Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Foundational documents

When I was in high school one of the assignments we got was to write an essay on the following (I'm paraphrasing, of course): Imagine there's a disaster or a war coming that will wipe out society. You've been asked to select five books to be put in a special repository that will be used by future generations as the foundation of a new civilization. What five books do you choose, and why?

These were my choices (and reasons) at the time:

  • The Bible — as a foundation for morality and cooperation
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare — to inspire them to the possibilities of the English language, beyond the mundane
  • COSMOS, by Carl Sagan — as a jump-start on science and understanding our place in the universe
  • 1984, by George Orwell — as a cautionary tale to those building a society
  • The Federalist Papers — as a basis for framing a government and maintaining liberty

I think this is still a pretty good list that holds up well. That said, I'm considerably older than I was then and I've seen and done a lot I hadn't at the time. While I'd still go with this list, I think there are some changes I'd make.

One is with the Bible. I wouldn't remove it; it's far, far too valuable a resource to Western civilization to imagine anything closely resembling it spontaneously forming without it. In a word, indispensable. But to be honest, I hadn't actually read the Bible at the time, other than picking through it here and there, or hearing it quoted. My concerns now are some of the things it could lend itself to in the hands of unsophisticated people crawling back from Armageddon. In particular, on the basis of things in the Old Testament. There are some very troubling aspects to the culture and beliefs of the Hebrew tribes of three or four thousands years ago that I definitely feel we're all better off having seen the back of, and I'm loathe to risk re-instituting them. The New Testament, while it still has some issues, is a lot closer to the central ideas of modern Western civilization (not surprisingly, since it's one of the foundational documents). So part of me is inclined to replace "the Bible" on my list with "the New Testament", like those little red books we used to get handed in elementary school back when you could still do that kind of thing. I still have the one I was given in grade four.

But on reflection, there's another part of me that recognizes there's more about the Bible that's important to our civilization than just the actual carved-in-stone rules. There are the cultural touchstones that we all know just from living in the West, regardless of whether or not we're devout, or even actually Christian. To live in the Western world is to be, to some extent, a cultural Christian at least. The number of common phrases in English that come from the Bible run neck-and-neck with Shakespeare. It's abundantly clear that the modern English language, in terms of vocabulary, grammar, usage, and even spelling was largely fixed by the King James Version that went everywhere English-speakers went. So I'm inclined to keep not only the whole Bible, but this very specific version of it. In fact, with the Apocrypha, which is is typically omitted from contemporary Protestant Bibles in English. There are some wonderful stories and poetry in the Apocrypha that are our heritage but are largely missing from our discourse, like the stories of Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon, both omitted from the Book of Daniel; and wonderful words from the Book of Wisdom, reputedly penned by Solomon. So ultimately, I'm inclined to err on the side of beauty and completeness and append my first choice to: the King James Bible (in modern spelling) with the Apocrypha... and risk the bad examples of the Old Testament.

The other change would be The Federalist Papers. I was actually given a copy of that book by one of my favourite high school teachers when he was packing up to change assignments. He knew I was into politics and he gave me the copy he'd had since he was in high school (at the same school, actually) 15 years earlier. I wish I still had that copy. I was always amazed that the very people who'd written the US Constitution actually recorded some of their thoughts and debates about it. Why they made the choices they did. What they hoped for. What they feared.

I'm inclined now to think that it's a little bit too polemic for my purposes, and something neutral and instructional is called for. I've read a number of books over the years that outline various constitutions and what they highlight and emphasize, and I think something like that would be a better legacy to hand down in this very limited library proposed. I don't have a solid, single candidate, but I know what it ought to be like. If I had a to make a call right now, I would go with An Introduction to Government and Politics — A Conceptual Approach, a book I bought at the University of Toronto Book Store in the mid-1990s. It's the closest I've seen to what I have in mind. It doesn't have the fame or the cache of my other four choices, but the name of the game here is to pick something practical. Besides, if I'm scoring on what I've read, rather than just heard of, I think I'd be due a better mark on the basis of the research. :)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Thoughts on what I missed

Nothing huge here. I've lived where I do now for going on four years. That's hard to believe. Seems like just yesterday Bonnie died, but that's getting on for two years ago. Both anniversaries are pretty much cheek and jowl. The march of time.

