Thursday, March 26, 2009

Return of the Monk

Well over a year ago, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario took Old Monk rum off the shelves, apparently because they found glass particles in some of the bottles. I understand the logic in that, but you would think that the bottler would straighten that out in short order, and that the LCBO would be reviewing it and getting it back on sale as quickly as possible. As a government-mandated monopoly in a democratic province and country, I submit this is, in fact, their duty and responsibility (otherwise, let the people decide for themselves).

I would never have believed it would take this long to straighten this out. I finally decided to contact the LCBO about it and express my dissatisfaction and demand the product be reviewed. As it turns out, they must have finally gotten around to it, because they wrote back and said the first shipment is due at the end of April, and will be on the shelves of their outlets in early May.

I've missed Old Monk. It's one of the few alcoholic libations stronger than beer that I can enjoy neat. It has a smooth mellowness about it, and an agreeable mingling of essenses that, whatever they might actually be, remind me of vanilla, raisins, and subtle spices. I'm really looking forward to being able to enjoy it again.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Embedded slideshow

I'm just curious to see if this actually works. If it does, enjoy. It's a Flickr set about an abandoned residential road in west-central Toronto called Blondin Avenue. :)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Happy birthday, Darwin

Imagine it’s a birthday party, and Mom comes out with a great big, frosted birthday cake. She says, “Go on, cut the cake!

But the birthday boy says, “There’s no such thing as cake.

And Mom says, “Why, certainly there is, I’ve just put one in front of you!”

And our birthday boy says, “No, this is only icing. It’s not cake.”

“But the icing is part of the cake,” says Mom.

“How can icing be part of a cake? I thought cake was baked in an oven. How could icing have come from an oven?”

“It didn’t come from the oven – I never said it did. But it’s part of the cake.”

“No, Mom. The icing you’ve brought me proves there can be no cake.”

This is the kind of thing I see in Creationist literature. It never fails to amaze me. Utterly amaze me. These people are entirely happy to co-op the evidence only science could have presented to them to deny the conclusions that same discipline arrives at as a result. The same people who’d still be sitting around fires, explaining away everything as “God did it, God did it, God did it,” watch television, take trips on airplanes, gloried in moon landings, and have been saved by inoculations and CAT scans and transplants... at the bottom of it all, are really no different from people a thousand years ago. They’re medieval people who get to drive cars. Those who tremble at the lightning.

The same lies get published over, and over, and over, and over... you never see the rebuttals. They never stop stating the lie just because it’s been exposed as such. For instance, how many times do we have to hear about irreducible complexity? How many times does it have to be explained that yes, “half” an eye – in fact, anything even a little light-sensitive – is in and of itself a survival advantage, and one that can be built on, over time, generation after generation after increasingly-successful generation? How many times does the flagellum of a bacteria – supposedly “useless” if any one part is absent – have to be shown to actually be constructed of parts that do, in fact, have other uses in isolation (one part at the base, for instance, is used by other bacteria as a sort of syringe to inject toxins into target bacteria)?

How many times does the supposed violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, with regard to the Earth, have to be revealed to be an inappropriate argument, since the Earth is not a closed system (it’s powered by the sun, in an open system not subject to the Second Law)?

How many times do we have to hear that the oxygen on the early Earth would have destroyed amino acids? Of course there was oxygen on the early Earth; it’s the third most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen and helium. But it also has a notorious affinity for bonding with other atoms – so there was no free oxygen on the early Earth – it was all bound to other atoms... hydrogen, carbon, and silicon. Life itself creates molecular oxygen – the free oxygen Creationists say would have destroyed early amino acids – through the process of photosynthesis, combining water and carbon dioxide, both of which contain bonded oxygen. And it was an environmental poison till some of the microbes learned to use it... and their descendants, we, took over the world.

Most interesting is the claim about DNA itself. Four amino acids. Too complex to appear on its own (sure, if you believe in a world that was 6,000 years old as of last Tuesday, yeah). Had to be created. Apparently, over, and over, and over, and over for every form of life on Earth. Not just the same language, but the same words, same paragraphs – in fact, entire volumes in common creature to creature to supposedly-unrelated creature. Bring this up and it’s, “oh, it all works the same, so why shouldn’t it use the same information?” Which begs the question then, why aren’t all the copies identical? Why are there intriguing little differences – a genetic letter here, a genetic word there – that seem to suggest small but indicative copying errors over time?

The biggest joke of all is that all these “proofs” of Creationism – a doctrine that begs people to stop asking questions and simply believe – were furnished by a discipline in which men and women who had the courage not to just accept pat answers but to investigate the nature of things, and over hundreds and even thousands of years, to build up the knowledge necessary for people with a 12th century mindset to go on television, talk on the internet, and jet between continents to ridicule its conclusions. It would be hilarious if it didn’t make me despair for our future. Maybe the raccoons will do better.

