Journal: News & Comment

This is " September 2001," a page that archives an entire month's entries from my online journal. The latest material for that month is at the top. For my newest entries, visit the home page.

Friday, September 28, 2001 - newest items first
# 2:51:00 PM:

What changed

"New York and Washington, unlike London, never knew until 14 days ago what it was like to wake in the night to the sound of planes overhead and to wonder, for a moment, whether those planes were 'theirs' or 'ours'. And now they do."

- Amity Shlaes, The Financial Times, 5 September 2001


Wednesday, September 26, 2001 - newest items first
# 10:07:00 AM:

Back to consumerism

Two days ago my family got a new car, a "CD Silver" 2001 Ford Focus with the "wagon sport group" package, which includes a peppier 16-valve 2.0 litre engine, swanky mag wheels and wide tires, a tachometer, and a leather steering wheel. Although it is much the same (small) size as its Escort predecessor, the Euro-style Focus performs much better, and is more fun to drive. It still gets very good gas mileage, too.

Oddly, yesterday my parents decided to buy a new car as well.

So, for those who encourage people to spend, spend, spend to prop up the economy, my family seems to be doing our part.


# 9:59:00 AM:

War primer

Check out the Salon War Reader. As they write, "Don't know much about Central Asian history? Osama bin Laden? The Web provides a crash course in what's needed to understand 'America's new war'."


Monday, September 24, 2001 - newest items first
# 3:36:00 PM:

Computers are hard

Those of us who use computers a lot forget how difficult and frustrating they can be to beginners -- and we often ignore how difficult and frustrating they continue to be for us.

Some years ago Dr. Phil Agre of UCLA wrote a short piece on how to help beginners learn to use computers. I just found it, and it's easily worth the few minutes it takes to read.


Sunday, September 23, 2001 - newest items first
# 11:45:00 PM:

Entertain us

Were Kurt Cobain and Nirvana really that important?

Well, yeah, but not necessarily for the reasons you think.


Friday, September 21, 2001 - newest items first
# 10:31:00 AM:

At what cost green?

I'm both a member of Greenpeace and a regular reader of the online version of The Economist. Unsurprisingly, they often disagree.

However, I read The Economist because its ideas are generally wise and sensible. I don't agree with all of them, but even in those cases the magazine's arguments deserve close scrutiny.

For instance, take a statement such as "it will be far more expensive to cut carbon-dioxide emissions radically than to pay the costs of adaptation to the increased temperatures [of global warming]." At first it seems like the reactionary, self-deluding talk of free-marketeers everywhere -- don't worry, there's not a problem.

But then they run the numbers, and you start thinking. Yes, global warming is undeniably happening, but what is the best response?

Dealing with environmental changes and crises is certainly difficult, but which way should we push?


Wednesday, September 19, 2001 - newest items first
# 11:51:00 PM:

Lessons from Northern Ireland and the Hindu Kush

I'm coming to think that Salon has some of the best coverage of recent events in this terrorist attack war thing, or whatever it might eventually be called. Andrew Brown writes:

"In the end, you reach the goal of 'no more terrorists' not when they are all dead, but when some are dead, some have stopped terrorism and no new young men are coming along to take their places in the organization. That leads to maybe the hardest lesson to swallow: 'Terrorist' is not a lifetime badge."

Then there's this note: "The last army to win in Afghanistan was that of Alexander the Great; everyone else has got mauled and pulled out."

Yesterday, Salon published two of the most chilling pieces I've read about the site of the former World Trade Center towers.

Salon is an online magazine that is well worth reading, even in times not of crisis. They have a "premium" service you can subscribe to for much less than some print magazines (even those with far less and far worse content) charge -- and Salon Premium even gets rid of the ads for you. I'd encourage you to subscribe and help support the publication; it's one of the few not owned by some media giant, and it has had some financial trouble lately. It could use your support, and you'll learn things.


# 11:58:00 AM:

A country is not a nation, not a state

Jason Elliot has traveled extensively in Afghanistan, and has written a book about it. Here's what he recently told Salon:

"I can't think of a more freedom-loving country than Afghanistan. That may sound strange to Americans right now, but these people gave everything they had in the fight with the Soviets. That left their country destroyed. In the absence of any help afterward, the country fell apart and became a haven for terrorist groups. Afghans are deeply disappointed that they didn't get much help in rebuilding."

And as Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-American, wrote a few days ago, "You can't bomb us back into the Stone Age. We're already there."


Tuesday, September 18, 2001 - newest items first
# 11:13:00 AM:

Uh, what?

What do the Beatles' "Obla-di, Obla-da," the Drifters' "On Broadway," the Surfaris' "Wipe Out," and Van Halen's "Jump" have to do with recent terrorist attacks?

Beats me. But some people at radio oligopoly Clear Channel seems to think they're inappropriate anyway, encouraging their radio stations not to play those songs, along with dozens of others.

