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Friday, December 31, 2004

Goodnight, 2004

I've had a good year. I'm surrounded by incredibly generous friends and relatives who help me whenever I need it, and I have a remarkable girlfriend whose love and support have transformed the way I live. I have a rewarding career, and I can honestly say that I've had a positive, if indirect, impact on thousands of lives.

So naturally I feel guilty in the wake of this weeks horrifying news from Asia. I'll give what I can to the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders when my next cheque comes in, and I'm sure it will do some good. But it won't change the fact that billions live in poverty while a small minority gorge themselves on the world's resources. Nor will it change the fact that I treasure my lifestyle; I enjoy creature comforts too much to give them up. I try not to be wasteful, and I give to charity at regular intervals, but I won't give up my car for the sake of the environment, and I won't sell off my books or movies and donate the proceeds to worthy causes. I'm not that selfless.

On the other hand, few are. You don't have to be a saint to make a difference; just indulge yourself a little less. That's going to be my New Year's resolution for our next spin around the sun, and I'm going to do my best to stick to it, to give back to the world more than I take. As far as I can tell, creating a better society isn't accomplished by one or two or even two thousand people each doing a lot; it's accomplished by billions, each doing a little. Let's each of us be one of those billions.

Lives can be washed away as easily as grains of sand on a beach. Enjoy yours while you can, and take advantage of every day in 2005, and all the years to come.

Ah, screw it - no need to wait for my next cheque. Thanks to online donations, I can just put it on my credit card. What the hell, it's not like I was going to pay it off this month anyway.

Friday, December 24, 2004

I'm So Meshuggeneh I Could Plotz

On wednesday, I was taking a little tour of the garden centre at Hole's when Anne, one of my coworkers, asked me if I knew what a dremel was.

"Um, I know it's something Jewish," I said.

"You're thinking of a dreidel," she said, after a brief pause.

"Whoops," I said.

Maybe it's the season - dremels have something to do with carpentry, Jesus was a Jewish carpenter...

Happy KwansChrisHannuSolsticeHumanLight!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Drive-By Pundit

On Wednesday or Thursday afternoon, Bruce and I got talking about brand inspectors - guys who inspect cow brands, making sure they're authentic. At first I was amazed that there are actually people who do this, but Bruce explained that brands help authenticate cattle ownership, which makes cattle rustling more difficult.

"Wasn't cattle rustling just a 19th century thing?" I asked, realizing even as I said it that clearly I'd seen too many westerns. And indeed, Bruce explained that even now, stealing cattle can reap pretty impressive rewards - at five hundred bucks a head, nab a hundred cows and you've got 50 grand.

"That's a lot of MOO-la," I said.

Bruce actually cracked a bit of a smile - I think he's finally beginning to understand my comic genius. Would that the lot of YOU would do the same!!!!!!

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Lines for Future Scripts

All is still dry on the creative front - I can't seem to write anything that has any meaning or sense, as shown in "The Long Shadows," below. At first I was just going to write something silly based on my photo of Evil Spock and the pop machine, but I couldn't get Hello to work, so I couldn't post said photo, which made my original idea pointless, so I rambled on for the sake of having something to post. Ah well.

Here are some lines I'm thinking of including in future stories/scripts:

"My blood is coming out!"

"Enjoy a knuckle sandwich - with extra ketchup!"

"I'll beat the stuffing out of you!" (Said during a fistfight at a Christmas dinner gone awry; I imagine the prediction comes true in the scene)

"Up your nose with a pair of toes!" (Said after barefooted karate fighter kicks someone in the face, jamming a toe up each of the hapless victim's nostrils)

Hmmm - all of these lines revolve around slapstick violence. I wonder what that says about me. Probably nothing good.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Production Dysfunction

On Friday night, I decided to watch an episode of Star Trek. (Contrary to popular belief, this is not something I do all the time – in fact, I’ve seen many episodes only once, and there are two Star Trek: Voyager episodes I have yet to view!) That simple wish resulted in a brief exchange that demonstrated yet again the gulf between geek and grrl.

I like to watch Star Trek episodes in production order; that way, I can watch the series evolve, both as a fictional universe and as a work of art; character relationships take on new nuances with each story, makeup and special effects improve, cast members come and go, costumes change, and budgets force the writers, directors and everyone else involved in the production to test the limits of their creativity.

Unfortunately, the episodes in the DVD sets are arranged by airdate order. The first episode on the set should really be episode one, the first pilot, “The Cage;” but instead, the first episode on disc one of the eight-DVD set is “The Man Trap,” the first episode aired on NBC way back in 1966.

