Wednesday, January 31, 2007

You Can Change Your Colours. . .

. . .But You Cannot Change Your Stench

Well, well, well. It appears our Prime Minister Stephen Harper has recently attempted to paint himself green (more likely gangrene) after he surmised from recent public opinion polls that the environment is the number one Canadian political issue by far, outstripping our usual hot button issues like health care, maple syrup surtaxes, and the state subsidy on curling stones.

This is from a man who, as one of his first actions as a prime minister early last year, abrogated Canada's approval of the Kyoto Accord. The opposition Liberal Party recently posted a revealing letter from Harper to his fellow pseudo-fascist Canadian Alliance Party members that, and I quote, "Kyoto is essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations". And this in a fundraising letter published in 2002.

Now I haven't heard the term socialist being used in a fear-mongering context since, well, McCarthy (not that I remember more than the taste of my baby bottle's nipple from that time). Ask anyone nowadays what a socialist is and they will probably confuse it with socialite. So we can get an impression of the superannuated, knee-jerk, rye-swigging, good old boys in the Alberta oil patch that our now fuhrer is appealing to.

Another telling statement in said missive is "(Kyoto) focuses on carbon dioxide, which is essential to life, rather than upon pollutants". (Note to Harper: anything can be harmful to life on earth if it exceeds certain levels).

Politicians by their very nature are opportunistic beasts. But this supposed sea change in Harper's environmental philosophy won't fool even the most naive and credulous individual among us.

When I was younger, we used to use our extend index and little fingers to express "bullshit" without having to actually say the words within earshot of our parents, which inevitably would lead to a mouthsoaping or carbon dioxide enema.

But in these modern times, this gesture has been co-opted by Texas Longhorn fans, metal heads, Satanists and the like, so I cannot invoke it without the risk of being misconstrued. No alternative except to rake together two year's worth of huskie droppings and mail them to the Prime Minister's Office - what the fuck, no stamps necessary.

My take on the global warming issue will be posted on Friday.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Americans: Get Your Hearing Checked

Canada is a self-deprecating nation. We can laugh at our foibles and idiosyncrasies even if pointed out as an insult by other nationalities. Living in igloos, our obsession with curling, the fact that our national symbol is an overgrown rat, our love affair with hockey, Celine Dion - just take any stereotype image of Canada, craft it into an insult, throw in our way and we'll simply laugh it off like water off a beaver's back.

Except for me.

There is one supposed thing about Canada that when uttered by a foreigner (usually American) simply enrages me - that we supposedly pronounce about as ah-boot. Now I've lived in Canada all my life and have tramped far and wide across this nation and never once have I ever heard anyone say ah-boot. Not in Newfoundland, not in the Ottawa valley, not on native reserves, nor on the prairies, in Quebec or elsewhere. Absolutely, unequivocally, categorically, emphatically NEVER.

So where does this misconception come from? It is so absurd I can scarce speculate. But it is my sneaking suspicion that America doesn't listen to us anyways. So when Canada makes a statement along the lines of "Canada feels the softwood lumber dispute is a major outstanding bilateral trade issue" it sounds like this to the American ear: "Canada blah blah blah blah blah blah a boot Molsons" or something like that.

Pisses me off.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Sometimes you simply have to bite the bullet and admit that projects you've invested a lot of time and effort into just won't work the way they should. I'm at that point with a database I've been toying with for work and have spent many pre-dawn hours and weekends trying to get functional but I have painted myself into a corner and no matter how I twist and turn the bloody thing won't do what I want it to. Time to ball the whole mess up and take it to the dump.

I've started taking on-line tutorials with a company called VTC which offers a wide range of tutorials based on popular software. I don't generally endorse products (except for Laphroaig scotch in the futile wish that they will ship a complimentary bottle my direction every now and then), but I like the way the company divides software topics up into mini-lessons of 4 - 6 minutes each. This way I don't have to do the entire course sequentially but can pick and choose what I want.

Anyhoos, I have been using FileMaker as my database software since about 1989, and have rarely consulted the manual and certainly never taken a lesson. Being typically male, I would rather die than admit I don't know my arse from my elbow and seek professional help: consequently I have spent many hours applying the manly trial and error technique and have developed a number of functional, if completely inelegant, databases over the past decade and a half.

But I sadly realize the technology has now outstripped my meager comprehension of the software, and I have learned that there was a sea change in the software about 7 years ago with the introduction of relational databases other than the flat approach I've used since the beginning. The upshot is that the hideously convoluted and utterly useless database I am sweating over could be streamlined so it simply hums BUT I have to throw out about 95% of what I've done so far.