There's a plaza on my street that I can see from my window. It's about a six minute walk. I do nearly all my grocery shopping there, and I get most of the stuff I need from the drug store at the same little plaza. It's been there since around 1960, I suppose, with a handful of other little stores that have come and gone (mostly gone since those areas are currently under redevelopment).

One of the places in the plaza between the drug store and the supermarket is the Parkwoods Restaurant & Tavern...

I was never in this place. It closed pretty much the very month I took possession of my place, just down the street. The sheriff's notice is still there in the door, four years later. I've walked past this place dozens, maybe hundreds of times now, and the longer it sits inexplicably empty, the more I wonder what I missed, and what I might now have if it hadn't gone under. It's the only such place within an easy walk of my home. What kind of place was it? Was it the kind of quiet, neighbourly place where I could have whiled away Sunday mornings with my laptop and headphones as big snowflakes drifted down outside, stretching it out to a sudsy afternoon where my friends would join me for lunch? Or was it the sort of place where guys with slogan hats whose every third word is an expletive shot frustrated, angry pool and forced their musical tastes on the universe within earshot? Well, I'll never know. I wish at least I'd had the chance to find out.

But I really don't understand why nobody's taken up the slack and moved into the space. The plaza does a lot of business and, till recently, floated about two dozen little places like this till redevelopment put them on their bikes. Why isn't there some other little enticing pub in this spot by now? I'm not looking for Cheers, exactly. But surely a place I can walk to and comfortably amuse myself and relax while someone else tops up the coffee and brings around a pitcher or two isn't asking all that much.

Addendum: Monday, Feb. 23, 2015. I did a little looking around and found out that the Parkwoods Restaurant & Tavern started business in 2003. I don't know what was there before. So I guess they were in business for seven or eight years. Wish I'd been around for at least some of it.

I Sing the Body Electric: ASUS EP 121

I've always done noodly drawings as far back as I can remember. I should put up some of the comics I drew in elementary school here sometime. :) Once computers could handle it, I used to scan sketches and then work with them in Photoshop. That was in the mid-90s, getting on for 20 years ago now. But for years, I really wanted to do the whole thing on computer, stem to stern. Something about the idea of having everything you need, right there with you while you sit under a tree with your feet in the river and the birds chirping really appealed to me. Well, I haven't done that yet, but the means really have existed for some time.

Years ago, Wacom tablets became affordable. There were two issues with them. One was that portable computers really couldn't keep up with them till the last ten years or so, and then other was that it still divorced you from the process of looking where you're drawing. You're drawing on this pad, but what you're drawing appears on a screen separated by a couple of feet from your hand. So while that got us to the point of taking paper out of the equation, it still wasn't as portable as a sketchbook, and still wasn't as intuitive.

Finally laptops and tablets came out that had pen input right on the screen. The first one that caught my eye and was affordable (second hand) was the Toshiba M400, which is a nice little workhorse that has pretty much everything... stereo speakers, DVD-ROM drive, USB ports, SD card port, various ports... but, it's about 2.5" thick, weighs about 3-4 lbs, and isn't as portable as I would have liked. I still love the thing; it has a lot of uses... but for digital scribbling, I kept looking.

A couple of years ago, around Christmas, I found a really good candidate, the ASUS EP 121. The model is about four years old now and was discontinued around the time I got mine (second hand), but I still haven't found anything better. There are better, faster, lighter tablets now, ones that (like the EP 121) have both Wacom facilities and capacitive touch screens... but they always seem to be lacking something. None seems to have quite the combination that makes the EP 121 work for me.

The EP 121 has an i5 dual processor, 4 GB of memory, shipped with a 32 or 64 GB SDD (mine's previous owner replaced it with a 128 GB), a couple of USB ports and an SD slot. It has a nice pen that feels natural and slots brilliantly into the upper right of the tablet, and comes with a terrific leather case that lets it stand up fairly sturdily on a table top, but coming in at about 2 lbs or so, it's pretty manageable with or without a table. It's a real computer that runs Windows (not Android), with all that that implies for full-formed, robust applications like Photoshop, Illustrator, and others. It absolutely sings with Clip Studio Paint, a program designed to draw and colour manga comics, including vector-based pen strokes that can be individually selected and moved, reshaped, and even split. Clip Studio Paint makes brilliant use of its touch screen capacity to enable you to rotate the view of the artwork (but not actually the artwork itself), which means you can draw curves at angles much more natural to the sweep of the hand, wrist, and elbow. The Bluetooth keyboard (and mouse I added myself) facilitate the use of keys and keyboard modifiers without the keyboard having to be actually connected to the tablet. It's pretty much everything I wished I'd had 20, 25 years ago.

