Monday, December 29, 2008

Encouragement vs. Realism

This blog was inspired by my best friend Mart, who started blogging before I did. He mostly blogs about his two daughters and he sounds so proud of them. Both on his blog and in person, he tends to gush about all the things that his two girls do. The older one, Rose, plays the piano and now the younger one, Autumn, is learning music as well. Autumn seems particularly vivacious and creative.

I have a fifteen-year-old daughter named Jessica. I'd like to brag about her like Mart brags about his girls but, when I see her various endeavours, I see only room for improvement. Most distressingly, the things that she appears to enjoy doing the most are things for which she has no particular talent.

Like many other teenagers, she likes Japanese manga and anime, and she's forever drawing anime pictures. Unfortunately, her pictures aren't all that impressive. Body joints are angular and disproportionate (even for anime). Limbs are straight and shapeless. Poses are awkward and unnatural. So I got her a book on drawing manga, thinking that its pointers regarding technique might help, but I've seen only marginal improvement in her work at best. I suspect that part of the problem is that, rather than reading the book and developing her technique step by step, she continues to draw as her whims dictate and the book sits largely unread and ignored. She doesn't seem to have the self-discipline to learn the rudimentary skills. She wants to simply start drawing full-fledged scenes.

She's also tried her hand at music, only guitar rather than piano. She started with an acoustic guitar borrowed from a cousin and was later given a hand-me-down electric guitar and a mini-amp from another cousin. She tried Internet self-study and sounded terrible, so my wife and I signed her up for guitar lessons at a local community centre for several weeks. Again, the lessons haven't really helped much. Now, I don't expect mastery after only a few weeks, but some sort of improvement would be gratifying. Instead, she just strums away tunelessly, evening after evening. Again, instead of practicing the skills learned during her weekly lessons, she attempts to play Avril Lavigne songs. She seems to want to go straight to her destination, skipping the tedium of the journey. Incidentally, like many young girls, she also harbors dreams of becoming a singing star like Avril Lavigne but, again, her voice and her singing talent are mediocre at best. She couldn't carry a tune if she had a wheelbarrow.

Perhaps I adopted my critical attitude from my parents. My parents were generous with their criticisms but sparing with their praise during my youth (he said, settling back into his virtual psychiatrist's couch). When I did well, little was usually said. My parents considered the absence of criticism as being equivalent to a compliment. On the other hand, I was frequently reminded of my failings and shortcomings. "You don't need to be told when you've done well," my mother used to admonish me. "You should know when you've done well. You only need to be corrected when you haven't met expectations".

But this is not about me, it's about Jessica; or, rather, parenting in general. The question that preoccupies me is this; how do we, as parents, walk that fine line between being supportive and being realistic? When Jessica shows me a finished drawing and asks my opinion, I point out any flaws and weaknesses that I see. Would I be doing her any favors if I were to smile and say "That's very nice, dear" in the interest of stroking her ego and let her believe that her work needs no improvement?

At one time, she entertained the idea of becoming an actress. I told her that for every Julia Roberts, there are thousands of attractive, talented young ladies who nobody has ever heard of. I explained that the entertainment business can be a shallow, superficial one that rewards style over substance. Often, it's not about how talented you are or are not so much as the connections you have and the favors you've done for those in a position of influence. It's not how good you are, it's how marketable you are. Even those who reach the limelight often can't cope with its glare. Those who achieve significant fame lose all privacy and are hounded constantly by press, paparazzi and their fans. Would it be kinder of me to encourage her dreams without warning her of the pitfalls?

When I was young, I wanted to learn to fly. I've always loved airplanes and anything having to do with flying. When I told this to my parents, they immediately listed all of the reasons why it wasn't a good idea. Learning to fly is expensive and time-consuming. I'd need to have perfect eyesight. The moment that began to fail, my career could be in jeopardy. If I were to become a commercial transport pilot, I'd never be home. I'd constantly be traveling to some far-off place, and, being a natural homebody, I'd likely be miserable. When I suggested that I might consider joining the air cadets, I was told that most who follow that path end up polishing the aircraft if they're lucky. Very few actually get to fly them. And let's not forget how dangerous flying can be.

So today, I work in an office, with airplane calendars and models adorning my cubicle, and in my spare time I fly simulators on my PC. Once in a while I'll go soaring at a local gliding club, or maybe take an introductory flight in a single-engine Cessna at the regional airport. They didn't kill the dream, but they certainly maimed it. I don't want to do that to my daughter.

Jessica does have a lot of good qualities, and I've seen the glimmer of talent in a couple of areas. She has talked about becoming a kindergarten or primary school teacher, and I think she would excel in this. She has a genuine fondness for small children, and she's very good with them. This year, she answered the door and handed out the treats on Hallowe'en, and I was genuinely impressed by what I saw and heard. She was always friendly and cheerful with the children, greeting those who she knew and recognized by name. When a large crowd showed up all at once, she had them line up in an orderly fashion and then served them one by one. She sounded like a teacher even just handing out treats.