I don't know whether there's a God (or gods) or not. I've never seen anything that really convinces me. The very proliferation of mutually-exclusive faiths around the world tends to make me suspect it's all made up to suit someone's purposes, and gets passed on generation to generation like language, music, and building styles. But this much I know: science has nothing to say on the existence of God. I think it's time faith paid science the same courtesy. If there's a God, He loves you whether you came from "a monkey" or the dirt that made Adam. But if you're going to drive a car and use electricity and watch probes land on Mars — if you're going to eat the cake — then please stop lying about the icing.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Feline intellect

Had kind of an interesting moment on Sunday night. Bonnie was sleeping in the chair next to me and I just casually reached over to pat her. Mistake. She must have been having a bad dream or something because she woke with a start and drove her claws into the middle finger of my left hand, bracketing me on both sides of the nail. Not surprisingly, I yelled out with pain and surprise. But what surprised me almost as much was that she didn't take off like a shot (as I think I would if I'd just injured someone twenty times my size, inadvertently or not). She just turned to me and blinked at me, as if to try to let me know she didn't mean it. Cats wink and blink at one another, and us, to communicate their peaceful intentions and feelings of affection. I suppose it was a form of apology.

Equally surprising was that Max showed up out of nowhere, and half climbed onto me, leaning on my knee in concern. He didn't take off either. Just the opposite... he showed up and seemed to be exhibiting some sort of empathy, mingled with curiosity.

It really hurt for a couple of minutes, and I cradled my bleeding finger and waited for the pain to subside. Bonnie either felt guilty, or maybe offended by the display, and for a few minutes, she turned away and resolutely refused to look at me. She did so until I finally stood up. Then everything was back to normal, as least as far as she was concerned.

All told, it was an interesting four or five minutes... a look into the workings of different minds that I hadn't anticipated or quite credited before.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Death or Canada

Death or Canada. That's what they called it. P-Doug invited me to come with him to see it, and I remarked to him at the time, half in jest, that had the destination been the US, they probably would have come up with a less gloomy title; one that made the choice sound more palatable, even flattering. Death... or Canada. Well...

Of course, that's being flippant. The documentary, and the book that accompanies it, are actually about the arrival of about 38,000 Famine Irish in Toronto in the summer of 1847. Toronto, at the time, had a population of about 20,000. The documentary makes the point that an equivalent emergency in our own times would imply the introduction of nine or ten million people to this city in one season. And that of those, about a quarter of a million would die of typhus, or the like, in our midst.

It was showing last night at the Bloor Cinema around 7 p.m. There were brief presentations, before and afterward, by some of the people responsible for the film or getting the word about it out. The film itself was the story of the people who chose to flee Ireland for North America, and in particular, the tragic story of the Willis family, who departed as a family of seven, and whose story ended with only the mother surviving. Suddenly the title "Death or Canada" didn't seem like such a strange one to me anymore. Thousands died on the way over, and thousands more in isolation once they arrived. Conditions on the ships were such that one of the presenters said it's less surprising that so many died, as it is that so many actually survived.

It's also the story of colonial reactions to the influx. Some people fled the city for the safety of lodging with rural relatives. But others, doctors, nurses, public officials, and even Toronto's first Catholic bishop, an Irish Nova Scotian named Michael Power, died in the service of the sick and dying, while scores of others risked their lives.

Today, at the foot of Bathurst Street, is Ireland Park, where statues by the Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie greet the new city with the emotions of the long-ago people they represent. Here, in stone quarried in County Kerry, Ireland, they are engraving the (known) names of the 1,100 or so Irish who died on the shores of Lake Ontario... currently about 675, but growing as research brings them to light.

On the way out, I bought the book, and we were all given a free copy of the inaugural issue of Irish Connections Canada (a re-inauguration of The Toronto Irish News, now going nation-wide). The documentary, in all its power and sobering impact, will be shown on The History Network on March 16th, on the eve of St. Patrick's Day.

The presenters included Eamonn O'Loghlin, the editor of Irish Connections Canada; Professor Mark McCowan, who wrote the book the started the project; Robert G. Kearns, Chairman of the Ireland Park Foundation; and two others whose names for the moment escape me, but who I will fill in as soon as I'm able.

N.B. (March 9) Much to my embarrassment, the producer himself has reminded me of the names of the two others on stage that evening. They were Dr. Donald Low of Mt. Sinai Hospital and the film's executive producer, Craig Thompson. I searched for the Doctor's name but most of my searches brought up the name of a SARS doctor here in Toronto who died in the effort to defeat the disease, rightly garnering him much mention (that unfortunately obscured the search for Dr. Low's name). I'd like to thank Mr. Thompson for reminding me of the names I overlooked, and doing so with good grace. :)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Red, white, and natural blue

Red, white, and natural blue, originally uploaded by Lone Primate.