In practical terms, this means that the first disc in the season one set features “The Man Trap” (episode six), “Charlie X” (episode eight), “Where No Man Has Gone Before (episode two), and “The Naked Time” (episode seven). Episode one, since it didn’t actually air until the late 80s, appears on the last disc of the third season’s box set, despite the fact that is was produced well in advance of even the first season. There are usually four episodes per disc, and seven or eight discs per box set. Therefore, watching the series in production order involves a lot of disc-switching.

I know what you’re thinking: surely I’m not such a geek that I have the production numbers memorized. Well, no; I know a few of them by heart, mostly the first ten or so, the last few of the first season, and the last few of the final season. (Don't ask me why; the numbers just stick, somehow, maybe because they were emblazoned on the spines of the old VHS releases.) And because I don’t have the production numbers memorized, I have to turn to my trusty Star Trek Compendium to look up the numbers before choosing a disc from the DVD set.

That particular book currently resides in Sylvia’s office, since I don’t have enough space in my room to hold all of my books. So I went into Sylvia’s office, flipped through the Compendium to find out which episode comes after the last episode I’d watched, number sixteen, “The Menagerie, Part II.” I discovered that number seventeen was “Shore Leave,” put the book away...and left Sylvia's office light on.

A few minutes later, Sylvia noticed the light and asked, “What were you doing in my room?” She’s not territorial, but she’s hidden my Christmas presents in there and wanted to make sure I wasn’t peeking.

Naturally, I started to explain. But after only a half-dozen words or so (I think it was “Star Trek Compendium” and “production order” that did it), she cut me off by raising her hands and shouting “STOP! Enough!”

If you’ve read this far, you probably know exactly how she feels.

So, “Shore Leave” – good episode!

Sylvia fell asleep.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Is This the End of Zombie Chaucer?

Last night Sylvia and I played three games of Zombies!, the game, zombies. She won two out of three, and all three games were won not via the chopper escape, but the gloomier "collect 25 zombies first" method. And one game resulted in a closed city after only nine tiles; there was just one cul-de-sac and a short dead-end street. Very claustrophobic. At first I was afraid that there weren't going to be enough zombies for either Sylvia or me to gather the requisite 25, but a couple of Zombie Master cards solved that problem.

The game has an additional erotic component when you're playing it with a girl; I imagined Sylvia's character as battling her zombies in a red leather bikini and thigh-high boots, with a dagger strapped to one thigh and a shotgun cradled in her arms, blood spattering her pale skin...

Sylvia just rolled her eyes when I told her this, though.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Long Shadows

The Long Shadows
By Earl J. Woods

The man in the long brown trenchcoat staggered down the deserted street. There was a sudden gust of wind, and a newspaper somersaulted carelessly towards him, then veered away at the last second, dancing into a back alley, out of sight, its shadow close behind. Sheets of dust blew down the street, and the man winced as the grit abraded his eyes. He coughed and canted to the right, crashing heavily into a boarded-up storefront window.

The wind died, and the man rested. His right hand, wedged between his torso and the storefront, was buried deep in a trenchcoat pocket. His left moved halfway towards his face to shield his eyes, then fell back down as the wind’s absence sunk in.

The man breathed deep. He wasn’t quite panting; the chase had really ended long ago, and he spent most of his time jogging now, rather than running. Nonetheless, there was a painful hitch in his gait, a deep burning in his lungs. Sweat clouded his vision more often than not.

He was twenty-eight. His black goatee was already streaked with grey. His skin, once bronzed and clear, was now pale, greyish. His shoes were worn, the soles thin, ready to give way.

He rested for a moment, then moved on. The stagger was gone, but his pace was slow, measured, right hand still in his pocket, left swinging free. He wished, not for the first time, that his footfalls would echo, just a little; but the deserted city was silent as always, not even acknowledging his presence with echoes. He once spent an entire day screaming into the emptiness, demanding some kind of response: the flurry of a frightened bird’s wings, the snarl of a feral dog, or during that delirious half-hour when he dared dream of it, the answering call of another human being. Male or female, child or adult, friend or foe, he didn’t care; even a shouted curse from some anonymous, cowering soul would have been sweet.

The days were longer now; it was just after midnight, and the sun still loitered above the horizon. The detritus of the streets cast longer and longer shadows, lampposts and mailboxes (many overturned, some still standing, waiting patiently for their long-lost guardians) painting the asphalt and concrete with stark, angular sketches, art that was both ephemeral and timeless, appearing and disappearing with the rise and fall of the sun.

“Hello,” the voice said from behind him, and the man jumped, nearly screamed, his right hand very nearly coming out of his pocket. He spun around, eyes wild, but saw no one.

