Sunday, September 25, 2011


Illuminated manuscripts entrance me. I once sat in a tiny park next to a busy arterial road so engrossed in a folio sized book about the Lindisfarne Gospels that I didn’t notice the light was failing until I couldn’t read the text anymore. It had nothing whatever to do with the subject matter of those manuscripts, I’ve never been religious, but for some reason that style of illustration triggers in me a sense of history like nothing else.
Years later my girlfriend, eventually my wife, wrangled a work sponsored trip to VeloCity, the world cycling conference when it was being held in Dublin, Ireland. She asked if I wanted to go along and I struggled for an answer because the cost was prohibitive. The tipping point came when I realised that I could see the Book of Kells.
It’s housed at Trinity College in it’s own special exhibit. It’s a good bit of theatre that exhibit. You walk in through a maze-like set of rooms with the history of the book, the places and history of where it’s been kept covering the walls with text and pictures.
The room in which the book, or rather the pages that are being displayed at that time, resides is dark with down lights shining on a flat glass display case the size of a moderate kitchen table. When I reached that room the display was completely surrounded. The small throng was slowly circling it counter clockwise, there were several other illuminated works to view. I got into the circle and was working my way towards the Kells pages but got more and more annoyed as people would enter the room and rather than get in the queue they would push in right where the Kells pages were.
Realising that I was getting so annoyed that I wouldn’t enjoy the experience anyway, I bailed and went to look at what else there was to see. This mostly consisted of The Long Gallery in which hundreds if not thousands of antique volumes are kept. It was practically empty and it was a bibliophiles absolute nightmare. All those treasures, literally just out of reach protected only by a dusty velvet rope. Well a rope and a guard.
We got to chatting with the guard and at one point I mentioned my frustration in not being able to see the Book of Kells. My wife, being a more practical sort, asked him when was it not busy. He looked at his watch and said “Well, right about now is usually not too bad.”
He was right. I walked in and there was only one other person. I got to stand and gaze at that illuminated piece of history for maybe five minutes undisturbed.
It was different than looking at reproductions even though it was behind glass. Profound. Moving. I think the main difference is that seeing the physical object that was created with so much love and skill so very long ago makes the passage of time real in a way that reproduction cannot. It is essentially different because all those years happened to that actual object right there and because that object is indisputably real then those years are made real too. And in exactly the same way it makes the artist who painted it real.
It’s not mysticism, it’s not metaphysics, but it is emotion, very human emotion. In order to connect with things as abstract as memory and history sometimes we need a real, physical object to remind us of the reality of the past.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Heh, I left the last post on what has to be the lamest cliff-hanger ending of all time.  Did the power go out, or didn't it?  The tension of not knowing must be unBEARable.  :)

Actually, it never went out fully.  We had an 8 hour brown out that went in two stages.  The first happened just after the lights went out and came back on the first time.  I didn't really notice that the voltage had dropped because the lights came back on.  It seemed a little strange when I couldn't get the TV to come back on but we have it plugged into an after market remote switching plug and I figured that was buggered. It seemed a little more strange first time I tried to turn back on a light I'd just turned off and it wouldn't ignite.  The second time was definitely creepy and the third was downright scary.

And then I realised what was going on.  Compact florescent bulbs require a little extra kick of energy to ignite and while there was enough voltage to keep them going there wasn't enough to start them.  Neat.

After about a half hour of that the power dropped noticeably over ten seconds or so and everything went dark.  I thought that was that, full blackout, but then I stepped around the corner and the tiny led night light we leave in the hall was still as bright as ever.  The house was getting just enough power to light one led but no more.  I wonder just how that happens?  How could we end up with a voltage so low that I could probably stick my tongue in a socket and only get a little tingle?  Weird.

