And now for something completely different

Enough of politics! (At least for now…)

The longer I live, the more I believe it is important to have a wide diversity of interests, hobbies and pastimes. For many years, now, I have ridden motorcycles. Learning to ride – which I am still doing, really, after more than ten years – has been an extraordinary journey, one made up of dozens of smaller journeys. It. Hasn’t always been fun. For example, crashing a few years ago. But even with that, I wouldn’t give it up willingly, and I’m glad I decided to learn it in the first place.

Learning new things and acquiring new skills is one of my chief enjoyments in life. That’s why a few years ago – shortly before crashing my motorcycle – I bought a bass guitar. It’s why I recently bought an electric guitar – so I can learn both together. (If I had a bigger place and more money, I’d probably get drums, too.) It’s why I love to read, to watch documentaries (and films generally), and to attend lectures and exhibitions.

Learning about new places is the best part of traveling. When we went to Morocco a few years ago, I tried to pick up a little Arabic and Berber, partly to amuse our guides and the locals, but mainly because it was fun to learn. Traveling on the motorcycle is like that, too, even though I’ve only been places where a version of English is spoken. Learning to find my way around, though, is a lot of fun, especially if I’m on my own and only have paper maps to go by.

A while back I started to develop an appreciation for baseball, too. I don’t think there’s a professional sport more given to arcanity than that. Learning the different types of breaking balls a pitcher can throw, the infield fly rule, why – generally – you don’t bunt with two strikes: this all takes time to acquire, to say nothing of the history you learn from announcers as you watch the game on TV.

I don’t quite know what it is that makes learning so fun for me. I know not everyone shares this passion for knowledge acquisition. In fairness, though, they may just have different things they like to learn about. Woodworking, knitting, quadratic equations. Different strokes, right?

History, freedom, persecution and religion

I am simultaneously saddened and outraged by the shootings in Quebec last night. Whatever the specific motivations of the shooter(s), it seems clear from the fact it occurred in a mosque during evening prayers that the victims had been targeted for their religion.

I have said before I am not a religious man, but I do respect the religious beliefs of others, at least to the extent that they don’t conflict with human or civil rights. In a democratic society people should not be persecuted for their religious beliefs, or for not having any.

Even before the shootings at the mosque in Quebec, Muslims in many western countries have been looked at with suspicion just because a very few have committed crimes against non-believers. This has taken the form of xenophobic graffiti, name-calling and assaults, proposed bans of religious articles of clothing, like hijabs and niqabs, and even the words and actions of the current President of the United States.

No religion should consider itself immune from criticism. Saying a prejudice against gays or women is mandated by religious belief, for example, does not excuse it. Religions exist in a social context, and must adapt themselves to historical changes just like everyone else.

At the same time, discriminating against all members of a particular religion based on the actions of a handful of adherents is equally inexcusable. No one, of any race, religion or sect, should have to fear for their rights or security on such grounds. People should instead be judged on their words and actions.

On those grounds, I submit that people like the Quebec shooter(s), the President of the United States, and the fanatics in terrorist organizations of every stripe, from ISIS to the Klan, will ultimately face very harsh historical judgments.

Science, technology & authority 

There was an excellent article today in The Guardian about Canadian scientists helping their American counterparts get their findings in front of the public, something the Trump administration clearly fears. It’s not clear why it fears this, since the public clearly views facts with suspicion, while eagerly accepting lies. But fear it it does, and as a result it has been shutting down programs, websites and twitter accounts since it assumed power – and this is just week one!

This is common among governments with an authoritarian bent. It happened here in Canada under our previous government. We weren’t the first and clearly won’t be the last.

People often wonder how these governments can be against science, without which – they say – we wouldn’t have TVs, the internet, nuclear power (not to mention weapons), and so forth. It’s a dubious argument, because it conflates science with technology. Authority tends to like the latter and fear the former. The same might be said for the majority of the public, for that matter. After all, technology is fun to play with, while much of science tends to be hard to understand.

I hope the scientific community persevere. I expect they will. Authority always ends. Knowledge continues. Maybe that’s what they dislike about it.

What time is it?

I’ll keep this brief, since it seems we may not have a whole lot of time.

The group of nuclear scientists in charge of the Doomsday Clock have moved it forward. We’re now at 2 1/2 minutes to midnight – the closest we’ve been to nuclear annihilation, in the estimation of this group, in decades. Guess who you have to thank for that? (Hint, look for the Day-Glo orange emanating from him.)

