Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Subways without people (link)

Eerie subway photos. Take a look here: Nick Frank's Subway Photos Nicely done. Show how digital has changed photography completely. ****

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Illusion of Progress

That's the title of an article in a recent New Scientist. Thesis: that we have lost more technologies than we currently have. Good point, and illustrated in a variety of ways. For example, the ballpoint pen has nearly eliminated the fountain pen. But what if a crash of some kind eliminated the factories that make pens? We know, in a fuzzy historical-fiction kind of way, that goose quills and other feathers were used for writing. I don't think we'd have much trouble reinventing that technology. But what about the ink? Who knows how to use oak galls to make ink? Or soot and, well, what exactly?. Could one use other dark, brownish liquids, such as coffee? I've occasionally tried tinting paper with tea or coffee, and believe me, they don't work every well.

The rule is: new technologies displace old ones. Our cumulative knowledge doesn't include obsolete technologies. At any rate, most of us don't. Specialists in certain histories may have the book knowledge, but very, very few have any kind of hands-on skills. Curiously, archaeologists are the most likely to have such skills. They've learned them in order to understand the tools they find, and sort them from bits of naturally fractured rock that aren't tools.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Turn on the Heat (Book review)

A. A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner) Turn on the Heat Another Bertha Cool - Donald Lam tale. In mood a noirish version of the Thin Man stories plus a mild satire on the Nero Wolfe-Archie Goodwin genre. Pure pulp fiction. Lam tells the story, and does most of the legwork. Unlike Wolfe, agency head Bertha Cool doesn’t solve the case. As in the Wolfe novels, the plot is incredibly convoluted; but Fair plays fair with the clues, if you want to keep score. Unlike the Wolfe novels, the solution hides a good deal of the truth from the police. A pleasant enough entertainment, if you don’t read too critically. One oddity: the cover shows an electric typewriter, but the story is set ca. 1940, when it was written. **

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

There's No History Here (Poem)

There’s No History Here

This country has no history,
they say.

Then what’s that breathing there?

There are no stories told
more than a generation old.

Musty papers in old libraries,
read by odd fellows who believe they can rebuild the past.
Frail quilts stored on high dusty shelves,
brought out into bright air
and fingered by old women,
as they tell who pieced the patchwork,
ran the needle through the batt,
made arcs and whorls that held
the coverlet together; these tales made up
of memories, misremembered names
and half remembered facts
don’t make a history.

Nor do those fragments
of a myth the elders tell.

Oral history’s not history,
they say.
Each teller adds his notions
of what was truly done.
Each teller makes a tale
of what she knows must,
not might, have been.

And if these tales are true enough
(for truth in history’s a guess,
a fiction built on facts),
if then these tales are true as any history may be,
that doesn’t signify –
a generation or two back’s as far as memory
and memory of memories reach.

The land seems empty,
the sound of the truck
working up the hill remote and muted
by the space enfolding it.
The ghosts of those who came before us
don’t speak in the wind,
their language doesn’t
echo in the water filled canyons,
their songs have long since faded
into silent distances.

And yet –
        and yet.

Something moves behind me,
touches my neck,
something like a word,
half heard,
catches my ears.

I stop and listen.

The heat seems loud as a shout,
the pines’ sweetness hangs
in the sun-stilled air –

There is history here.

There was history here.

What’s left of it –
a few flakes struck from stone
the rusty stain of blood
bleached
by indifferent rain and sun.

Copyright 2012 W Kirchmeir

The Ferryman Will Be There (Book review)

Rosemary Aubert The Ferryman Will Be There (2001) “An Ellis Portal Mystery”. This is the third in the series. Portal was a judge, but alcohol and adultery led to homelessness. For a while, he lived in a cave in the Don Valley. He has succeeded in climbing out of the valley, literally and figuratively. Now Det. Sgt. Matt West  enlists his help in finding a girl whose father was murdered while stepping out of a limousine on his way to a film festival bash. The girl has gone back onto the streets. Portal’s curiosity and orneriness entangle him in the murder investigation, too. His  journey takes him through derelict buildings, fancy offices, and of course the streets and valleys of Toronto. Like any hero of a quest, he has companions on the way, but here they travel mostly in the background; half the time Portal doesn’t even know they’re there. The monsters he must defeat are drug dealers, traffickers in women, and his own memories. Several inconclusive plot-lines from the earlier books move a few steps towards resolution. The mystery, such as it is, resolves plausibly enough, but Aubert’s focus is on street life, the homeless, and Portal’s haphazard approach to redemption. Though the book isn’t a page-turner, it sticks with you. I want to know the details of the back story, told in the first two books, so I’ll look out for them. Above average entertainment. I can see it as a moody, bleak TV series, set in the ramshackle and grungy buildings and streets where the homeless scrabble for a living, contrasting with elegant, expensive spaces in which the mysteries of finance are performed. **-½