I was at the mall the other day to buy a picture frame, and as I came out, I was greeted by the sight of the wind catching the 18' flag flying over the parking lot, trailing out into an absolutely clear blue sky. On a whim, I pulled out the G9, put it on continuous shooting, and shot about three dozen stills of the flag as it did its thing. I think this was the best of the lot. It took nearly no work in Photoshop to get it looking like this; this is nearly how it looked right out of the camera. I added the artsy border in PhotoScape, and posted it.

Best of all, I printed the shot, as treated here, with my new Canon inkjet printer, and the print I got was so beautiful it gave me pause. I couldn't believe I'd gotten such beautiful work out of an off-the-cuff shot and a $99 printer. Though I say it myself, I was struck by just how professional the final effect was.

I've always liked seeing our flag with strong blue. Originally, the flag was supposed to feature blue bars at either end, rather than red, as well as a sprig of three maple leaves (as in the bottom of the shield of the coat of arms)... the design was ridiculed by Red Ensign-favouring traditionalists as "the Pearson Penant", but it led directly to the design that was adopted at the end of 1964, that first flew officially on Feb. 15, 1965... which you see at the top of this post. That said, it wouldn't be my flag now if they changed it (and there are such proposals). It is what it is; I grew up with it the way it is and I wouldn't change a thing. But I wouldn't mind much, either, if we had adopted a flag with blue on one bar, or both, I guess.

Things change

Impressive changes, and weird ones...

Yesterday, I bought a one tetrabyte external hard drive. It cost $129. A little over ten years ago, I remember buying my first gigabyte drive. It was a 1.3G, and it cost me over $300, but it was three times the capacity of my first hard drive from late 1994. This new one has has a volume somewhere between 2000-2500 times that of my first hard drive, and I have a $16 USB pen memory in my wallet with a 1G capacity. It really is astounding to reflect on all that.

That's the impressive change.

I have disks of the Britcom Are You Being Served?, and I like to let them roll sometimes while I'm doing things. Last Friday I had one running while I got ready for work. When I got to work, the paper announced the passing of Wendy Richard, who played Miss Brahms on the show, the young junior working under Mrs. Slocombe. She was 65, and died of breast cancer. Surprisingly, Mollie Sudgen, who played Mrs. Slocombe, survived her, and quite touchingly referred to her as "the daughter I never had" and expressed how much she would miss her.

But what gets me is to have seen her, just that morning, as a woman of about 30, to find her gone a few hours later in her mid-60s. When I was a kid, you knew something was old because it looked old. Photos and TV shows from a few years before my birth on back were all black and white. "Modern" things were in colour. That's what was so weird about it. If you watch Are You Being Served?, the suits people wear don't look different from what's appropriate now. The hair styles go in and out but they're not that different either. They talk about the European Common Market, joke about the Germans, talk about jetting to vacations... the clearest token of the march of time is how many of them talk about World War II in the first person. But otherwise, it does not have a strong air of anachronism. It still feels contemporary, if the cell phones and desktop computers are somehow absent. So it was unsettling to realize that a life had been largely lived in the years since I was a kid till now. I suppose every generation goes through this, but it's an unpleasant realization for each, I expect.

Toothless ideas

I had a car accident once, many years ago, where I ended up upside down in a ditch. The roof of the car was dented in about six inches, and the rear axle was broken. A guy in a utility vehicle came along and stopped to make sure I was alright. Looking the car over, he told me it wasn't so bad; a run through a car wash and no one would know the difference. For years, I held those two ideas in my head side by side. Rear axle broken... ah, but if I could only have rolled it back onto the road and washed the mud off... It was years, literally, before those ideas met in my head, and the illogic of holding them both finally dawned on me. Strange, but true.

The front page of today's Globe and Mail quotes Mishelle Brown, wife of a Canadian warrant officer slain in Afghanistan:

“We may not be able to beat the Taliban. There's lots of things in our life we can't beat. … But do you give up? Do you stop? Absolutely not. One person can't make a difference. But if we band together, we can.”

I feel for her, having lost her husband. But statements like this make no sense. It's like saying "Maybe I can't chew through a brick wall, but will I give up? Heck, no, they're only teeth! If I use all 32, well..." Admitting something's impossible and then turning around and suggesting it's possible anyway is the same kind of thinking I maintained all those years after the car accident. "If we all band together"? What does she think the CAF and the allies have been doing for the past seven and a half years?

I'm sorry, but when facing a wall we can't chew through, or an enemy our own prime minister has admitted we can't defeat, I can think of better uses for our teeth and our country's soldiers than continuing to grind them down till there's blood. Frankly, I thought we were evolving beyond this sort of thinking. How many Vietnams does it take?