Anyway, when it was still out in the morning I called the power company because their website didn't list any power outage in our area.  The guy on the phone was a little dismissive once he knew where I was calling from, it had already been reported.  Full power came back maybe 10 minutes after I hung up.  I could think of that call as a complete waste of time.....or, I could think that I have such a commanding, authoritative phone presence that they fixed it right quick  because of me.  Uh, yeah.....we'll go with that shall we?

Monday, September 19, 2011

My mother is very much on the mend.  She goes home in the next couple of days.  They're still unsure if she's going to have to have an oxygen feed with her at home, but other than that things are looking good.

I've been thinking about how we know stuff.  It seems to me that the distinction between belief and knowledge is getting blurrier or even getting lost outright more and more.  Mind you, this may be an artefact of changes in myself.  To be clear, belief is what a person holds to be true, knowledge is a belief supported by evidence.

Over the last couple of years I've become involved in the skeptic and atheist communities on-line.  I've always been fascinated by science so this is a pretty natural progression.  The fundamental difference this has made in me is that it's focused my attention on what I believe, and more importantly, why I believe what I do.

Skepticism is not cynicism, nor is it disbelief for its own sake.  It concerns a rational, evidenced based epistemology.  The basic tenet is that in order to accept something as true the claim has to be logically consistent and have credible evidence to support it.  The goal is to make one's beliefs and congruent with reality as possible.  To have knowledge rather than beliefs.  You wouldn't think that such a thing would be controversial, and you would be wrong about that.  But that's another story for another time.

Being a skeptic isn't necessarily easy.  Take a look at this list of cognitive biases.  They are all the ways that your brain is programmed to deceive you.  Even being aware of them is not a guarantee that one won't get fooled.  The most insidious one for me is confirmation bias. The only defence is to be very careful when one hears things that agree with an already held belief.

Another key component of skepticism is that one must be willing to change one's beliefs as new evidence comes available.  You wouldn't think that this notion would be controversial either, and again, you'd be wrong.  I've been involved in a discussion about gender stereotypes over the last couple of days.  One participant claimed as a fact that women speak more than men.  I did some research on pubmed and found that there are a couple of recent studies that showed that there isn't any significant differences in word counts between the genders.  The woman making the claim is refusing to acknowledge that her belief might be wrong because she was taught this "fact" in the course of getting a university degree in communications.

Bah, the power just went out.  Oop, and now it's back.  I don't hold much hope it will stay on though.  It's blowing pretty hard out there.  One of the joys of country life is that when the power goes out we lose our water because we pump it out of a bore.   Every time the wind picks up in any serious way we fill a couple of buckets so we can still flush the toilet and we top up the big water filter so we have plenty of drinking water in reserve.  I also put a torch in my pocket a couple of hours ago, just in case.

I better finish up so I can save the battery on the laptop.

The final thing that's necessary to be a skeptic is the ability to say "I don't know." and be comfortable with that.  There are two reasons for this.  One is that here is so much we are still trying to figure out.  We don't know exactly how our brains function for instance.  We've got some good ideas but there's much we still don't know.  In the absence of facts the most rational thing to say is "I don't know." and leave it at that until new information comes along.

The other reason is that there just isn't enough time to research everything.  Not for most folks anyway, certainly not for me.  On topics that I've not had time to look into it's far more practical and honest for me to simply accept my lack of knowledge.  Speculation is fun of course, but that comfort with the unknown means that I never have to be stressed by what I'll find if I'm forced to look into a new subject.

Dang, laptop battery is below half and the the lights are flickering again.  Later.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Oh go on, say it.  :)
Ah well, it was a good run, nothing really to say today.

There's something peaceful about writing here knowing that whatever audience I had is long gone.  It feels like when I first started.  So in honour of that:

I'm 13 bars into a composition, and I do mean composition.  I've had three, maybe four, key changes already depending on how I harmonise that last bar of melody.  And none of them are your godawful "play the same thing in the dominant" sort of change.  Almost every motif or melody fragment is a variant of something that's come before.  I'm just now starting the section where everything moves as far away from the original theme as I can get while still being able to justify to myself that it comes from that theme.  (Yah, it's going to be a short thing, maybe 3 minutes max.) I predict key changes aplenty as I reach for notes that are not there in whatever key I happen to be in.  Ol' Bach did this all the time so why can't I? After all, I'm alive.  Him?  Not so much.