And there's one other talent that I'm proud to say she seems to have inherited from me. She has a talent for creative writing. She spends a fair bit of time writing poems and short stories. I've read her work and I've been genuinely impressed by some of it, and have told her so. Again, I see a real glimmer of promise there, and I'm happy to encourage her to continue developing this talent, even as I chide her about "getting a vocabulary". At the same time, I point out that the number of people who have earned a living solely from writing is small indeed, and even those did not achieve their fame early or overnight. But there's that negativity again.

As parents, we want to encourage our children to follow their dreams and to realize their fullest potential, but we also want to protect them from the dangers and pitfalls that exist. Encouragement and realism sometimes seem at odds with each other.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Blog Of Note

(With apologies to Shel Silverstein and Dr. Hook
Sung to the tune of "The Cover Of The Rolling Stone")

I'm an avid blogger and a keyboard flogger
And I post every week or so
I post about beauty and I post about truth
For people I don't even know
I make all kinds of jokes and hear from all kinds of folks
But I haven't earned the right to gloat
At the lesser creatures till my blog gets featured
On the list they call the Blogs Of Note

(Blog Of Note)
Gonna see my blog get all the glory
(Note...)
Gonna tell the whole wide world my story
(Note...)
Gonna see my latest post
Being honored as a Blog of Note

I got a freaky old lady name of Cocaine Katie
Who declares she's my biggest fan
I got a poor old network admin
Linking to me on his LAN
Now it's all designed to blow your mind
And to get me the winning vote
From the people who are choosin' All the blogs that will be cruisin
'To the list they call the Blogs of Note

(Blog Of Note)
Gonna see my blog get all the glory
(Note...)
Gonna tell the whole wide world my story
(Note...)
Gonna see my latest post
Being honored as a Blog of Note

I got a lot of little teenage blue-eyed groupies
Who get feeds via RSS
I got a genuine Indian guru
Who says he's really quite impressed
I got all the friends that money can buy
Checking in to read just what I wrote
And my insights are toasted But I just can't get posted
On the list they call the Blogs of Note

(Blog Of Note)
Gonna see my blog get all the glory
(Note...)
Gonna tell the whole wide world my story
(Note...)
Gonna see my latest post
Being honored as a Blog of Note



Man, I can see it now, right up top
It'd be up top, featured man,
Awwwwww beautiful!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Why Do We Accept These Things?

I've just gotten back in after an afternoon of Christmas shopping, so I'm in a surly mood, and ready to air some gripes.

To begin with, while store surfing, I saw no fewer than three establishments with signs at the checkout informing the customers that they can no longer accept $100 bills, and they regret any inconvenience that this may cause. Now, I realize that this stems from a counterfeiting problem, but that's what bill checkers are for, no? Each bona fide $100 bill contains a notice proclaiming that "This note is legal tender". That means that it is endorsed by the Bank of Canada and is to be honoured as legal currency. I don't see where any proprietor has the right to refuse one unless, of course, he can either demonstrate that the note is not legitimate, or perhaps is unable to make change.

Incidentally, it's not that I had a pocket full of $100 bills that nobody would accept. I'm not complaining because I personally was inconvenienced. I'm complaining on principal. This is just one of many common practices that we encounter every day, and everybody just seems to accept, and I'm asking why. Why do we accept things which are patently wrong, unreasonable or unfair? Well, at risk of sounding like "Network's" Howard Beale, I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore! Fortunately, unlike Howard Beale, I don't happen to be on television, so you can't see my disheveled hair or the maniacal gleam in my eyes (not that they're not there). Here, then, is a list of things that the sheep-like public just seems to accept and which, to me, seem unjustifiable.

First on my list is the insurance business, specifically as regards automobile insurance. The Ontario government recently suggested imposing much more rigid restrictions on young drivers, including disallowing any trace of blood alcohol when driving, a zero-tolerance policy for speeders which imposes a license suspension for even one single speeding ticket and, most onerously, a restriction of no more than one teenage passenger when a young driver is behind the wheel. The public outcry against this last provision was such that the Ontario government has wisely relented and agreed to drop it, but the other provisions remain in force.

Needless to say, the Insurance Bureau loves this. Of course they would! These restrictions, by their nature, make young drivers a negligible risk, yet these same young drivers, especially the male ones, pay the most exorbitant insurance rates of anyone on the road.

If I had anything to say about it, I would pass a law stipulating that anyone driving under the restrictions and limitations imposed by a G2 driver's license must automatically be charged 20% less than the premium for a similar driver holding a G license, unless the G2 driver has an at-fault accident on his or her record. The restrictions imposed upon them make them a lower risk, so they should pay a lower premium. And don't give me a lot of statistics about accident rates among young drivers. Those statistics happened before these new restrictions went into effect.

Besides, why do we accept that drivers who have committed no offense must pay a premium for what they might do wrong? Once a driver has been convicted of an offense, or has been involved in an at-fault accident, by all means raise their premiums. Until then, charge them a fair and equitable rate.

