district tread.  Now there’s a comparison to be proud of!

I feel a little ashamed that I didn’t do anything about this guy.  I wish I’d called a cop.  But, being the nice, tolerant Canadian that I am, I didn’t.  We have to respect religion, after all.

Why?

Self-Serving Faith

January 26, 2008

I was having a coffee at a sidewalk cafe on Granville Street one day, when I noticed a couple of girls a couple of tables over.  I noticed one in particular, actually.  A pretty, dark haired girl in one of those knitted jacket things.  The attraction didn’t last long, though.

She may have noticed me noticing her.  Maybe not.  Anyway, she then said to her friend, loud enough for me to hear, “You know what I pray for?  I pray that the creator gets my dad to buy me a condo.”  Sigh…  Suddenly, I didn’t feel like giving her a demonstration of just how charming I can be.

Disappointment aside, this merely demonstrated – again – that faith is often accompanied by ulterior motives.  Praying for material gain and comfort.  Nothing new there.  Mundane.  Common.

Her lack of sincerity also made me think that many of the people who had suddenly declared themselves believers after George Bush was elected weren’t genuine.  They were just going with the flow.  Taking the path of least resistance.  Following the crowd, like sheep.  You can see how they could blend in with the full-time believers so easily.  Come join our flock…

Some people are followers and others identify with and emulate authority figures.  They crave power and authority so they take on its look and stance.  When Jimmy Carter was president of the U.S., my father wore cardigans.  During Lee Iaccoca’s high profile reign at Chrysler, he wore similar glasses.  If the current emperor talks of faith and god, many people will agree, to be like him.

I question the numbers of the truly faithful.  I think a lot of people hold onto half-hearted belief because thinking for themselves and taking personal responsibility is too much effort.  Either they already have enough on their plates with work and survival or they’re just too lazy.  They’ll make do with a boxed solution, even if it’s imperfect.  It’s convenience over quality.  A replacement system will probably have to be neatly packaged and easily consumable for them to go along with it.

Then there is another kind of person who holds onto what they don’t truly believe – the bet hedger.  I used to see a long-legged girl who confessed, “It doesn’t make sense to me, either, but I believe just in case I’m wrong.”  I guess the fires of hell are a powerful enough image to intimidate even sound logic and common sense.  Faith, it seems, is an investment.

Then again, maybe I’m just being stupid.  Maybe I should have shown the pretty girl at the cafe just how charming I can be, and let her father buy us a condo.  Sigh…  I’m too good for my own good.

Pork on Friday

January 25, 2008

I like to eat pork on Fridays.  Not just because I like pork – which I do – but because it’s a simple way to defy the ridiculous dogma of four major religions at once.

Christians are supposed to eat fish on Fridays.  Jews and Muslims, when not trying to kill each other, actually agree that pork shouldn’t be eaten at all, let alone on their holy day.  Hindus are supposed to be vegetarian, a position I can understand when individuals freely take it but I don’t like any religion telling me what I have to do or eat.

So, by the simple act of eating pork on Friday I can thumb my nose at those who impose themselves on us.  It’s my little protest, and no one gets hurt – except the pig, I suppose.

It surprises me that these rules persist, but they do.  A few years ago, when my brothers visited Vancouver, we went for Japanese food.  It was Friday.  One brother had recently gone vegetarian for religious reasons.  The other brother and his future wife had sushi, but he seemed a bit surprised and slightly offended when I ordered katsu don.  I guess he adhered to the old rules and expected that I would, too.

But the rules are more deeply ingrained in other places.  Years ago, in the cafeteria of an organization I worked for in London, I was looking over the lunch ‘options’.  There was nothing but fish.  Not being in the mood for seafood, I mentioned it to the middle aged woman behind the counter.  When I asked if there was anything else, she replied in an Irish accent, “No, it’s Friday”.  When I furled my brow, trying to find the logic, she added, “Fish Friday”, in a tone suggesting I’m supposed to know this.  After more facial contortion I replied, “Why, because they both begin with ‘F’?”.  I had successfully forgotten fishy rules, having liberated myself from my upbringing.  Now they were being imposed on me again.

It ended moments later with her saying that if I wanted something other than fish she wasn’t going to make or serve it.  She absolutely refused to consider the possibility that someone else might not share her belief.  She felt she had every right to impose her beliefs on everyone else.  It was all about her, not the diverse collection of customers.

My peaceful protest may seem silly, but so are the rules the little act of defiance is aimed at.  That’s the point.  And where does anyone get off actually being offended by what someone else chooses to eat?  If that’s not a sure sign that religions and the religious take themselves too seriously, what is?

Oil and God at the Movies

January 24, 2008

The makers of ‘There Will Be Blood’ know how to end a movie.  There’s no mistaking it, the preacher was a charlatan and, unlike other movies I’ve mentioned before, the ending makes it clear what to do about it.  It doesn’t allude to or broadly hint at, it says and follows through.

Although the story is about a flawed man, a loner whose driven pursuit of his life work of developing oil fields and independent wealth causes him to miss opportunities to make a real difference to a few rather than a modest difference to many, he can still claim the moral high ground over the preacher Eli, the self-proclaimed Third Prophet.