Is it any good?  Damned if I know and double damned if I care*.  Will you ever hear it?  Eh, not likely.  No one within any reasonable commute of here has ever heard of this blog.  The plan is that it'll get one public performance and that's it.  And the audience for that will be about equal to the number of people who'll read this.  :)

*Okay, that's a lie, sort of.  I'm not too worried at how well it turns out, but of course I do want it to be as good as possible.  It's just that I'm aware that there's nothing riding on it, if it fails, it fails. I'll just move on and write something else.  If it's turning out pretty good, then I'll re-write and revise until I can't improve it.  Getting older rocks, having more perspective on this sort of thing makes it so much easier.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Could they have known?  Those 19 crazed, homicidal humans, drunk on religion and righteousness, could they have know just how much they'd change the world?  I doubt it, though I suspect they hoped as much.

I'm not naive, nor am I unaware of the world outside North America.  People all over the world lived with fear and uncertainty long before that that one day in September where just how violent a world we live in was driven home .  Hell, there are even plenty of people, the destitute and desperate poor of North America, who knew this fact long before that day. The ability to turn groups of humans into the "other", into less than you are, is all that's needed to commit atrocities. Once you've done that, the rest is just planning and logistics.

I wish to live in a world where the only requirements to be ingroup is to have human DNA and act as if all people are of equal worth.  I don't even care that everyone actually believes that we're all equal, just that they act as if we are.  And isn't it a condemnation of the society in which I live that I feel the need to define what "all people" means?

To this end, I beg you, the next time you find yourself using the word "they", stop.  Stop and think about the group you're talking about.  Think about why you've grouped them together.  Take a moment to remember that no matter how different you think they are, they're all still human.  They had a mother and a father, they eat and sleep and desire.  They are most likely more similar to you than they are different.  And yes, I did this when I thought about the 911 hijackers.  Remembering that they are human too does not excuse what they did.  Remembering their humanity reminds me that I too can make people into the "other".  It reminds me that I have to better than that.

That's the lesson of 911 for me.  I will remember.

Craziness Update

I forgot to post this when it happened.  The crazy commenter who first showed up here, and again here, this time with a death threat, was arrested and is now in psych evaluation.  Despite being a little flippant about him initially, I sincerely hope he's now going to get the help he needs.  And I do think that though I was never worried about his death threats, those who lived nearer to him were right to be concerned.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

No More Lies

I don't know.
No, really.
I don't know.

Three little words.
No. Contraction.
Four little words.

How much misery?
No, seriously.
How much pain?

Made up stories.
No truth.
Couldn't say them.

Those four little words:

I do not know.


Well, my mother's condition, while still serious, has now entered the realm of comedy.  When I called her this morning I didn't get an answer.  After a couple of tries I called the nurse's station.  A rather abashed nurse told me that the overhead lift device that's used to get her in and out of bed had jammed and they were in the process of extracting her.

My brother had also showed up just as they were preparing to get her out and then the phone began ringing over and over again.  Those poor nurses.  Anyway, all was sorted.  Mum's on her third type of antibiotic and it seems to be working.  The blood infection she had has been cured and slowly the extra fluid they made her retain to raise her blood pressure is draining.  Not a moment too soon because it was exacerbating the pneumonia.  Cautious optimism is the order of the day.

One serendipitous thing was that my niece was there too.  I haven't talked to her in a couple of years I think.  She's now in grade 11 and of course I had to ask what she was planning for after graduation.  I loved how ready she was for that question.  I remember how it was for me, it got so I could recite my plans without actually thinking about it.   Plus ca change..