Another thing; it is blatantly discriminatory to charge a male driver a higher premium than a female driver of the same age and with a similar car and driving record, yet this is what is done. I have teenage nephews whose insurance rates are enough to buy a good quality used vehicle every two years, yet they haven't committed a single offense. Girls their age pay half what they do or less. Why do we accept this?

Automobile insurance is a particularly tender spot of mine. I could go on for several paragraphs more, but there are other institutions awaiting my wrath, so I'll leave off at this point and set my sights on my next target; the Ontario Power Corporation.

Every time I open my Hydro bill, there's a charge described as "Debt Retirement Charge". This is a charge billed to every power consumer in Ontario ostensibly used for paying down the huge debt that was accumulated by Ontario Hydro during the years that it mismanaged the electric company.

Why does nobody complain that we, the consumer, are being billed monthly to pay down a debt that we did not incur, especially given that those who did incur it walked away with multi-million dollar severance packages? If I mismanage my finances and get into debt over my head, nobody is asked to bail me out. Why am I being asked to bail out the power company?

Even if I accept the responsibility for paying down somebody else's debt, my Hydro bill never gives any indication as to how much of this debt has been "retired", and how much remains. How do I know when it's been paid off? How do I know that it wasn't paid off years ago but Ontario Power continues to charge me anyway? Why do we accept this?

While we're on the subject of bills, the utility bill that I receive every month contains a "Fixed delivery charge" for natural gas. That's fine during the winter, but the charge remains, even during the summer months, and it's no lower than it is during the winter. I only use natural gas to heat my home. My washer and drier don't use gas and neither does my stove. During the summer months, I use zero gas. None. Nada. So how come I pay an average $15 "Fixed delivery charge" for gas that wasn't delivered to me in July? Why do we accept this?

Certain banks charge their customers a service fee, or "convenience fee" for withdrawing money from an automated teller machine (ATM), even when the ATM is owned and operated by themselves. I'm happy do say that my bank does not do this, which only goes to prove that there's no reason for it, but I've heard of others that do.

I can understand incurring a service charge when I use another bank's ATM to withdraw money; after all, I'm not their customer, but I see no justification for charging me to withdraw or deposit money using my own bank's ATM. Think about it. By using the machine, I'm saving them having to pay a human teller to process my transaction for me. Why would I accept being asked to pay a premium for saving the bank money? Why do we accept this?

When I fill up my car with gas, I'm charged the GST tax on the total amount. However, that total amount already includes federal excise taxes and provincial taxes. The GST isn't calculated on the cost of the gas itself, but on the total cost, including those other taxes. In other words, I'm being taxed on tax. This happens to every Canadian driver, yet nobody protests. Why do we accept this?

Finally, an issue that has been exacerbated by our slumping economy. I hold non-registered investments; that is to say, they do not qualify as RRSP's and are therefore not tax sheltered. Actually, RRSP's aren't sheltered either, only deferred, but that's another discussion.

Every year at income tax time, I have to report any increase in the value of these investments as income, and I am taxed on this income. Needless to say, this year, my investments all showed serious losses. This means that I won't have to pay any income tax on them. Yay. But, wait a minute, if I'm taxed on my gains, should there not be a tax deduction for losses? I think there should yet, as far as I know, there aren't any; not on the types of investments that I hold, at any rate. This seems unfair, and I don't see why we accept it.

Seems to me, every day we encounter situations which, if we thought about them for a moment or two, just don't seem right, yet few, if any, complain. Some of these practices and policies have been entrenched for so long that we've simply come to accept them unquestioningly. I suppose many of us assume that those who made the rules are smarter than we and so we simply abide by them. The current state of the world economy, however, suggests to me that perhaps those who made the rules are not nearly so clever as we thought that they were. Given that, maybe it's time to start questioning their rules.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Procrastination

I'm a procrastinator. I confess this with a sense of shame. The word even sounds embarrassing. Might as well be "procrasturbator". It's not something that people admit in polite company.

I've tried to mend my ways. A few years ago, I picked up a self help book entitled Do It Now: Break The Procrastination Habit. It didn't occur to me until later that 95% of the book's wisdom was likely contained in the first three words of its title. If I'd bothered to open it up and read it (hey, I've been meaning to get to it!) Chapter One probably would have begun with something like "Why are you wasting your time reading this book? Shouldn't you be getting something done?"

That brings me to a common misconception about procrastination. Many people mistakenly believe that procrastinators are lay-abouts who do nothing. Not true. We're not doing nothing; we're just doing something else. Take right now, for example. Christmas is approaching. My shopping isn't done. My wrapping hasn't even been started. I haven't sent a single Christmas card or letter to anyone. The desk at which I'm sitting is buried beneath a mound of unopened mail and unfiled receipts. Yet here I sit, blogging.

Hey, I have an idea! If you're on my regular Christmas mailing list, here's wishing you all the joys of the season and all the best in the coming year. Merry Christmas from me!

There. That's out of the way.