Eli’s goal is, quite simply, self-agrandizement and power over the people.  He wants oil money to build his church.  Oil and god – where have I heard that before?  In his church, he is quite the performer and clearly loves an audience.  The world of the theatre would benefit from his presence.  He demands to be introduced by name and allowed to bless the oil well when it is about to be started up, thus presenting himself to his community as the bringer of wealth.

Unfortunately for Eli, our flawed hero doesn’t like demands or being told what to do.  He’s fiercely independent, remember.  So, he pointedly doesn’t call Eli forward at the gathering of the people and blesses the well himself.  This sets off a see-saw series of humiliations based on who is in the position of power.

Although they detest each other, they do business or cooperate when it’s expedient.  Eli doesn’t seem to have a problem with doing deals with the devil.  In fact, it’s quite profitable.  Following a $5000 donation to the church, Eli leaves on a ‘mission’ to other oilfield communities.  We later find him better dressed and with a large, bejewelled cross around his neck.

A Brahms violin soundtrack creates a constant air of menace and uneasiness.  It sustains you through a long build up.  You’re expecting something big to happen, and when it finally does… it is somehow satisfying, despite the hero’s continued imperfection.  Well worth the wait.

Crisis? What Crisis?

January 23, 2008

So, the world is in crisis.  A global market meltdown has stocks tumbling on exchanges all around the world, like dominoes.  Obscene amounts of money have simply evaporated.  There is talk of recession in the U.S.  So what?

The sun was out in Vancouver in the middle of winter, yesterday.  In this, the week including what is supposedly the most depressing day of the year, it shone gloriously and gregariously on us, permeating everything, penetrating even the most sullen eyes in an orgy of retinal stimulation.  It had to be enjoyed.

Coming out of a seminar, I had a couple of hours to kill.  Under a cloudless sky, I walked through downtown.  I decided to walk past the construction site of the new tallest building in the city, to take a look.  Did I need to?  Had I never seen a highrise under construction?  Of course not.  Vancouver is a forest of construction cranes.

Then I decided to look for a coffee and wandered a bit, before remembering I had no cash.  That required a detour to the bank and it’s cash machine.  A direction to go in for a while.  Sights and sounds.  Girl in extremely short skirt and high boots.  Those legs must be cold.

Cashed up, I casually meandered in the direction of a coffee shop, looking in some shop windows and bars along the way.  When I reached the coffee shop, I looked in the window and found all the comfortable chairs were taken.  An excuse to keep walking.

At the corner of Granville and Drake, facing the open space over the bridge, the sun was blinding.  I had to avert my eyes, it was so good.  Crossing Granville Bridge, I could see Mount Baker, in Washington state.  Another country!  Miles and miles away!  Visibility was fantastic.  I looked down at the boats below, over at Bowen Island and the mountains on the far side of Howe Sound.  A decadent feast for the eyes.

Cold?  What cold?  I didn’t want to be anywhere but outside, in the sun.  The crisis would either solve itself or still be there tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s here, now, and there’s frost on the roof outside.  The puddle off to the right is frozen.   Cold, by local standards, but there’s not a cloud in the sky over the north shore mountains.  I might just take another walk today.  The crisis will still be there tomorrow.

Hands On or Manual?

January 22, 2008

I recently bought a digital camera during the Post-Boxing Week sales.  Or is it the New Year sales?  The Let’s Milk This Thing For Everything It’s Worth sales?  Whatever.  Why not just give me the best price all the time?

And, while we’re at it, now that the Canadian dollar is roughly at par with the American dollar, how about charging us the same price?  The same REGULAR price – not a sale price that brings it down to the American regular price.  I don’t buy the excuses they give for charging us more.  We’re subsidizing the American market.

Anyway, it was just a simple, inexpensive little camera for some quick snaps.  I thought I’d ease into digital before dropping a bomb on a digital SLR that I could use all my lenses with.  But, this little ninety nine dollar wonder appears to be capable of way more than I thought.  It even records movies – and with sound!  I doubt they would be of very high quality, but it could be a useful feature in the right moment if there’s nothing better at hand.

I don’t know these things for certain, though, because I haven’t actually used the damn thing, yet.  You see, I haven’t even set the camera up yet because I haven’t made it through the instruction manual.  It seems to be designed to make you not want to read it.  It’s repetitive, unclear, and just plain annoying.  It’s so annoying, in fact, that every time I pick it up, I put it down again and do something else.

I should probably just play around with the camera and figure it out myself.  A menu system is a menu system, after all.  But, as the one clear part of the manual says, digicams are pigs for batteries.  I’m worried the batteries will die before the self-guided tutorial is over.

Never mind that, it’s a beautiful sunny day and there may even be a couple more of those this week.  There are such things as rechargeable batteries.  Throw caution to the wind.  Live dangerously.  Just pick the thing up and use it.

If you happen to be an executive in a foreign consumer goods/electronics corporation, I’m available for writing services at reasonable rates.