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Remembrance Day 2012

     Today we remember those whom we sent into war on our behalf, and who gave everything they had. They gave their lives. I want to think about that sacrifice, and what our remembering should inspire us to do. For it does no good to feel sad about those who died in war if our remembrance ends with those feelings. Our duty is not only to remember what the fallen soldiers have done for us, but also to act so that their deaths will have meaning.
     I am old enough to remember the last year of the war and its aftermath. When someone of my age refers to the war, it means the Second World War, the one that started on the German-Polish border in September 1939 and ended in Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945. Just how many people died in that war will never be known for sure. The best estimates average out at about 23 million soldiers and 45 million civilians. That's more than twice today's population of Canada.
     But those are mere statistics. If you want to know what war is like, talk with those who lived through it. Soldiers who saw combat very rarely talk about it. But you can see how their memories affect them when you watch their faces as they stand at attention at the Cenotaph during the Remembrance Day ceremonies. My father talked about it once only, when he thought the time was ripe for his grandchildren to learn something of what to them was only history in books.
     Those who didn't see combat are more likely to tell stories, but they too avoid talking about the fighting that they knew indirectly, through the death and wounding of their friends. The civilians who endured bombing, flight from the front, refugee camps, starvation, invasion and counter invasion, the oppression of occupation and foreign rule, they sometimes talk about it. But they leave out a lot.
     I don't remember much. We lived in a small town by a lake, far from the battle fronts. Bombers flew over on their way to bomb the cities and the railway yards. The sun glinted on them, they were like little silver fish high up in the blue air. The sound of their engines came from everywhere, from one side of the sky to the other. When the bombs fell on the railway yards ten kilometres away, we felt it in our bellies and the soles of our feet. A few times I saw black mushrooms grow on the horizon. Most of the time, the air-raid sirens chased us into the cellar, where we were dressed in several layers of clothing. It was a guarantee that we would have something to wear if the house was destroyed. The woolly underwear itched. There was a candle lit, and others ready to be lit if the power went out. When the bombs fell, we heard a dull thump, very far away, and dust trickled down from the ceiling. We crowded close to Mummy, and felt safe.
     I hate war. I can't tell you how much I hate it. And yet I know that war will come again. It will come because we fear those who are different, and that gives an opening to those who want to exploit that fear for their own ends. It will come because those who have power and wealth want to wage war for their own purposes. It will come because we leave too much up to the politicians that we elect to do the boring business of government for us. It will come because as long as we have something like a good life, we leave things up to the experts. It’s too much bother to take time to understand the problems that face us, let alone make the effort to participate in solving them.
     It's not pleasant to think about these things.
     It's not pleasant to think about war, or the poor, or the damage we're doing to our planet.
     It's not pleasant because it reminds us that we, each of us and all of us together, have a responsibility.
     But today, on Remembrance Day, we have before us the example of those whom we sent to war, who placed their bodies between us and the enemy, who gave everything they had. I know and you know that they had many different reasons for putting on the uniform. But whatever their reasons, they went.
     And too many of them died.
     We owe them.
     The last stanza of In Flanders Fields calls us to this duty:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

     The foe is not the enemy soldier. He died as our soldiers died, his family grieved as our families grieved. Those who survived suffered the rest of their lives. The memories of war cannot be erased.
     No, the foe is us. We are the ones who wage war. The soldier is merely an instrument of war. He's just another weapon that we, the wagers of war, use to fight our battles.
     We must change our attitudes, our feelings, our thoughts. We must replace fear with hope, hate with love, indifference with caring. It sounds like tall order, but it can be done.
     If you look at the advice that the religious leaders have given us, one thing stands out: they don't talk about systems. They don't talk about governments, or politics, or businesses, or enterprises, or organisations. They don't talk about methods or processes or procedures. They don't talk about checklists, or seven habits of successful people, or how to make every minute count.
     They talk about forgiveness. They talk about faith. They talk about love.
     By what rule should we live our lives? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The most ancient religious texts give us this rule. It’s the rule given by Jesus, by the Buddha, by Confucius, by Muhammad. Jesus expands on it: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and your neighbour as yourself.
     In short, we must change. We must change the way we think, the way we feel, the way we act. We must think of all humans as being People Like Us. We must feel that every person we meet is a member of our family. We must do whatever we can to make life better for other people, just as we do whatever we can to make life better for ourselves.
     A tall order indeed. It means giving up the notion that we are the centre of the universe. It means giving up what makes us comfortable. It means giving up our lives in service. It means sacrifice. The kind of sacrifice that we remember today.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

King Street at night

We were walking back to the hotel after a pretty good meal of Indian food at the Aroma (recommended) when I took this photo. I like Toronto at night, the mix of coloured lights, the reflections in the windows, the people on the sidewalks, the traffic, and of course the streetcars. Anything that runs on rails is worth watching. I know the photo is blurred, but I like the effect anyhow.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Tough Politicians (2)

Mr Harper’s government has taken on the fishes and the water birds and the frogs. His omnibus budget bill includes a change to the Navigable Waters Act. This change removes a large number of navigable waters from federal protection. Oddly enough, a large batch of these no longer protected waters are in Northern Ontario, in NDP ridings, while all the ones in the Parry Sound - Muskoka area continue to be protected. That’s the riding of Mr Clement, the Minister for the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario and President of the Treasury Board.

Removing navigable waters from the protection of the Act will make it easier and cheaper for resource extraction companies to acquire permits for mining, lumbering, quarrying, and so on. It will also make it cheaper and easier for paper mills and ore refining enterprises to acquire permits for dumping wastes into rivers and lakes. No doubt they will share thier increased profits with the communities affected by poisoned waters.

I feel sorry for Mr Harper and his friends in cabinet. It must have been very difficult for them to agree to these changes. It’s not easy to contemplate poisoning fish and water birds and frogs. It’s not easy to contemplate the effect of poisoned water on humans. But these are tough times, and politicians must be tough. It's good to know Mr Harper is up to the challenge.

Sandy (2)

Looking at the photos and videos of the destruction done by Sandy, it’s clear that it will take months to fix the physical damage, and years to fix the psychological damage. The stories of rescues and help are moving; the expressions of hope for the future in the face of such massive disaster are touching. The sadness I feel when reading of the deaths, so impersonally random, is hard to express.