Oh, okay, okay, I'll send a damned card. Expect it sometime around Valentine's day.

It probably doesn't help that I have a tendency to invent a myriad of projects for myself and then not finish any of them before moving on to the next. For example, I might decide to catalog my DVD collection. That's a big project, because I have a lot of DVDs. So I'll catalog maybe five DVDs, and then decide that it would be a good idea to scan all of my family's old photographs so that I can digitally preserve them before they fade or deteriorate. So then I might scan maybe twenty photos before I decide to start playing one of the many unfinished computer games on my shelf.

Which brings me to another thing; I don't just put off work. I even put off recreation. I'm an avid computer gamer. Over the years, I've collected too many computer games to count. Guess how many I've finished? If you guessed a number that can't be demonstrated by those possessing the standard number of fingers and toes, you guessed a tad high.

What's more, I have several games that I haven't tried even once! I bought them because they were on sale or because I'd heard good things about them, and there they sit, on my shelf, their unbroken shrink-wrap a gleaming proclamation of my loserdom. Still, this does have its up-side. I'm never bored. Procrastination means never feeling like you have nothing to do.

I can beat this problem. I know I can. All it takes is just a bit of self-discipline. Let this be my first New Year's resolution. In the coming year, I resolve to stop procrastinating and to tackle my responsibilities immediately and without delay. That's the wonderful thing about New Year's resolutions. You make them now, and you put them off until January 1.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Deadwood Society

I work for W.C. Wood Corporation, Ltd. (known as "Wood's" for short). Some years ago, a small group of Wood's employees decided to gather at a local pub after work for a beer or two, as co-workers sometimes do. As these particular co-workers happened to enjoy each others' company, perhaps more than most, they started to make a habit of meeting after hours every so often for fellowship and libations.

After a time, certain members of the group left Wood's; some to pursue other opportunities, some less voluntarily. Even after leaving Wood's, however, some of these people continued to meet with their former co-workers after hours, because it's much harder to turn one's back on friends and booze than it is to walk away from work. And then, one fateful evening, the group met as usual, and someone noticed that the majority of those present no longer worked for Wood's. In a strangely ironic turn of events, the group whose commonality consisted of working for the same employer, suddenly shared the trait of mostly not working for that same employer. And so it was that the Deadwood Society was born. According to my records, the group currently consists of roughly 20 members. It's hard to get an exact count since the faces are never the same from one gathering to the next. We do, however, have a handful of what I would call "core" members that show up fairly consistently.

Wood's is a manufacturing enterprise and, in today's economy, being a manufacturing enterprise sucks, not to put too fine a point on it. Consequently, the company has seen its share of cutbacks and downsizing over the past few years, and this has contributed to a parallel growth of the Deadwood society. Those members who indulge in darker, gallows-type humour (he said, raising his hand) have been heard to speculate that the Society's membership may soon surpass the company's remaining workforce in size.

As you can see from some the accompanying pictures, DWS alumni tend to let their hair down when they meet (well, those that have hair,at least). Conversation generally consists of gossip about Wood's and those that remain employed there, helpful tips concerning useful information such as what constitutes a "full package", and the occasional exchange of recipes for exotic culinary delights such as the infamous soup sandwich.

There are fewer more effective balms to soothe a spirit, trampled by the drudgeries and misfortunes of the workaday world, than the fellowship of good friends who accept us as we are.

I'd like to make special, if delicate, mention of Bruce and Sig; two former members of the DWS who have since taken the group's moniker just a bit more seriously than the rest of us would have liked, and now gather at that Great Pub in the Sky. They have now become Members Emeritus and are remembered fondly, if somewhat sadly, by those of us who remain.

Oh, and one last thing. The astute reader may recall that I started this post with the declaration that "I work for W.C. Wood Corporation, Ltd.", noticed the usage of the present, rather than the past, tense and wondered how I qualify for membership in the Deadwood Society. In fact, this is my second tour of duty at Wood's. I first joined the company in 1987, then, after a short tenure of about three years, left for about nine years and returned again in 1999, so I guess that makes me an honorary member, or the Lazarus of the group, if you will. Except that, unlike Lazarus, one might say that I've returned to the dead.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Starlost

Recently, I found myself thinking about The Starlost for no particular reason. In case you're not familiar with it, The Starlost was a Canadian produced science fiction series that was first aired back in 1973. More correctly, it was a really bad Canadian produced science fiction series that was first aired back in 1973.

The concept was promising enough, if not completely original. Earth had perished in some unnamed galactic disaster, but not before the last survivors managed to build a giant interstellar spaceship dubbed "The Ark" whose purpose was to take several samplings of the Earth's population to distant worlds where they would try to begin anew.

The Ark consisted of several large domes, known as "biospheres", that were interconnected by tubes but, at the same time, isolated from each other. Each biosphere represented one of Earth's indiginous populations.