Actually, I'm looking forward to this. Being a somewhat OCD bear I am really into manipulating and storing information so that it is useful, quickly accessible and actionable. So the need to start afresh is not so tragic.

Along the same theme, February 9th is the first anniversary of The White Bear's Blog. I have been using the same basic template since the inception, and hope to revamp it in honour of this most august occasion. Now I don't want to completely redo it since I like its lack of clutter, but if any of you have some suggestions, I'm all ears.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Restaurant Angst

In a recent posting, Irish blogger Twenty Major complained about new contraptions in restaurants which deliver both salt and pepper from a single dispenser, although not at the same time.

He should stop his complaining - at least the serving staff let him handle the device himself. I hate like hell paying half my weekly wages on a nice steak with caesar salad just to have some waiter hover next to my table with a pepper mill, offering to crush out some pepper onto my plate.

Why? Am I too weak to operate the pepper mill? Do I look so unsavoury that the staff thinks I'm going to run away with the mill (I can't - my pockets are already stuffed with the cutlery). And just because I ordered 12 ounces of scotch to go with my 8 ounce steak, are they insinuating that I am too smashed to use a pepper grinder? After all, I drove back to the hotel with my rental car which is more complicated to operate. Or are pepper corns so dear that restaurant management has a strict policy on portion control?

On top of this, the grinder never gets it right. Too little or too much, not distributed evenly according to my exacting specification, depositing errant pepper flakes on food which never should get peppered (viz. onions, mushrooms and the like) - the risk of misapplication by someone other than the person who will actually consume the meal is too great.

And what about the social dimensions of this intrusion? I mean you are forced to make eye contact with a busboy or waiter who smiles fauningly at you while making circular motions with his wrist. Is he trying to suggest something? Is he trying to pick me up? Do I look gay or something? How disturbing!

This routine is nothing but a tip-pandering scam masquerading as service. If they really wanted to offer me a useful service at the restaurant, they should wash my car while I eat, run down to the corner store for lottery tickets, or give me a shoulder massage prior to eating.

The last person to put pepper on my food was my mother when I was still eating from a high-chair. And she still bears the scars.

Food service staff, beware.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Roll Your Own

The town where I live, like all towns in Northern Quebec, has a very high participation rate in consumption of marijuana and/or hashish. I have no firm statistics at my fingertips, but the consumption rate of illegal smokables is about the same as a college dormitory. Not Brigham Young or Oral Roberts University, but more like UC-Berkeley, in the 1960s.

One thing unusual about the consumption pattern is the pervasiveness through all age segments except pre-teens and children. There are a number of "elders" (which up here is anyone over 55) who are regular chimneys when it comes to grass. The basic rule of thumb is that a resident is either a total non-consumer or someone who gets high a number of times a day, 365 days a year if they can get it. "Casual Users" don't seem to exist much.

Now I'm not a pothead - I can't stand the paranoia-inducing effect it has on me. Nor would I like to see my children smoking it. But it seems to me the illegal status of marijuana is more of a problem than the substance itself.

I have yet to hear of a crime being committed whilst stoned on grass. And compared to the swath of destruction created by the one legal intoxicant in our society - alcohol - it seems fairly benign.

By my calculation, the street value of cannabis and its derivatives (along with bootleg alcohol) is about $2.5 M annually, and this in a town with a population of 1,200. That works out to an annual per capita expenditure of nearly $2,100. Factoring out those too young and those who abstain, I can confidently state that some households are spending over $15,000 a year on illegal herbal products.

Here we have a low participation rate in the labour force, and many families are on social assistance. Even with a large number of dependents, the welfare check would barely cover the cost of recreational drugs for some families. The economic impact on our tiny village is enormous, and if it wasn't for the distribution of free "country" foods such as caribou, arctic char and seal, a number of families will be facing real starvation.

Everytime society has placed a penalty between a "vice" and a willing consumer, there is marginal deterrent effect, but the amount of crime surrounding the traffic of that product skyrockets. For this reason I do not support decriminalization, which would probably only succeed in driving the street price higher and traffickers richer.

Rather I support the complete legalization of marijuana and its derivatives. But this has a very thorny aspect to it - if the government is responsible for distribution such as it has with its monopoly on alcoholic beverages, there is an implicit sanction for its consumption, and I'm sure no government wants to be placed in that position, though I'm sure they would like the tax revenue.