“Hello,” said the voice, “Quench your thirst with an ice-cold Ozone!”

The man saw the soda machine and relaxed. He nearly smiled as he approached it, the familiar green-on-black logo stirring up old memories.

“Hello,” the machine said, “Insert coins or debit stick, please.”

The man could hardly believe the machine was still running, but even now, some clung stubbornly to life, or at least to the semblance of life that most machines had. He looked through the glass door of the machine, saw a stack of clean, glistening, Ozone-filled bottles primly awaiting his selection.

“Glass bottles,” he said, “Will you look at that.”

Suddenly he wanted one very badly. He wasn’t particularly thirsty, but his left hand slid into his other pocket, searching for change; his debit stick, even if he still had it, was worse than useless now. He pulled out a quarter, a dime, a one-Euro piece, an American penny and – aha! - a single golden Loonie, shiny and smooth as the day it was minted in Winnipeg.

He looked at the coin. 2015; Loon on one side, Mad King William on the other. Two Loons for Sister Sarah, he thought.

“Please insert coins or debit stick,” the machine said, “Ozone breathes life into your personal atmosphere!”

The man stared at King Willy for a while, then jammed the coin into the slot with one quick, stabbing motion. Deep inside the machine, something clicked softly. The man pulled the dispenser door open, kept it open with his right shoulder, and used his left hand to pull the top bottle free.

“Thank you for choosing Ozone,” the machine said, “Thank you!”

The bottle was ice cold, and condensation formed on the bottle immediately. He twisted the cap, but it wouldn’t budge; then he spotted the bottle opener built into the machine. He inserted the bottle, pried off the cap, and drank deeply. The soda was as sweet and good as he remembered.

“You’re welcome!” he said to the machine, smiling for the first time in months.

“Choose Ozone for your next gathering!” the machine said.

The man laughed, turning away, resuming his journey. “That’ll be a long time coming, my friend.”

“Are you certain?” asked the machine.

The man froze. Every muscle went rigid as a shock of cold dread crept along every nerve.

“Ozone will liven up that party atmosphere!” the machine said.

The man relaxed. It was simple voice recognition, combined with rudimentary artificial intelligence, not a possessed soda machine, nor the first sign that he was losing his mind. He’d heard of such robotic hucksters before, but had never actually run into one; as far as he knew, they’d only been rolled out to the largest markets before the calamity struck.

“You almost had me there, champ,” he laughed, turning to face the machine once more.

“Have another Ozone!”

The man shook his head and downed the rest of the drink. He threw the bottle into the street, grimacing in annoyance when it refused to shatter or even provide a satisfying clunk.

“No thanks,” he said, “I think I’ve probably had my last Ozone.”

“In blind taste tests, seven out of ten people agreed that Ozone was more refreshing than the other leading carbonated beverages.”

“Oh, so I shouldn’t be so hasty, eh?”

“Indeed not.”

Smart machine. The man knew he should leave, pick up the pace, increase his lead, but it had been an age since he’d enjoyed even the simplest conversation.

“What makes Ozone so great, huh? I was always a Coke man, myself.”

“Ozone refreshes with a secret combination of flavour factors – factors that create tingling tangles of tempting, terrific taste.”

“Mmm-hmm. Can you talk about anything except Ozone?”

“I can talk about anything you want, Charlie.”

Charlie smiled thinly. So he was losing his mind after all. He clutched the object in his pocket a little more tightly.

“How’s the weather in Addis Ababa right now?”

“Currently, the temperature is minus five degrees Celsius, with light flurries.”

Charlie snorted. If he stayed any longer, he knew he’d spiral down into delirium. He started to turn away again, but the machine understood his intentions.

“You’ve already stayed too long. Your pursuer is now only six kilometres away.”

“It’s the fear manifesting itself,” Charlie said, “You’re saying something else. You’re telling me to buy another Ozone, or you’re spouting an ad line.”

“Perhaps,” the machine said, “You’re the doctor.”

“I’m not an MD.”


Charlie pulled his right hand from his pocket. His fist was wrapped around a blue-white sphere, a sphere bisected at the equator with a streaming row of shifting, luminescent cobalt-blue text.

“What does it say?” the machine asked.

Charlie didn’t look at the sphere. His gaze remained fixed on the soda machine.

“Are you afraid?” the machine asked.

“Yes,” Charlie said.

The text on the sphere ceased its trek across the equator. It went dark, then reappeared, flashing, then freezing solid. The sphere vibrated in Charlie’s hand, demanding attention.

“Your pursuer is four kilometers away and closing.”

“Can you help me?” Charlie said.

“Your imagination can help you.”