Unfortunately, a few hundred years into her journey, the Ark suffered yet another unnamed disaster which killed her entire crew and set her on a collison course with a distant star. None of the surviving populations in the biospheres were aware of this catastrophe and, in fact, as the generations passed, most forgot that they were even aboard a spaceship.

The series began in one of these biospheres, known as Cypress Corners, an agrarian, Amish-like society with no idea of their true situation and fate. One particular member of this society, a young rebel known as Devon, accidentally discovers the truth of his situation after being exiled by the Elders and threatened with death. So he takes Rachel, the woman he loves and whom the Elders refuse to allow him to marry, and Garth, whom Rachel was supposed to marry and who isn't entirely fond of Devon, and the three set about finding some way of avoiding the Ark's apparent fate.

Devon was played by Keir Dullea, of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame. The story concept was penned by celebrated science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, and was produced by Douglas Trumbull, who served as effects producer for 2001: A Space Odyssey. With that kind of pedigree behind it, how could it miss, right?

One word. Budget. Or, rather, lack thereof. That and it was produced in Canada, by a bunch of people who had no concept of how to successfully produce a weekly science fiction series. Quite simply stated, the effects and production values behind The Starlost were so sub-standard, they made the original 1960's Star Trek series look like Blade Runner. We're talking sets that were built using furniture taken straight out of a 1970's office furniture catalog. We're talking blue screen effects so poorly done that you could clearly see the dark outlines around the actors. We're talking background music that sounded like it was produced on a Commodore 64. Aside from Dullea, we're talking mostly B-grade actors who seem to think that they're on a stage rather than in front of a camera. Special mention goes to Robin Ward, who played Garth; an actor so wooden he'd make an oak tree jealous! An initial run of 24 episodes were planned, but the series was cancelled after only 16.

I recall watching a few episodes back when the series was first aired. In spite of its flaws, I liked it. For one thing, I always had a soft spot for sci fi of any kind, which made me more forgiving than most. Also, the show did have its charms. One that stands out most clearly in my memory is the goofy sphere projectors that would inform and enlighten Devon. They consisted of a chair positioned in front of a round CRT-style screen. Simply sitting in the chair, or even touching it, caused a very strange-looking bespectacled, bearded face to appear on the screen, which intoned the words "Can I be of ... (dramatic pause) ... assistance?" Devon would question the man on the screen and he would answer Devon's questions as best he could.

The mannerisms of the face on the sphere projector were truly amusing. It would stare intently at Devon and sometimes smile condescendingly when he asked a particularly simpleton question, such as "what is a universe?" If Devon asked a question that required a moment's thought (or, rather, data retrieval from the memory banks, I suppose), the face would pause and blink its eyes or intersperse its answers with "hmmm's". It was truly amusing to watch. Unfortunately, a part of me always suspected that it wasn't meant to be amusing.

In spite of it's appalling badness (and I don't mean that in the Michael Jackson sense of the word), I remember The Starlost fondly. Don't ask me why. It's a hard thing to explain. Part of it has to do with my natural weakness for nostalgia. Aside from that, though, The Starlost had potential. Although the execution was mishandled, the concept was quite good. Watching the show, one can't help but see the glimmer of unrealized promise from time to time. The story concepts were generally good. I don't recall any "Spock's Brain" type episodes. Also, the show's atmosphere was somewhat chilling in that the Ark seemed such an empty, forlorn place, almost like a ghost ship drifting through the cosmos. This may have been partially unintentional and owing to the paucity of sets and cast, but it somehow worked given the show's premise. I can't help thinking that if The Starlost were remade today, given modern technology and a proper budget, it might just be great.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Support Our Troops

I get mixed feelings whenever I see a "Support Our Troops" ribbon on the back of a car or on the window of someone's house. What does that mean, exactly? Does it mean that I'm expected to condone Canada's presence in Afghanistan or, if I happen to be American, the United States' presence in Iraq?

I think that most people now understand that the Iraq war is a sham. America's reasons for invading a country which posed no threat to the United States have been shown to be invalid. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda. Iraq was not harboring Osama Bin Laden and had nothing to do with the September, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

And why are Canadian troops in Afghanistan? They went there at the request of the Americans, after the 9/11 attack, presumably to flush out Osama Bin Laden, who was presumed to be hiding somewhere in the Afghani hills, and perhaps to disrupt Al-Qaeda's operations. But, again, Bin Laden was never found, and Al-Qaeda still remains active.

Meanwhile, each week more Canadian and American families bury their young soldiers. At the time of this writing, 97 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the start of the conflict. In total, over 1,000 coalition soldiers have lost their lives there. Over 4,500 military personnel have died in Iraq, and almost 4,200 of those were U.S. troops, and for what? What did they die for? What have we accomplished? What do we expect to accomplish before it's over?

I think we need to draw a distinction between supporting our troops, and supporting our governments' military agendas. I support our troops. I have the deepest respect and admiration for every Canadian and American soldier that goes to Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere else. These are volunteers, not inductees. They have chosen, for their own reasons, to support their countries in these theatres. They are away from their families and friends and from the comforts and familiarities of home for extended periods, and many have given their lives to the cause. My problem is that I still don't fully understand what that cause is, or whether it's valid. I suspect I'm not alone.