So I support a grow-your-own approach. This idea was actually proposed by the Senate of Canada, usually a bunch of superannuated political hacks but showing real daring in this concept. I can hear some innured grass freaks pointing out that without hybridization the marijuana would lose some of its potency. I'll grant you, it won't be as strong as BC Bud, but why not smoke twice as much if it's half as strong? Geez, it's not like you'd be paying $50 CDN a gram for the stuff.

Where do you guys stand?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

China: Stop Invading My Space! (not MySpace)

As if there wasn't enough for me to worry about, (four teenagers under the roof, two jobs, and the chronic panic over the paucity of alcohol up here) now I have images of our communications satellites being blown up into smithereens.

In the Arctic, we are totally dependent upon satellites for telephony, Internet access, television, and digital radio. These services reside on a few small devices about a cubic metre in size orbiting 25,000 miles above the equator in geostationary orbit.

Now it seems the Chinese, for some obscure reason, have blown up one of their redundant weather satellites using a medium-range missile. Actually, not so much blown up as hit with ramming speed leaving a substantial debris field which will continue to follow the same orbital path. This in turn presents some peril to future satellites and space missions, where a gram-sized bit of junk travelling at many thousands of kilometres an hour can cut right through the skin of any space vehicle.

The United States also accomplished this feat back in the Reagan years, but is now bent out of shape that another nation had the temerity to demonstrate the same capability. A little bit like the pot calling the wok black. Bush's Space Policy enunciated last year asserts that the US gives itself the right to protect its assets in space, while presumably no other nation has the same privilege.

Because of our geography, we Canadians are heavily reliant upon those tiny transmitters, antennae and processors spinning around the globe for many essential communications-based services. Indeed, Canada was the first country to launch a communications satellite, Anik A1 in 1972. I contend that if any nation's interests in protecting its extraterrestrial assets are essential to its existence, it would be Canada - though an argument could be made for Russia as well.

So how can Canada protect its space hardware?

Personally, I think all our satellites should be twinned with mechanical platforms fitted out with a Canadarm, so that whenever a threatening launch is detected, the satellite can be latched onto and deftly removed from harm's way at the last possible moment.

But I'm sure my readership can proffer more imaginative solutions.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

High Noon

Living about 4 degrees of latitude south of the Arctic Circle has its benefits. We never have total darkness during the depths of winter. Actually we get about 4 hours of sunlight at the winter solstice, and a good 2 hours of twilight on either side, adding up to at least eight hours a day with some brightness in the sky.

But the quality of light during the winter is very different from southern climes. The sky never gets more than a pale pastel blue in December and January, and the sun hangs very low on the horizon as it transits across a very limited arc in the sky.

The picture above was pulled from our airport's webcam at about 12:30 PM local (Eastern Standard), and you can see that the shadows are very long even at high noon. And my house is located at the foot of some relatively high hills, so we get only about an hour of actual sunlight streaming in through the windows.

The flipside is summer. We don't get 24 hour sunlight, but the twilights are so long we get 24 hour brightness for about six weeks. No dark, ebony skies, no stars, no northern lights. Just the moon, which seems enjoy the perpetual daytime.

Temperature aside, which would you prefer: the winter or the summer?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Giant Rabbits Recruited by North Korea

In yet another baffling move, puny playboy North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il has been making secret inquiries amongst breeders of Continental Giant rabbits to acquire breeding stock and bring them to his beleaguered homeland. These leporidine leviathans can tip the scales at well over twenty pounds, and are rumoured to be a source of excellent, tasty white meat.

The ostensible reason for this move is to provide a source of food for those starving in North Korean, which are pretty well all North Koreans except Mr. Kim. But this has to be bullshit.

Rabbits don't feed off air, and need to eat food themselves. And since starving hordes of human North Koreans have denuded the countryside of everything green it is doubtful that the naval embargo of Purina Rabbit Chow can be broken to feed these giant bunnies.

So what is the plan? My own belief that he plans to position them all along the 38th parallel, where they will burrow under the DMZ to eat vegetation on the south side of the border and thus provide covert access to South Korea for Jon-Il's troops.

This BBC news video raises my suspicions even further. Notice that the breeder is an East German, doubtless a former Stasi operative still committed to the cause of overthrowing civilization as we now know it.

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

I Want One

Don't ask me why, because where I live there is no cell phone coverage until a good 900 kms south of here. But I really want an iPhone.

Steve Jobs just unveiled this alluring technological gewgaw during his keynote address at the MacWorld Expo in San Francisco today. It has enough features to curl the toes of ardent technophiles and make them slaver in pre-delivery anticipation.