Also listed were "all Rage Against The Machine songs."

Perhaps those who said that the attacks wouldn't change the American way of life or challenge American freedoms were just kidding.


# 10:42:00 AM:

Another sad Tuesday

Last Tuesday, totally aside from the chaos in the United States, Ernie Coombs (better known to Canadians as Mr. Dressup) had a stroke. Early this morning, he died, age 73.


Friday, September 14, 2001 - newest items first
# 8:46:00 AM:

Resources and comfort

If we needed further evidence that people are social animals, the recent disaster in New York City provides it. The Internet is seething with information. If, like me, you find some comfort in knowledge, here are some of the best resources I've found:

And now I leave town for the weekend -- in a van, not a plane.


Wednesday, September 12, 2001 - newest items first
# 10:52:00 AM:

Why the collapses?

Structural engineers explain it for you:


# 9:44:00 AM:

Why counterterrorism won't work

A former CIA employee has written a cogent article on why attempts to combat terrorism in the Middle East, and particularly Pakistan and Afghanistan, have so far failed to work, and look likely not to even now. The most pointed quotes:

A former senior Near East Division operative says, "The CIA probably doesn't have a single truly qualified Arabic-speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist who would volunteer to spend years of his life with shitty food and no women in the mountains of Afghanistan. For Christ's sake, most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia. We don't do that kind of thing." A younger case officer boils the problem down even further: "Operations that include diarrhea as a way of life don't happen."

I fear that in this aftermath, the line between retaliation and revenge will be crossed -- leaped over in heat and passion -- and that many more thousands will die, innocently and needlessly, somewhere in the world. (Many do already, every day, most from starvation and disease, but that's for another discussion.)

Passions of revenge and the escalations they create are the reasons many conflicts persist around the world -- in Northern Ireland, in much of Africa, and of course in Israel and Afghanistan. Even neighbourhoods in the richest cities are not immune.

If the U.S. (and its allies) strike wantonly and widely, as many urge them to do, then the terrorists will have won, because the true freedom of reason will have been crushed by hate.

We'll see where we go from here.

P.S. There's a reason Roger Ebert once won a Pulitzer Prize.


Tuesday, September 11, 2001 - newest items first
# 11:58:00 PM:


Around 1:00 this afternoon, after all the flights had been cancelled, I looked up to see something rare in Vancouver: a cloudless, warm, blue summer sky without a single plane in it.

Fifteen minutes later, I heard the sound of a jet. Puzzled, I sought it out, and it was another rarity here -- a lone military fighter, flying straight and level, east to west, surveying the city.

It disappeared and the sky was quiet again, and I walked again, to take my oldest daughter to preschool.

So far, the best summary and brief analysis of today's events at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and elsewhere has been from The Economist.


Monday, September 10, 2001 - newest items first
# 2:53:00 PM:

"How did you become a writer?"

Visitors to this site ask me that question all the time. (Well, okay, once every couple of weeks or so.) Here is the latest inquiry, from "DG BH" -- a Hotmail user about whom I know nothing else -- and my reply:

Q. If you don't mind my asking, how did you get into writing, how did you get your first 'job', and how did you make the contacts needed to get published?

A. The short answer: Hell if I know.

The long answer:

I've always written -- I remember writing about a rocket trip to Saturn (where the travelers landed on the ring) about the time I learned to write, more than 25 years ago. I've since discovered I'm not that good at fiction, though.

I worked on my junior and senior high school annuals, as well as student newspapers there and at university (I helped start two new ones while at UBC). I also put together a Science beginning-of-year handbook in 1987 and edited the student society's handbook for the whole student body in 1990. I had a semi-famous spoof character (among a small cohort of people going to school in Vancouver between 1984 and 1992 or so) called Dik Miller, Private Eye, as well. He appeared in short stories starting in an inter-high-school paper called The Plague in 1984, and continued in UBC's Science paper The 432 after 1987.

When I came out the far end of my B.Sc. in biology in 1990, I realized that I could either wash glassware in someone's lab (all a basic B.Sc. is good for in most cases), go on to grad school (something I had no burning passion for), or try getting paid for the writing and editing I'd been doing for free over the previous decade and a bit.

In order to avoid the decision for a couple of years, I enrolled in UBC's diploma program in Applied Creative Non-Fiction Writing, which was interesting and helped hone my skills, but wasn't exactly a vocational school. Then I worked at for the student society for a two more years, while doing a bit of freelancing on the side.

Next, I stumbled into playing drums for a living for two years (something I still do, just not as intensively) and scaled back my writing work somewhat. Finally, I got married, bailed out of the band, and started working in the advertising department of a small magazine called Gardens West. It was a good learning experience, but I didn't like working there, so I scoured the classifieds and landed a job as an administrative assistant for software developers at Multiactive Software in Vancouver (they make Maximizer contact management software).