Supporting our troops does not necessarily mean blindly supporting our governments' military agendas. For some, it means getting clarity about why they are being asked to make the sacrifices that they have been asked to make, and to ensure that the reasons justify those sacrifices. Supporting our troops means challenging those who give those troops their marching orders, in order to ensure that not one soldier dies in vain.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Dick Test

I'm overweight. I've suspected this for a long time now, to the point of being pretty darned sure that it was true; however, today I stumbled upon a non-scientific test that settles the matter unequivocably. The beauty of this test is its simplicity. I mean, you could spend all kinds of time computing your body mass index (BMI) but this is so much easier, and requires absolutely no math (always a plus with me). I stumbled upon the idea while showering this morning, and I'm going to share it with you. Here it is:
  1. Remove all your clothes.
  2. Stand straight, head up, shoulders back, arms at your side.
  3. Without bending at the waist in the slightest, look down.

Can you see your dick? If you can't, you may be overweight.

If your waistline measures 40 inches or more but you can still see your dick ... I salute you, Sir!

Oh, I should have mentioned, this test only works for guys.

I definitely have to lose some weight!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Hail To The Chief!

America has elected her first black president. I intentionally avoid the politically-correct "African-American". Barack Obama is black and should be proud to be so. As historic an event as this is, Obama's victory is not a racial victory. I believe that Obama is the right man for the job, and I would still feel this way were he white, hispanic or Asian.

At the same time, I don't envy Obama. He has inherited a pointless, futile, unwinnable war, a broken economy and a nation much diminished in the eyes of the world. The job of leader of the world's biggest industrial nation is not necessarily one to be coveted at this particular point in history.

Aside from that, it would be naive not to express some concern for the man's personal security. While the United States has obviously come a long way from its racially unjust past, it is also still home to an extremist element whose fear and loathing of those different from themselves has, at times, manifested itself in the form of cruel and senseless acts of violence. This admittedly small minority nevertheless remains a danger and I, for one, do not envy those in the employ of the Secret Service in the years to come.

That having been said, I count myself among those who see this decision as a sign of hope, and a signal of America's resolve to correct the mistakes of her past. I believe that president-elect Barack Obama is more likely than anyone else to prove himself capable of turning America around and restoring to her the status of the Shining Example to be admired and emulated by the other nations of the world.

Congratulations, America. You've made the right choice.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Hallowe'en

If you saw my Batman post, you probably guessed that I'm a sucker, not only for masks and costumes, but for Hallowe'en in general. I've always enjoyed Hallowe'en and I have fond memories of Hallowe'ens past, from my childhood days. I think it was my second-favorite celebration, next to Christmas. It wasn't just the candy. The colours, the costumes, the lights ... when you think about it, Hallowe'en caters to all the things that kids love best.

Hallowe'en was different when I was a kid. I lived in a neighborhood with lots of kids, where every family knew each other. Our parents didn't accompany us when we went trick-or-treating. Instead, we kids made the rounds in bands of four to eight (usually). We observed some common-sense rules, and there was safety in numbers. Today, this would be unthinkable, I know, but back then it would have been unthinkable to us to have our parents following us around. Part of the fun of Hallowe'en was the freedom that came with roaming the night streets with your friends.

The picture above is of my sister and I, with my best friend (to this day), Martin (affectionately known as "Mart"), and his sister Christine, preparing to make our annual trick-or-treat rounds. I'm the magician, on the left. The costume was home-made by my mom. She made the hat out of black bristleboard. Mart, of course, is the Prince of Darkness.

Some years later, during our teenage years, Mart and I made ourselves Star Wars costumes (see the picture to the right). I'm Darth Vader, and he's Boba Fett. Bet you didn't know that Boba Fett is actually taller than Darth Vader. It's the camera angles that make Vader look taller in the movies.

Darth Vader is another one of my favorites, where masks are concerned. I made the one in the picture mainly out of bristleboard, except for the eye pieces, which were simple sunglass lenses, and the helmet, which was a kid's toy police helmet or army helmet or something like that, painted black. The sloped flange is, again, bristleboard. Mart made Boba Fett's helmet and rocket launcher out of paper maché. The costumes are, admittedly, a bit crude, but not bad for homemade efforts.

Nowadays, I usually carve the jack-o-lanterns that we put out on Hallowe'en. This year, I decided to get a bit fancier and carved a design using a pattern that I downloaded from http://www.jack-o-lantern.com/. That's it to the left (you can click it for a larger view). I think it came out pretty well. Complex designs like this one take a surprisingly long time. This one took me about four hours before I was done.

I did two jack-o-lanterns this year, and there's a story behind the second one. We'd had problems with kids egging our house last summer. Now, I'm an easy-going guy and kids will be kids, so the first couple of times that it happened I shrugged it off. But it started happening more and more often until, at its peak, we were getting hit at least twice each weekend. Once they even hit us a 3 in the morning. At that point, I started to get annoyed.