You can read MacWorld's run down of all the bells and whistles, but here are the ones that appeal to me: automatic WiFi connection; absolutely no buttons to push (touch screen technology); GPS-active; an accelerometer which reorients the screen when you rotate the phone 90 degrees; real Internet browser; email; OS Tiger; and widgets (which those of you who are slaves to Gates will only get to see in Vista).

But what really turns my crank about this baby is its looks - pure out and out sex. Black, thin as a wafer, and something you just want to hold and stroke while chanting "My Precious, my Precious" in low, guttural rapture.

I admit that Apple Inc., as it is now called, has got me hooked. I first started using their computers in 1983 (Apple IIe) and I cannot and will not change my purchasing habits, no matter how badly they screw me over on extended warranties and motherboard replacements. I am their thrall, and I cannot conceive how anyone can function on a Windows platform.

In all honesty I can relate that during the one occasion my Powerbook had to be shipped south for a week of repairs a year back, I was compulsively tracking its progress with waybills and workorders on the phone so compulsively that one shipper promised to call me at home with news of its whereabouts if I would only stop calling him.

So my only problem now is how to explain to the missus that I need a second, a very expensive, cell phone even though we have no mobile service.

I know some of you guys will understand.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Blackouts in Winter

Last evening the power went out in town, for the fifth time in just over a week. Usually, the outage seems to occur right around supper time, and fortunately I have usually not started to cook. The blackouts are relatively short - under half an hour - but can be devastating to electronic equipment.

Last night's was particular bad with the power spiking and falling for at least fifteen seconds before absolute darkness. I have heard that perhaps as many as four computers bit the dust in this most recent episode. It buggered up the earth station for our satellite-based Internet access, and I had to reboot the site from the bottom on up. Fortunately, nothing there seems to have become fried, just a matter of the universal power supply running out of power and shutting itself down.

Hydro Quebec, as a crown corporation, has a monopoly on distribution in the province, and one which they protect with the greatest zeal. The term "hydro" is a bit of a misnomer in our circumstance, since all the communities in Nunavik are supplied by local diesel generating stations and are not connected to the massive provincial power grid.

This isolation has served our communities well, and we never are involved in any of the massive blackouts affecting huge chunks of the continent, such as occured in 2003 and left 50,000,000 in the dark.

But being off the main grid has its drawbacks too, since there is precious little that can be done to purchase electricity from elsewhere. Now we normally do not get all that many blackouts over the course of a year, usually just in stormy weather when a flying strip of metal shorts out the high tension lines. But this recent spate seems to be related to the equipment in the generation station itself, and that has me worried.

In my 21 years in the north, I've never experienced a blackout so prolonged that pipes would freeze in the houses, and believe you me, that would be a complete disaster. But one could happen due to, say, a fire at the generating station in January. To the best of my knowledge no comprehensive emergency plan exists for this contingency to mitigate below freezing temperatures in the houses.

As they say, failing to plan is planning to fail. Let's wake up!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

New Years Honours List

I was going to pull a Time Magazine on you all, and nominate the very patient readers of the White Bear's Blog for their faith, loyalty and kind acceptance of two rather long, inexcusable, non-writing hiatuses experienced in 2006. But that would be too much of a cop-out, although you guys really deserve recognition and respect.

So who in the world merits special acknowledgement for their actions over the previous 365? Who stands head and shoulders above the crowd? Whose actions have improved the quality of life for the residents of this planet? Who has set the standard for ethics and morality in MMVI and started to pave the way for a brighter existence for all of mankind?

You know, I can now see Time Magazine's quandary: in thinking this one over for the past half hour I have come up virtually dry. Even as a cynic I can scarce think of any public figure who put some distance between themselves and the rest of the war-mongering, hypocritical, money-whoring bastards populating of media with their lies, spins and fictions. Yep, we, the common people, deserve special recognition for having put up with the shit foisted on us by the people to whom we have given our votes, our money and our attention.

Having got that off my chest I can only come up with two public figures whose actions deserve some degree of admiration: Bill Clinton, for his continued work for the impoverished and disenfranchised (and that televised rant against Faux News's Chris Wallace was an extra added benefit); and Warren Buffett, the second wealthiest man in the world, who has made a committment to bequeath almost all of his riches to charity (he already gave $30.7 billion US to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).

Slim pickins in 2006, and the older I get the more I develop a sense of distaste for public figures. Let's hope 2007 will yield a better crop of luminaries, though I very much doubt it.