Soon, we’ll have children huddling again under their desks, being told what to do on the off chance they survive the initial blast and subsequent shockwave. And those annoying Emergency Broadcast System interruptions – this is a test… if this were not a test, you’d only have two minutes to say goodbye to whomever you can. Just like in the good old day when America was ‘great’!

Add to this the wall – that America will pay for – and the soon-to-be-announced Muslim ban & registry. And the resumption of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (better known as torture). And looking the other way while Russia prepares to take back former Soviet republics in the Baltics and elsewhere. And poking China with a stick at every opportunity. Backing out of international agreements like the Paris Accord.

It’s starting to look like I might not need a retirement plan after all.

And this barely scrapes the surface of political stupidity occurring south of the 49th parallel.

I honestly don’t think the right wing morons who run the United States understand just how this might all blow back on them. If they do, they obviously don’t care. That’s an even more frightening though, if you allow yourself to think it: they know this will not end well, but don’t care. Short term gain uber alles.

If there was a god, I’d ask him or her to help us all.

Facts, opinions, beliefs and truths

‘[A]ll belief is of little value.’ – Nietzsche

‘You can’t let facts get in the way of the truth.’ – Leonard Cohen

The news, and Twitter, have been buzzing lately with the term ‘alternative facts’, thanks to Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s rebranding of the lies told by White House spokesperson Sean Spicer. In spite of ample evidence to the contrary, Mr. Spicer insisted that the Trump inauguration had larger crowds than reported by the media, and that it was viewed by more people than any other on television. The substance of the lies, and who uttered them, have been much discussed, and I won’t go into that here. What’s interesting is the notion of ‘alternative facts’, and the suggestion that facts are somehow distinguishable from evidence.

altfacts

Facts do not depend on evidence, nor are they independent of it; they are evidence. What depends (or is independent from) evidence is opinion. Opinions are expressions of belief, and like beliefs they may have much or little factual, or evidentiary, support. The more facts you have in support of your opinions and beliefs, the more likely they are to be true.

Many people insist that beliefs are different, somehow weightier than mere opinion. Some even insist that even though their particular beliefs are at odds with facts, they are still true. That their truth is somehow deeper and more profound than mere factuality. They subscribe to the view expressed (ironically) by Leonard Cohen above, and would recoil from Nietzsche’s observation that their beliefs hold no value.

You see this sort of thinking not only in political spheres, where disregard for evidence and truthfulness is conventional, but to a disturbing degree in everyday life. Just this week, a woman in Alberta was convicted of negligence causing death because she refused to take her seven-year-old son to see a doctor, and instead treated him with ‘natural’ remedies, in spite of the urging of a friend, because she didn’t believe in science-based medicine. What she assumed was a flu turned out to be meningitis accompanied by a strep infection, against which dandelion tea and oil of oregano proved inadequate, and her son died. This is not an isolated instance. There are at least two other examples just in Alberta.

‘Alternative’ medicine depends for its continued existence the idea of alternative facts, on disregarding evidence in favour of unsubstantiated belief. Other examples include the anti-vaxxer movement, the Flat Earth movement, and many similar conspiracy theories that have become popular, in many cases wildly so as a result of social media.

It used to be fashionable in some academic circles – and maybe it still is – to say that there are no such things as ‘truth’ or ‘facts’, only competing claims, different perspectives, alternative interpretations. Everything, in this worldview, is merely belief. And as such, nothing has value – or at least, no more value than anything else. (Except, they don’t really believe that last part.)

To use the example Robert Bolt uses in his play A Man for All Seasons, the shape of the earth is something that can be reasonably questioned. (It is also something that can be answered, but we’ll leave that for a moment.) Some say it is round, some say it is flat. But once evidence determines it is one or another (it’s round, by the way, in case you were wondering), believing the opposite won’t change that fact. It will simply make the believer absurd.

I won’t go quite as far as Nietzsche and say that all belief is without value. Belief in your ability to do something, provided there is no evidence to the contrary, can be a valuable thing. But once a belief or opinion has been disproven, continuing to hold it as if it has value is absurd. Like claiming a lie is just an alternative fact.

 

 

 

 

Random thoughts

Has Frito Lay considered suing Trump for infringing their intellectual property? Surely the makers of Cheetos has trademarked that shade of orange.

***

I find the best music to listen to while running is from the late 70s/early 80s. XTC, The Police, Devo, Talking Heads, Prince, Peter Gabriel, or some harder rock, like Motörhead, Judas Priest and even Rush. Hard rock of an era is best when lifting weights. Metallica, RATM, Iron Maiden. I love prog rock, but there are too many time changes to make it useful for workouts.