But there's a big difference between my plan, such as it was, and hers.  She's planning on becoming a teacher and has figured out all she has to do to achieve that.  Fan-fucking-tastic!  I almost said that out loud to her and I'm afraid I did exclaim and babble a bit.  Ah well, I am the strange uncle with the ungodly ideas who lives overseas.  I do have a reputation to uphold after all.

I was honestly happy though.  You see, there is nothing more important than education to the future of humanity.  Nothing has ever been improved on this planet of ours by a lack of education. And Canada, and much of the western world come to that, needs all the teachers it can get.  And even better, in this case we're going to be getting someone who's not only focused, and I believe capable the kind of dedication that job requires, but we're getting one who's really, really smart.

My niece and nephew are a couple of the brightest kids I know.  Sure I'm biased, but I also value my honesty enough to not let that get in the way too much.  Besides, all the stuff I've learned about critical thinking over the last few years keeps me very aware of my cognitive biases.

I pay a lot of attention when I'm around my brother's kids because I see them so seldom.  The questions they ask, and don't ask, the way they ask them and how they understand the answers leads me to believe that those two are pretty bloody bright.

So, hooray for humanity.  If she goes through with it, it'll be one small but oh so important step forward in our progress as a species.  And hell, even if she doesn't I'm pretty sure no matter what path she choses it will be one that will benefit greatly from her being on it.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Universal Daughter

The bed is too small for all three of us now.
Mum sits on the floor while I read.
You love your stories, "Daddy!  Not like that!"
Except when I try a little voice acting.

The bed is warm but the wall chills my spine.
Mum's toasty in front of the heater.
You look at me, nose inches from mine.
Except for misty eyes no one would know:

I gaze upon a universe of potential and it fills me utterly.

Joy is too small a word.

Thursday, September 08, 2011


My daughter likes to smile, squint one eye in an attempt at a wink, hold out a big thumbs up and roll her stomach muscles.  Seriously.  Picture a four year old girl with pig tails, a dimple and this expression:

Subtract the pointing and add some seriously flexible stomach contortions.

She taught herself the tummy roll after watching Sesame Street where apparently some guest did it, the rest is a bit of a mystery.  She always asks "Why are you laughing Daddy?"  Which of course makes me laugh more.  How the hell can I answer that question?

I've made an effort to always be as complete and honest with her as I can when she asks me questions.  She has a basic understanding of sex for instance.  Not the act, but only because it hasn't come up yet.  It might never, we do live on a farm after all.  But she does know that she grew in Mummy's tummy and that she started out as an egg from Mummy combined with a seed from Daddy.  She also knows when our rooster is doing that to a hen he's trying to give his seed to her.  I guess we will have to have a sex talk at some point, just to make sure that she understands that human sex isn't usually that quick, violent or one sided.  :)

When she asks what things are called I also strive to use the real word even if it's polysyllabic.  You'd be surprised at how fast she picks up even the most complex words.  A four year old's brain has huge portions of it dedicated to language acquisition, might as well take advantage of that while it lasts.

But I am at a loss to explain to her why I find that particular performance so hilarious.  I mean it just IS.  Sometimes the only honest answer is "I don't know."  Of course, it's tricky getting that out when you're snorting soy milk out your nose.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Movin' On

One stereotype of ageing is the inevitable descent into curmudgeonhood.  "Hey you kids, get offa my lawn!"  "My yard, my ball!"  For years I looked forward to this state.  I loved the idea of dropping my filters and just letting fly whenever something irritated me.  It seemed like it would take less energy than suppressing the annoyance that's inevitably generated by social interactions.  What I didn't count on is that I'm getting less and less fussed by things as I get older.

I mean, it makes sense right?  The older you get the more practice you get in dealing with the common annoyances.  When I was younger I felt that the petty shit would eventually wear me down.  It never occurred to me that I would instead get better and better at dealing with these things.