To compare, I recently bought (again, second hand) a Lenovo ThinkPad Helix...

It's world-beater. Small, light, doubles as both a laptop and a grip-and-rip tablet; Wacom facilities and touch-screen; 8 GB of RAM and a much better i7 processor. But... its screen, while as wide as the EP 121's, is slightly shorter. Its higher pixel count doesn't amount to much in a practical sense when the actual drawing area is marginally smaller. It has a couple of awkwardly-placed USB ports, but no SD card slot, meaning anything you want to add to it so you don't fill up its hard drive has to stick out, somewhere. And to my great disappointment, the keyboard it comes with becomes as useless as a severed limb once it's not attached to the screen... it has no WiFi or Bluetooth facility for communicating with the tablet at all! To have such facilities, you need to go out and buy a separate keyboard. Insane. What was Lenovo thinking... or failing to think? The fact is that I bought the thing for business, since it can run just about anything, but I did so with an eye to it being the successor to the EP 121. But, nope, for all that, it's not. To quote the man, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." One day, there will be an acceptable replacement for the EP 121. But not yet. Not just yet. :)

Sunday, February 08, 2015

We own ourselves at last

Last Friday, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that reversed a 1993 decision upholding the ban on doctor-assisted suicide... an unfortunate name some would like to see amended to "doctor-assisted dying". In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled 9-0 that the current law criminalizing the practice represented a threefold unconstitutional violation of the life, the liberty, and the security of the person provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The move is strongly opposed by the Conservative federal government of the day, but polls suggest that over 2/3 of Canadians support the measure, and they represent a majority in every region of the country, even the deeply conservative Prairie provinces. It is within the power of the federal government to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Charter and breathe life back into the law on a five-year renewable basis... but that would be, of course, merely delaying the inevitable, and in the faces of the wishes of the Canadian people. No federal government has ever evoked the notwithstanding clause to overrule the Supreme Court, and it's highly unlikely that will happen here, under the circumstances. The Court has grandfathered in the existing law for one year in order to enable Parliament to amend the legislation to bring it into harmony with the Constitution, and for the legislatures of the provinces, who have to administer health care, to formulate policies and safeguards.

The overturn of the law was not absolute. The Court set stringent limits on the practice. One, a person can only be assisted in ending his or her life by a physician, not simply by a family member or friend. Two, no physician shall be required to aid a person to end his or her life in violation of that doctor's personal principles. Three, the person in question must be terminally, irremediably ill. Four, that person must be competent to make the request.

In 1993, in the Sue Rodriguez case, the Court ruled 5-4 against doctor-assisted dying. At that time, no country in the world allowed the practice. There were real concerns about abuses. Since that time, a number of countries, mostly in Western Europe, and a handful of US states, have created frameworks that show the way, and at last, Canada is ready to join this compassionate company. In recent years, I've faced the hard responsibility of having to end the lives of two of my cats when the quality of their lives was exhausted and there was nothing left for them but being wrung out by their own suffering until they died tormented and exhausted. The law permitted me to spare them that... something I truly believe they would have chosen for themselves, were they but able. Now it permits me, and every Canadian, the same dignity. Our lives are our own. Who else can possibly speak for us, but we ourselves?

Each of us, one day, must die. For some of us, that process is attended with debilitation, humiliation, and pointless, mounting suffering. At last, our country has grown up, faced facts, and conceded the right for each of us to decide, individually by his or her own standards, when the scales of life have tipped from a life worth living to torment endured, and to say "enough." What freedom could be more fundamental than that?

Here Canadians express their views on both sides of the matter. Strong cases all around, but I insist that my right to decide for myself cannot, should not, and must not be dictated by the choice someone else would make... lest they be bound by mine.