***

Some potential theme songs for the resistance movement in the Fractured States of Trumpistan:

The Police – Rehumanize Yourself
Rush – Between the Wheels
Living Colour – Cult of Personality
Ice T & Jello Biafra – Shut Up, Be Happy
Babes In Toyland – Swamp Pussy
Public Enemy – Fight the Power
(Yes, these do show my age.)

***

Would it count as cruelty if you chloroformed your cat? Asking for a friend. Seriously, though, wouldn’t self defence be a reasonable argument?

Strings attached 

They say you shouldn’t go to the grocery store hungry. The same apparently  goes for music shops. Especially if they’re having a big ‘everything must go’ sale. I know this because, on the very same day I wrote about wanting to chuck everything & hit the road, I bought a guitar.

Now, it’s important to note that I don’t actually play the guitar. Yet. Lessons are in my future. But even though I don’t know how to play it, it seemed to speak to me. The finish, the feel, the sound… it wanted to be mine.


So… hopefully by the year’s end I’ll be able to crank out some simpler rock & blues songs. If not, watch for a good deal on a used Telecaster.

Sayings and doings

There’s a saying that used to be common, but has become less so, and likely will disappear from use altogether in the not too distant future. The sentiment it expresses, though, will no doubt continue, and find some newer, more culturally relevant expression. It’s a sentiment I feel regularly, to one degree or another. Today it’s especially strong. I want to run away and join the circus.

Actually, joining the circus – the archaic part of the saying – is only something I want to do if you understand the metaphor as meaning ‘do something unusual’. There was a time – likely during the Depression, and maybe earlier, too – when joining the circus had more currency, since it was something one might literally do. No one is likely to join Cirque du Soleil, for example, without first making a formal job application or going through an audition process. It would certainly be an unusual life, but you can’t just run away and join. And running away is the vital part of the expression.

Last night I went to see Rene Cormier speak about the time he ran away, and didn’t join anything at all. Instead, he spent close to four years riding his motorcycle around the world, living on not much more than $25 a day. He’s not the first to have done this. Ted Simon did it in the 70s, and again about 25 years later. Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman famously did it – somewhat less extensively, but in a much shorter period of time – and made a TV show of it. Others have done it on bicycle, and even on foot. But it’s still incredibly unusual, and something most of us only dream about. Selling everything and hitting the road (and sometimes no roads at all) for several years is not something to which most are willing to commit. I think of Rush’s song, ‘Middletown Dreams’:

It’s understood
By every single person
Who’d be elsewhere if they could
So far so good
And life’s not unpleasant
In their little neighborhood

How often does ‘not unpleasant’ keep us from ‘extraordinary’? I think, for most of us, myself included, the answer is ‘far too often’. We all want more than ‘not unpleasant’, but for most it’s enough to hold us back from making the leap, and running way to join the circus.

But what is it that makes us want to run away? If our lives are ‘not unpleasant’, they are also, in many cases, vaguely unsatisfying. We can think of things we’d rather be doing. I remember there was an ad, years ago, for a job website that featured children saying things like, ‘When I grow up, I want to work in middle management,’ ‘I want to file. All. Day. Long,’ ‘I want to be forced into early retirement.’ The gist was that, rather than running away, we just needed better jobs to be happy staying put. Maybe that’s part of it, but how many jobs that aren’t dull as dishwater can there be? Surely not enough for everyone to have one. Not without enormous changes in the structure of our economy.

Corporate structures depend on someone having to do the tedious work. The filing. The hiring and firing. The schlepping. As the job site ad writer knew, no one dreams of doing these things as a child. No one dreams of being an insurance salesman, an office clerk, a call centre employee. Still, these things ‘need to be done’, because the way we’ve built our economy demands it.

Increasingly, even these boring jobs are relocated to places where labour is cheap. Call centres go to India or Philippines, or to economically depressed, low-minimum wage areas closer to home in some cases. Ditto manufacturing jobs. The filing is done electronically, often in an automated way. In some cases, people don’t just chuck everything and hit the road because they’ve nothing to chuck, and no means to support a more adventurous life, even one that only costs $25 a day.

I think the impulse to run away and the feeling of being stuck are largely systemic and economic in their origins. When even the boring jobs disappear, cities and towns hollow out, communities collapse. Those left behind by the economy either wish they could run, or that someone, anyone, would bring back ‘the good old days’, which likely didn’t seem nearly so good when they were the present as they do now that they’re past.