I stayed there for more than four years, moving throughout the company before I was laid off this past January as part of the general tech purge. (Multiactive now has about 1/3 the staff it did at its peak in 2000, and fewer people than when I started in 1996.)

In each of my jobs I've gravitated toward writing and editing tasks -- at UBC, I drafted a lot of policies and proofread anything people could throw at me; in the band, I did most of the publicity material (and now the Web site); at the gardening magazine, I ended up writing articles even though I know nothing about gardening and was in another department; at Multiactive, I moved into managing the Web site, editing monthly newsletters, drafting press releases, and always editing and proofing.

After the layoffs, I went freelance. (In fact, I'd only been part-time since 1998, when my first daughter was born. I spend more time as dad to my two girls than as a writer and editor.) People I'd come to know through all my previous jobs turned into a network -- I sent out one e-mail to them when I lost my job, and had contract work a couple of weeks later, before my Multiactive severance cheque was ready.

I've been working pretty steadily since, on large and small contracts, mostly doing technical writing (manuals and other documentation), but also some marketing work, Web content, proofreading of academic papers, cover letters, you name it. So far the work has come to me, and I've enjoyed it.


Friday, September 07, 2001 - newest items first
# 1:34:00 PM:

Not that you asked

Although I make part of my living as a drummer, not a guitarist, I recently picked up a "special edition" magazine from Guitar World (the most "hey dude" of the major guitar publications). It lists the "100 Greatest Guitar Solos," according to a poll of the magazine's readers.

The full list is available online (with links to transcriptions, even). The readers' top ten are:

  1. "Stairway To Heaven" by Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page's solo)
  2. "Eruption" by Van Halen (Eddie Van Halen)
  3. "Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd (Allen Collins)
  4. "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd (David Gilmour)
  5. "All Along The Watchtower" by Jimi Hendrix
  6. "November Rain" by Guns 'n' Roses (Slash)
  7. "One" by Metallica (Kirk Hammett)
  8. "Hotel California" by The Eagles (Don Felder and Joe Walsh)
  9. "Crazy Train" by Ozzy Osbourne (Randy Rhodes)
  10. "Crossroads" by Cream (Eric Clapton)

If you prefer rock guitar, and lean to the heavier side of things, that list is certainly as good as any other. (If you like jazz or country, you probably read another magazine.) As well as compiling the poll, the editors of Guitar World also asked some famous guitarists what their favourite solos by other artists are. Those results varied a lot, from songs already in the readers' top ten to a saxophone solo by John Coltrane (picked by jazz fusion/world music guitarist Al Di Meola).

One solo that didn't make the list at all, and which I would have nominated if anyone had asked me, is Santana's version of Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va," recorded over thirty years ago. As always, Carlos Santana played it with stupendous tone and emotion, but like his other early playing, the song is better than his more recent work, because his fingers were not yet too fast. Today, Santana is still great, but he often plays superfluous noodling. (As long ago as 1975, he was noodling more than necessary -- even on "Europa," which did make the Guitar World list.)

Back in Santana's Abraxas days you could hum along with almost every lick, and "Oye Como Va" is Carlos at his most hummable. Great Hammond organ work as well, and a killer bass line too. Time to dig out the Santana box set, I think.


Wednesday, September 05, 2001 - newest items first
# 2:52:00 PM:

Barren and invisible

Before my life as a writer and editor, and before I worked as a musician, I completed an honours degree in marine biology at the University of British Columbia.

I recall being a bit stunned back in the late '80s when one of my professors, a former commercial fisherman, speculated that current fishing practices were, in effect, strip-mining the sea. Surely, I thought, it couldn't be that bad. There were still plenty of fish, and surely all those fisheries regulations worldwide would prevent widespread depletion of fish stocks.

Then came the collapse of the cod fishery in Newfoundland, and a cascade of similar events all over the world. My professor, sadly, was right. And it's hard to know where things will go from here.


Monday, September 03, 2001 - newest items first
# 8:34:00 PM:

Quick change

Recently, my youngest daughter (18 months old) has been...reluctant to go into her car seat. Getting her in and belted required some ingenuity and a strong hand, as she squirmed and tried to slither her way out, with much wailing in the process. Her sister (three and a half) would often roam around the inside of the car instead of dropping into her car seat as well. Overall, starting a car trip was quite an ordeal.

Then, last Wednesday, A Mercedes-Benz station wagon plowed nearly full speed into the back of our car while it was stopped at a traffic light. The two girls were in the back, and my wife at the driver's seat. All the safety systems did what they should -- the back of the car crumpled strategically, and the car seats, seat belts, and airbags kept everyone restrained. The car was a write-off, however. (We get a new one this week sometime.)

The girls go into their car seats without complaint now.


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