The sphere’s vibrations grew stronger. The text started to flash again, brighter, more insistent.

“I’m not responsible for surviving; I didn’t want any of this; I’m not responsible; I’m not.”

“If not you, who?” the machine asked. “Shouldn’t someone be responsible? Shouldn’t some representative answer for humanity? Defend humanity? Pass judgment on humanity? Make reparations to humanity? Make reparations on humanity’s behalf?”

“I’m not that man. I have to be who I am, no one else.”

“You have to be who you are: no one else.”

“We are all prisoners of circumstance. Choice is the great illusion.”

“The Charlottetown Address, 2009.”

“Evil is a social construct. We are only masses of disparate particles, temporarily joined by natural forces, forces that determine our every action.”

“Inaugural address, 2013. Your pursuers are two kilometers distant and closing.”

Charlie was sweating, and cold. The rim of the sun was just beginning to brush against the horizon. The shadows grew longer.

“Charlie, will you resume flight now?” the machine asked.

“Was I really so bad?”

“You are only a mass of disparate particles. Natural forces have determined your every action. You are not responsible. Your pursuers are five hundred meters distant and closing.”

He could hear them now. The sphere in his hand started to wail, a high, warbling shriek that hurt his ears. The text was spinning again, whirring around the sphere faster than anything human could read. There was a button at the sphere’s north pole; his thumb moved to hover over it, but did not descend.

“I’m sorry,” he said. One tear fell, but it was genuine.

“Natural forces have determined your level of sorrow precisely. Your pursuers - ”

“ – are here,” Charlie said. Suddenly, it was dark, except for the lights all around him, the cold, white lights. He dropped the sphere, and it rolled into the gutter, then down a storm drain. He looked up to face his accusers, and their eyes, their eyes - .

Questions for Discussion
1. Who is Charlie?
2. Was Charlie really talking to a soda machine?
3. Who or what was Charlie running from?
4. What was the device in Charlie’s pocket?
5. Why did the author use an imaginary soda?
6. A “shadow” is another name for someone who is following someone else. Does this add significance to the title?
7. Charlie thinks the race “really ended long ago,” and yet by the story’s end, his pursuers capture him. What did Charlie mean?
8. What is the significance of the newspaper?
9. What would have happened if Charlie had pressed the button on the sphere? Why didn’t he press it?
10. Do we live in a deterministic universe, or do individual human beings have the ability to choose?
11. Will you stop to enjoy a refreshing Ozone carbonated beverage?
12. Are you afraid?
13. Were you really so bad?
14. If not you, who?

Monday, December 06, 2004

How you like the mashing, puny humans?

I just can't get enough of that...

Harry's Ribs

...often leads to unfortunate circumstances.

Many years ago - I believe it was 1989 - Philip Cresswell and I returned to the lounge area of Main Kelsey, our floor at the University of Alberta's Lister Hall dormitory. We found a fellow floormate, Harry, lying facefirst on the floor, his shirt hiked up to his armpits. Harry was a small fellow, and his youthful exuberance often led to a certain overindulgence where alcohol was concerned. So Phil and I simply left him where he was, and sat down in front of the TV, flipping channels, chatting away.

But then we heard a grunt, and when we looked over at Harry, we saw his ribs start heaving up and down. We feared the worst, and soon enough, poor Harry regurgitated all over the carpet.

"Can he drown in his own vomit?" we wondered? Better safe than sorry, so we each grabbed an ankle and pulled him across the carpet, leaving a slimy trail of rancid bile. Good deed accomplished, we returned to our seats - only to hear that grunt again, and to again witness that telltale, accordion-like movement of Harry's ribs. This time, the vegetables came up - a perfect salad, it seemed to us, hardly digested at all. We were amazed at Harry's ability to so segregate his puke, and dutifully dragged him another metre or so, out of danger, his face and hair only slightly mussed.

Phil and I debated what we should do next - it seemed cruel to just leave him in the middle of the floor, especialy when drunken louts like Apollo or Darcy might stumble over him - but then Harry awoke, grumbling, and stumbled off to his room. A happy ending!

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Monster Mash

About fifteen minutes ago, I woke up and asked Sylvia what would happen if a giant threw a bunch of people into a giant mixing bowl. She only mumbled in response, so (as often happens), I had to answer my own hypothetical question:

"They wouldn't be able to climb out of the mixing bowl, because the sides would be too slippery. And then the giant would retrieve his giant potato masher, and say 'ME MASH NOW!' And then he'd start mashing the people in the mixing bowl. 'HOW YOU LIKE THE MASHING, PUNY HUMANS?' 'ME MASH YOU GOOD!'"