Well, to make a long story short, I hid myself inside a big old pine tree one evening and almost caught one of them when they came along (lucky for him, I slipped on a patch of wet grass and he was able to get around me) but that pretty much put an end to things. We didn't even have any incidents the night before Hallowe'en ("devil's night") although I did half-expect that we might. Anyway, just to show the kids that I do have a sense of humour, in the event that they came by, I found myself a white pumpkin, cut it in half with a jaggedy line to make it look like an egg that had been cracked in two, and carved the words "NO TRICKS" into it. I wish I could have found a more "egg-shaped" pumpkin, but this was the best I could do.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Der Lipizzaner

Last weekend, the world-famous Lipizzaner Stallions came to my town, and I decided that I had to see them because, after all, they're a part of my Austrian heritage. This is the same reasoning which dictated that I had to see Gordon Lightfoot perform live, as he's a part of my Canadian heritage. That's just how I am. If I were of Russian descent, I would be sure to see the Moscow Ballet before I died. If I had any Italian blood coursing through my veins, I would make a point of seeing Pagliacci. And, if I were American born, I wouldn't have the foggiest idea what any of the above are, so I'd just stay in and watch Surreal Life re-runs.

For those who don't know, the Lipizzaner are a breed of beautiful, white stallion descended from the fabled Spanish Andalusian line. They're famous for being particularly graceful and agile in their movements. They can trot to the tempos of Strauss and Mozart better than the Von Trapps at a square dance competition.

"But if the horses are Spanish," you may wonder, "what makes them such an integral part of my Austrian heritage?" Well, it seems that, round about 1562, the Archduke Maximilian, who later became Emporer of Austria (ah ha!) started breeding these horses. Later on, another Archduke, Karl1, established a royal stud farm in Lipizza, located in the hills of Karst, near Trieste. Hence, the breed's modern moniker.

The other reason I decided that I should see the Lipizzaner is because I suffer from a deplorable dearth of culture in my life. Until I saw the Lipizzaner perform, I thought that "dressage" was something that you found at a salad bar.

Although horses are not among my primary interests, I could not help but be impressed at the grace and agility of these magnificent creatures. I watched in rapt amazement as one of the handsome stallions performed a flawless Piaffe manoeuver whilst simultaneously dropping a three-pound mound of steaming horse dung in the brilliant glare of the spotlights for all to admire. In fact, I began to wonder whether the horses weren't getting the wrong idea, thinking that the applause was for their impressive discharge rather than the movements being performed. If we could read their equine thoughts, we might hear something like "Hey, the humans really seemed to like that last one! Heck, that's nothing! Wait until they see this next load I've got brewing!"

Which reminds me, the unsung stars of the Lipizzaner performance, in my opinion, are the black-garbed groomsmen who run about in the dark shadows between the spotlights, shovel in hand, scooping up the "souvenirs" left by the performing stars as inconspicuously as possible, whilst also managing to stay out of the paths of the horses and riders. Believe you me, if not for these intrepid souls, the atmosphere in the auditorium would have become pretty "ripe" by the end of the show, if you get my drift!

All kidding aside, though, the show was truly impressive and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in horses.


  1. We Austrians used to have a thing for Archdukes right up until Ferdinand, after which we decided that they were more trouble than they were worth.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Tweaking

Now that I know that somebody is actually reading this blog, I'm tweaking the layout, style and content a bit. I started by just going with a standard template, you see. No point in spending a lot of time messing with aesthetics while I wasn't even sure if this was going anywhere.

The biggest change you'll notice is that each post now has a set of reaction counters at its end, so now you can quickly and easily let me know what you thought of the post without actually going to the trouble of posting a comment (although I do welcome comments). The default set of reactions included "funny", "interesting" and "cool". Well, those are all very nice, but I decided to add a couple of less positive options for you. Otherwise, I'd feel like The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy's Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz, asking my readers to "Tell me how good my blog is!" (or die horribly in the cold vacuum of space). No, I want your honest feedback, the bad as well as the good. Knowing what my readers like and dislike can only help me to improve this blog.

Other than that, I tweaked the layout a bit; such a little bit that those who visited this blog previously probably won't notice the differences. What can I say? The basic template worked pretty well for me, overall.

This blog will probably continue to evolve as time passes.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I'm Batman

I'm happy to report that my inner child is alive and well. I'm sorry to report that my inner geek is, too. That's why the avatar that I use for this blog is so appropriate.

Hallowe'en is coming, and the stores are festooned with costumes, decorations and all the trappings of the festival. I've always been a sucker for masks and costumes.

The other day, I was in a discount store, not really looking for anything in particular, just killing a bit of time, when I stumbled upon Batman's cowl. I don't mean just a face mask - I mean the full latex-rubber cowl, much like the one worn by Michael Keaton, complete with scowling brows. I had to have it.