But some of us have wanted to hit the road since long before our prospects became unsatisfying. I remember in university, lo those many years ago, thinking it was all crap and that I should just drive my car to Halifax, find work on a freighter and see where it took me. I didn’t do it, mainly because I had no savings to speak of, having spent them on tuition and maintaining my truly awful car, which never would have made it to Winnipeg, much less Halifax.

I remember a co-worker I had years ago, when I worked in bookstores, had decided to chuck it all, move someplace cheap and try to become the Canadian Kerouac. He did it for a year, and then decided poverty sucked and dropped back in. Another Neil Peart quote seems appropriate here, this time from one of his books: ‘Adventures suck while you’re having them.’

Literacy, culture and tartar sauce

A news story today says a strata in Vancouver’s tony Coal Harbour neighbourhood has vetoed the lease of a commercial space in their building in part because the name of the restaurant that was set to open there contained an ‘offensive’ word. Moby Dick Fish & Chips has operated in Whiterock, about a half hour south of Vancouver, for several years, apparently without anyone thinking they were serving whale rather than fish, or finding the name offensive. Equally apparent is that the strata corporation and its lawyers have neither read nor heard of Herman Melville’s classic novel, from which the fish & chip shop has inexplicably taken its name. (It’s doubtful the owners of the shop have read it either, for that matter. It’s not a cheerful book.)

Now, you don’t have to like Moby Dick, or Melville for that matter, to know something about the story. Or at least, so I thought. In fact, I didn’t think you even needed to be particularly well-read (or well-educated). The tale of Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest for the great white whale had, I thought, become woven into common cultural fabric of North America, if not the entire English-speaking world. And perhaps it has.

There has been a raging debate in Vancouver over the past several years about the extent to which foreign buyers have affected the local real estate market. Coal Harbour has often been held up as an example – in particular the proportion of expensive condos whose owners seem rarely to be at home. I don’t want to get into that debate here. I think the about-face of the real estate association in the aftermath of the likely misguided ‘Foreign Buyers Tax’ introduced hurriedly last summer has more or less settled that matter. The interesting thing to me is that nearly half of the lower mainland’s residents (or at least of its home owners) come from different cultural backgrounds now, such that we can no longer assume common cultural currency.

This is not a one-way street, and I am not bemoaning the presence or influence of immigrants, like some loopy Trumper or Brexiter. (Or some people running to lead the Conservative Party of Canada – but let’s leave that aside for now.) Just as I cannot assume that everyone I speak to (or who reads this blog) will understand references to Moby Dick – or Hamlet, or Huckleberry Finn, or Beatles songs, or Star Wars – neither can others expect me to understand their cultural markers. What do I know about Chinese literature, South American film stars, K-pop, or even Sikhism?

Being honest, North Americans – by which, since we’re being honest, means those of us of European decent – have not even made an attempt to understand the rich and diverse cultures of the peoples we stole the land from in the first place, whose descendants still live here. We’ve made little to no attempt to understand the ‘minority’ cultures in our midst, and who we generally ignore until they begin to ignore us back, rather than trying to fit in, which we find especially galling if some of them are really rich.

My advice to the restaurant owner is: change your name. Anyone who has read the book will find it puzzzling at best anyway, and it apparently offends those who know some of the language but none of the literature of English-speaking North America. Oh, and maybe avoid literary references altogether. The Old Man and the Sea? Great book, depressing as hell. Spoiler alert – he loses the fish.

If the atmospheric river were whisky

It is always a happy day, the first day of the year on my motorcycle. This year, which has been abnormally cold for Vancouver – we’ve had snow since before Christmas! – the first ride was delayed a couple of weeks. This year, for a change, it wasn’t biblical amounts of rain that kept me from riding.

In fact, it was raining today, also known as First Ride Day. But that’s not so unusual. You can’t let a little rain stop you if you ride a motorcycle in Vancouver. Today, though, was not a little rain. Apparently we have been thrown overboard into what the weather folks are calling an ‘atmospheric river’. If the atmospheric river were whisky, I’d be well and truly drunk. A more sensible man would have left his bike in the garage. Only strangers have ever accused me of being sensible.

‘Waterproof’, when it comes to motorcycle gear, is more an aspiration than a reality, and my waterlogged waterproof jacket and pants are hanging to drip dry, my socks are in the dryer, and my boots and gloves are ever so slowly dehydrating.

On the plus side, it took me much less time to get to and (more importantly) from work, and my mood was noticeably more positive all day long. Something about riding a motorcycle, even a relatively short and dull ride, like commuting to work, is inherently cheering. Psychologists should probably study this, although they’d likely get it wrong.