Part of it comes from being able to see that in daily life most people don't do things "to" me they do things "at" me.  The only concretely objective action that one could do "to" me would involve physical force done against my will.  A punch, slap or tickle for instance.  I'm in the fortunate situation where words can only be done "at" me.  But not everybody is in my privileged situation of course.

It's pure victim blaming to say that words can never hurt one.  Of course they can, and it's almost impossible to keep from reacting negatively to some words.  People who've been badly hurt often have triggers that crash them right back into a harmful emotional state.  A phrase or a tone of voice that's intimately associated with painful past experiences is often such a trigger.  For myself, the sound of cutlery or china being bashed immediately tenses me up.   It makes me feel like the person doing it is mad at me regardless of whether or not they actually are.  I don't think I have any trigger words though, and such words could be considered a "to" rather than an "at".

One of the big privileges of ageing is that things that are done "at" one get easier and easier to deal with.  Insults hold no weight when you've heard them many times before.  Provided of course you've also thought honestly about whether or not there's any truth to them.  The moods of others are less affecting too, it's so much easier to see when someone's anger or sadness has nothing at all to do with you.

My future fantasy with those inaccurate ball throwing kids has changed dramatically.  I don't think anymore that I'm likely to end up cornering the neighbourhood market in sporting projectiles.  My hope is that while I'm throwing it back I can think of something to say that'll make 'em laugh, or groan.  After all, the bad pun is the province of dads everywhere and dammit, I'm not one to drop that particular ball.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


You know, I miss writing here.  Of course, when I started it was the dark ages: pre-marriage, pre-child, pre-business.  You'd think all those things would give me lots to talk about, and you'd be right.  But they also take away the time that I once had.  Ah well, life's like that.

Life is also like this: My mother is in the hospital with pneumonia and a mysterious anemia.  At her age this sort of thing is quite serious, possibly end-of-life serious.  I'm stuck on the other side of the world without the resources to just up and go.  I'm not happy about this situation, but I accept it.  I chose this life and therefor I accept the downsides that come with it.  If she gets much worse or the doctors find something seriously wrong I'll find a way to get on a plane, but until then I have to rely on calling daily.  It will do.  I'm grateful that I don't live in an age where the first I heard about this would be a letter that was a month out of date.

I'm grateful too that she's in a place where the best possible care is available.  If the worst happens and she dies I'll know that that there wasn't anything I could have done to help prevent that.  I have no medical training.  My only task in this is to provide what comfort I can.  And while it would be better if I could be there in person I can in fact provide some small comfort by calling every day.

This might sound like I'm making excuses, and perhaps I am.  But I strive to acknowledge and live with reality: the things that are objectively provable in our world.  By doing so I find that while there can still be sadness, regrets even, there is little to no guilt.  Should my Mum die before I manage to see her again I would regret that.   I would be sad and I would mourn but I wouldn't feel guilty.  The reality is that I can't get there at this time.  The reality is that I cannot prevent her death by any action of my own.   The reality is that I've said everything I need to say to her, and I've tried to give her the opportunity to say everything she needs to say to me.

I love my mother and she knows it. I forgive her any and all trespasses committed by her, real or perceived, and she know it.  I am a healthy, good,  successful individual who enjoys his life and she is responsible for that, despite the difficulties that my father's problems presented in raising me and my brother.  She knows that I feel that way, though I'm not sure she believes it.

Death happens and despite that life goes on. When you don't believe that there's anything after death you have to do everything you can before that inevitable event, there are no second chances.  Once you've got all the things that you'd regret not doing or saying before the end out of the way you're left with a freedom to be the best comfort you can be.  It's a peaceful place to be, sad yes, but peaceful none the less.