Among my many boyhood comic book heroes, Batman has always been one of my favorites. He's kind of an alter ego. I love the dark, brooding persona. Anyone who knows me would tell you that I'm neither a dark nor brooding kind of guy.

If you looked at my profile, you'll know that I became a year older recently. Shortly before my birthday, my wife and I were browsing around in a local video store; one which sells movie-related toys and paraphernalia as well as DVDs. There I spied a 1:16 scale metal replica of the 1960's Batmobile; the one from the TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. I said to my wife, "I realize this is the geek in me talking, and I shouldn't want one of these but, so help me, that is so cool!" I didn't actually buy one (you see I do have some modicum of self-discipline), but my wife went back later and got one for my birthday. (This is one reason why I love her so much. She not only puts up with my geeky tendencies, she encourages them!) So this is me, at my geekiest, showing off both my Batman cowl and my Batmobile.

The 1960's Batmobile has always been my favorite. This may have a lot to do with the fact that it was *the* Batmobile that I knew and loved during my boyhood years, but I think it's more than that. I'm also a sucker for nostalgia. I drive a PT Cruiser because I love the "retro" look. In fact, I can imagine a black PT Cruiser with red pin striping and red bats on the doors and wheels. I think that would work!

No, the Bat Cruiser that you see before you is not my car. I'm not that far gone yet! In fact, it doesn't exist at all. I PhotoShopped it. Well, actually, I used Corel Paint Shop Pro as opposed to PhotoShop, but you get the idea. And Corel gets a free plug.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets

The other day, the radio station to which my car radio was tuned played "Bennie and the Jets", by Elton John (sorry - "Sir" Elton John). Since nobody was in the car with me and I was in "one of those moods", I decided to sing along. Just one little problem, though; I didn't know the words. What's more, I couldn't make out the words, even now that I was actually paying attention. Funny how a song can be so familiar, and yet you don't even know how it goes.

Do you know how it goes? Quick! Sing "Bennie and the Jets" right now - either out loud or in your mind. And no fair reading ahead!

My guess is you either had no clue, or you came up with something like:

She's got electric boobs, a maha zoom
You know I read it in a magazi-HEEN Ohhhhhh
B-B-B-Bennie and the Jetsssssssss...

Electric boobs? Sounds dangerous. Or enticing. And what is "a maha zoom", exactly? Heck, you probably didn't even know it's "Bennie" as opposed to "Benny". (I know I didn't!)

Fortunately, that's why God gave us the internet. And Google. (I mean, come on, something as indispensably useful as Google could only have come directly from the Hand of God Himself, right?) Anyway, here, for posterity, are the official lyrics to "Bennie and the Jets". Sing 'em loud, and sing 'em proud!

Hey kids, shake it loose together
The spotlight's hitting something
That's been known to change the weather
We'll kill the fatted calf tonight
So stick around
You're gonna hear electric music
Solid walls of sound

(Refrain)
Say, Candy and Ronnie, have you seen them yet
Oh but they're so spaced out,
Bennie and the Jets
Oh but they're weird and they're wonderful
Oh Bennie she's really keen
She's got electric boots a mohair suit
You know I read it in a magazine
Bennie and the Jets

Hey kids, plug into the faithless
Maybe they're blinded
But Bennie makes them ageless
We shall survive, let us take ourselves along
Where we fight our parents out in the streets
To find who's right and who's wrong

(Refrain)


Bennie, Bennie and the Jets...
Jets...

Bennie, Bennie and the Jets...
(etc.)

Ah! It's electric boots! That makes more sense. Wait - no it doesn't. And what's mohair anyway? Is it anything like naugahyde?

Oh and, one last thought. Next time you hear that song, I'll bet you still don't know the words.

Friday, October 17, 2008

What's A Halmanator?

Greetings! You have stumbled upon my blog. I thought long and hard about whether or not I should do this. Does the world really need yet another blog by some unknown? Probably not. But I like to write, and I've found that writing down my thoughts helps to crystallize them. So let's say that I'm doing this mostly for me, and if you care to come along for the ride, you're welcome.

What's a "Halmanator"? Well, it's a nickname that was bestowed upon me some years ago by a work colleague and I decided that I kind of like it. I was born in Austria, (but raised in Canada). Arnold Schwarzenegger is Austrian, and he's the Terminator. So I'm the Halmanator. How's that for an obscure celebrity link?

You might also think of a Halmanator as being a sort of machine or process. News items, pop culture references, stories, anecdotes and random thoughts are dumped into the Halmanator, processed, and often emerge as something different. That's what this blog is about. Just me, thinking aloud about things and putting my own personal slant on them. I believe that no two people see the world in exactly the same way. I hope to show you what the world looks like to me. I'll try to keep the mood light most of the time. I want to make you feel good, not bad. Sometimes I may come across as pensive, brooding or even angry. Nobody's happy all of the time. If something pisses me off, I'll say so, but I'll try not to dwell on it.

And now, let me close off this inaugural post with a few lines stolen from Shel Silverstein.

If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer...
If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire,
For we have some flax golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!