Of course my mother's a tough old bird.  She'll probably pull through and come here to read this and shake her head at her atheist son.  And that'll be perfectly okay by me. :)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The End

I just realized that I never followed up on the post about my friend. He died. That was given considering the state of his cancer, but what wasn't a given was the manner of his death. He spent the extra time he got after they fixed his cut carotid to reach out. It was amazing to watch, even through the tiny window of his Facebook wall. The real reconciliation, forgiveness even I hope, happened beyond public sight but the initial contacts often happened where we could all see it. He didn't die alone and he from the posts of those who were there with him at the end it seems he found some measure of peace.

But I will point out one thing that annoyed me. My friend was an atheist just as I am, he went as far as to described himself as a militant atheist. As his condition worsened and he could no longer respond directly more and more people put blatantly religious messages on his wall. I'm not talking about things like "We're praying for you." sentiments that are fully understandable and well meant. No, there were a bunch of posts that started with things like "Dear being of peace and light..." one of which was written by some kind of spiritual leader of one of his friends. That's going too far, way too far. If my friend had been healthy he would have expressed his displeasure at those sentiments in a way that would have been brutal, profane and very, very funny.

This is the oblivion of religious privilege, the inability to understand that while sincere best wishes are usually welcome by atheists even when religiously couched, proselytising is inappropriate. The deathbed conversion is a myth that religious folks repeat because facing death without a belief in an afterlife of some sort is incomprehensible to them.

I didn't take any of these folks to task for two reasons. First because I recognise that everyone grieves in their own way and despite the inappropriate nature of those posts no harm was intended. Second and most importantly, I couldn't speak for my friend in this matter. There is no atheist big book of multiple choice for me to consult. No dogma, no tradition, no religious formula to inform me. It would have been as inappropriate for me to speak for my friend without knowing his exact thoughts on the matter as it was for people to use his affliction to spread their dogma. Sometimes free thought is limiting and I wouldn't have it any other way.

As final thought I want to point out just how important Facebook was in all of this. He died at least in part in the pubic space of Facebook. A temporary community formed, and together we were stronger than we could have been alone. This is the true strength of humanity, our ability to reach out and help each other. Facebook gets a lot of criticism for its triviality, and perhaps that criticism is deserved. But in the end it's simply a means of communication and what is communicated is up to those who use it.


I just watched the Dr. Who episode "When a Good Man Goes to War". There's something about that phrase that moves me.

A good man, I like to think of myself as such. To be good is something I aspire to in all of my life. I work alone and I own the business, there's no oversight bar my wife who isn't there most days. I could easily tell folks that their bike requires repairs that they don't in fact need. I could even supply used parts from previous repairs to back up such claims. There is little chance I could get caught. I won't ever do that. I don't fear being caught, I don't fear punishment. I fear not being a good man. I fear it because the only thing that has stopped evil in all of history is the willingness of folks to be good.

I've never been in a war. I will never be in a war, not at my age, not as a combatant anyway. But I have been in mortal danger a time or two. I once worked a job where on multiple occasions I was robbed at knife point. The last time it happened I hit the guy and chased him out of the store. It was a dumb thing to do, I was very lucky I didn't get hurt, didn't get killed. I didn't do it because I was good, or because I wanted to do good. I did it because I suddenly realised he couldn't reach me. In that instant my fear turned to anger and I acted.

I make no claims that my experience is equivalent to going to war. But it was a taste of fear and danger that goes beyond the bounds of most daily life in the privileged western world in which I live. That act, hitting someone, lashing out, even though it was justified, it changed me. I knew then that I was capable of unthinking violence. I'd been in fights before as a teenager and during all of them all I wanted was for it to stop. No wonder I never won any of them. This was different.

When a good man goes to war, if he is indeed a good man, then he must believe that that war is justified. Even if that belief is correct that man can not help but to be changed. This is why we must go to war only with the greatest of reluctance and in full knowledge of the consequences. This too is why it is so important to be good, to strive to be good, because the veneer of civilization is so thin. We all have the capacity for all the possible actions people are capable of. To be anything less is to be less than human.

When a good man goes to war. That phrase touches me. So sad, so complicated, so human.